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Genius and Affection in Bach's French Suite No. 1

David Fray
IMG Artists
David Fray

On The Bach Hour, David Fray is the pianist in music that grew not only from the composer's invention and craft, but also from his close relationship with his wife.

On the program:

Trio Sonata in G, BWV 1039/1027 - Soloists of Ensemble Baroque de Limoges

Cantata BWV 6 Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden (translation) - Barbara Schlick, soprano;  Andreas Scholl, countertenor;  Christoph Pregardien;  Gotthold Schwarz, bass;  Accentus Chamber Choir;  Ensemble Baroque de Limoges, Christophe Coin, conductor and piccolo cello

French Suite in D minor, BWV 812 - David Fray, piano

TRANSCRIPT:

[MUSIC]

As with all of J.S. Bach’s keyboard works, this Menuet from the French Suite No. 1 is a work of craft and invention that no other composer could match.

It’s also a piece with origins in the composer’s affection for his wife, Anna Magdalena.

Pianist David Fray performs the French Suite No. 1, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. We don’t really know very much about J.S. Bach’s inner emotional life. But there are clues here and there in his music, some of which you’ll hear later on. And you’ll also hear evidence of Bach’s spiritual life in the Cantata No. 6, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden, or Stay with us, for evening falls, a piece written for the day after Easter. You can find a translation of the text for that piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

It was during his years working for the royal court in Anhalt-Cöthen that Bach met Anna Magdalena, and here is one of the chamber works he wrote during those years. This Trio Sonata in G major features flutist Maria Tecla Andreotti, bassoonist Sergio Azzolini, gambist Christophe Coin, and harpsichordist Jan-Willem Jansen.

[MUSIC – BWV 1039]

Bach’s Trio Sonata in G major, in a performance with flutist Maria Tecla Andreotti, bassoonist Sergio Azzolini, and harpsichordist Jan-Willem Jansen. Playing the viola da gamba in that performance was Christophe Coin, who is also known as a conductor of Bach’s cantatas. One of his recordings features the Cantata No. 6, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden, or Stay with us, for evening falls, a piece written in 1725 for the day after Easter on the church calendar.

Coming the day after the first performance of what became the brilliant, celebratory Easter Oratorio, the subdued, pensive sound of the Cantata No. 6 seems at first a bit unexpected. But it was the Easter story that took Bach in that direction. Using the story of Jesus appearing to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as its basis, Bach spins that narrative out into a theme of earthly darkness and the believer’s desire for the light of Jesus.

As the piece begins the chorus sings words from the Gospel of Luke: “Stay with us, for evening falls, and the day has declined.” There’s an air of quiet anxiety about it, as the encroaching darkness of the end of the day brings the unknown.

That sentiment is carried forward on a more intimate basis in an alto aria, accompanied by a solo oboe da caccia. The soprano soloist continues in the next movement, accompanied by a solo violoncello piccolo, or small cello. It’s an instrument you really only find in historically informed performance these days, but at a certain point, Bach put it to use in a series of cantatas to take advantage of a particular expert on the instrument who was spending some time in Leipzig. Its sound is light and maybe even airy, which you can hear as the soprano soloist sings, “remain with us, Lord Jesus Christ, because evening approaches now, Your divine Word, the bright light, let it not be extinguished among us.”

[MUSIC]

The tenor sings an aria that brings back the image of walking on a path, praying for the light of the divine to be there, followed by a final chorale that reflects the believer’s trust in the divine.

This performance of the Cantata No. 6 features soprano Barbara Schlick, alto Andreas Scholl, tenor Christoph Pregardien, and bass Gotthold Schwarz. Christophe Coin is both the director and cello soloist with the Accentus Chamber Choir and the Ensemble Baroque de Limoges.

[MUSIC – BWV 6]

The Cantata No. 6, written for the day after Easter, has a darkly tinged feel about it. Rather than continue in the bright celebratory mood of the previous day, Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend warden, or Stay with us, for evening falls, reflects the story of Jesus’s followers in the days immediately after the resurrection, when the world seemed suddenly transformed and there was so much that was still unknown.

This performance of the Cantata No. 6 was directed by Christophe Coin, who was also the soloist on the violoncello piccolo. The Accentus Chamber Choir and the Ensemble Baroque de Limoges were joined by soprano soloist Barbara Schlick, alto Andreas Scholl, tenor Christoph Pregardien, and bass Gotthold Schwarz.

In 1720, Bach lost his first wife, Maria Barbara, to illness. He was employed in the royal court at Anhalt-Cöthen, and about a year and a half later, he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a very talented singer who was 17 years younger than Bach.

Bach was not a romantic journal keeper, jotting down all the twists and turns of his inner emotional life. But there’s plenty of evidence that, at its core, Bach’s marriage to Anna Magdalena was motivated by something more than the necessity of someone to take care of his household and four surviving children by Maria Barbara. All accounts point to a true partnership built on mutual admiration and affection.

One way that played out was through the Notebook for Anna Magdalena, in which Bach collected various works of music to further her musical growth as both a keyboard and vocal artist. And it’s within this collection that we find the earliest versions of what we now know as Bach’s French Suites.

Here is pianist David Fray with the first of them, the French Suite in D minor.

[MUSIC – BWV 812]

Pianist David Fray with a set of dances that came to be known after Bach’s death as a French Suite. Six of the French Suites have survived the centuries, and that was the first of them, the suite in D minor.

Remember, you can hear this program again at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll also find more resources to explore Bach’s life and music. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.