Bach: Overture in the French manner, BWV 831

Johann Sebastian Bach’s French Overture for keyboard in B minor, BWV 831 is also known as his Partita in B minor. It was published 1735 as the second part of his Keyboard Practice (Clavier-Übung) series. The musician who previously occupied Bach’s position at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, had begun releasing published works for harpsichord and organ for purchase around Easter, a time when the general public was more prone to spending money. This music was meant to be appealing to people in general. Installments of this series had a great deal of diversity to them. This second installment of Bach’s series also included his famous Italian Concerto. These publications were of high value, and made good for extra income. Both works in this release are written in an orchestral style. The bright, grand beginning of the Concerto is fast and brilliant, with the melodic style more indicative of a group of players rather than a solo instrument. The French Overture is less enormous in sound, more regal with its distinctive brand of noble coolness. It is a large work of ten movements, featuring an extended, ten-minute overture, eight dances (mostly French), and concluding with an Echo. The opening movement is serious and stately, but many of the shorter, following movements are flashy and quick. Some are under a minute in duration. While the Italian Concerto is an explosion of orchestral sound, the Partita in B minor is stylized in a more aristocratic manner, sometimes brushing on the haughty side, but never so much so that it would alienate his generally middle-class audience. In fact, the royals were not prone to listening to exclusively dignified and reserved music either, but these elements of elite existence have always been overstated throughout history.

One of these peculiar qualities of the French Overture for keyboard in B minor is that while it emulates Kuhnau approach, Bach does not use his normal layout of movements: Praeludium, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Bach used this schema for his Cello Suites instead. For his French Overture there is no Allemande. The other dances are there, but interspersed with other, brief dances, many of which he used twice (2 separate Gavottes, for example.) The result is a multi-faceted, plural excursion into polyphonic writing with a touch of the new galant stylizations to keep them current and popular among those keen to stay with the times. They remain fundamentally Baroque in the melodic sequencing and general lack of sustainable homophony. All of Bach’s Partitas suffered from charges of excessive difficulty. They were meant to be expand the player’s technique, and residents of Leipzig were especially musical and up for taking on new musical challenges. Bach appreciated this but tended to write on a professional level for the keyboard. His ideas were essentially virtuosic and products of the High Baroque; beauty did not come with an exquisitely rendered melody but in twining arabesque melodies. Though the era of emergence of the popularity of style galant, which the final part of Bach’s career overlaps, was about the simplicity of a single melody, it was not in his nature to write in that manner. Bach’s dense and magnificent ideas were falling out of favor, but that was not terribly apparent at this time in Leipzig. He did learn how to emulate style galant in some ways, but Bach never let it hold much sway over his writing. Nonetheless, the French Overture is fun in its own way: tough to play, but a joy to hear.

—John Keillor

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