The Dialogue series presents another exciting meeting of two very different epochs. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No. 3 and 6 stand for polyphonically conceived ensemble works of the baroque. They stand in “dialogue” with two key minimal music works that also bear close relationships to the baroque style: “Shaker Loops” by John Adams and “Triple Quartet” by Steve Reich. The Festival Strings Lucerne was founded in 1956 by Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Rudolf Baumgartner. Achim Fiedler has been the orchestra’s artistic director since 1998.
DIALOGUE BAROQUE – MINIMAL
One might think that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and the American “minimalists”
couldn’t be farther apart. Centuries lie between the two types of music. The stylistic differences between Bach’s highly artificial webs of polyphony and the blocks of minimally changing rhythmic patterns strung together like beads on a necklace – a child of the 20th century – couldn’t be greater. On the emotional level too, the uniquely stylized baroque “affects”
seem to be completely different from the trance energy that evolves from the meditative musical circles of minimal music.
Although music – like art in general – depends
greatly on the cultural and social context
of its times, and to a certain extent from the historical moment as well, there are still multifaceted and sometimes very surprising underlying relationships that span epochs and styles. In the relationship between Bach and minimal music there are both similarities
and differences; the former can be seen in the dominance of rhythm in both styles. The music-historical prerequisites, however, couldn’t be more different. While rhythm only began to be an important musical element during the baroque era, becoming a stimulus for a court society that was highly oriented toward its own representation and staging, the rhythmical focus in minimal music develops
rather from the idea of setting boundaries – from the attempt to distinguish itself from the strong influence of European tonal music (from which it couldn’t entirely free itself, of course). It is no accident that minimal music developed in America. With their emphasis on simple harmonies and use of elements from jazz, Indian and African music, the minimalists of the 1960s made a conscious effort to set themselves apart from the serialist and post-serialist schools that dominated in Europe at the time. In a sort of indirect connection with John Cage and Morton Feldman’s “New York School”, they insisted on an independent American tradition. But despite having similar
goals, protagonists of minimal music went their own ways.
John Adams „Shaker Loops“
American composer John Adam’s (*1947) Shaker Loops has amazing similarities to baroque music. Parallels to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are evident in the foreground, particularly
in regard to the driving string tremolos. The expansion of the original version for string quartet (1977) to a septet is also reminiscent of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 with its seven soloists. Adams finally completed the definitive version for string orchestra in 1983.
The title Shaker Loops is descriptive. Written
in four movements, the work’s main characteristic
is its two overlapping structural layers of sound. The term “loops” is also closely related
to minimal music, which is characterized by (seemingly endless) repetitions of rhythmic and melodic sequences – with subtle changes in sound achieved by shifts in various phases. “Shaker” in this context has two meanings. For one, it refers to the technique of using the string instrument bow to play tremolos that roughen up the sound and keep it “shaking”,
so to speak. For another, it reflects the composer’s childhood memories of members of the Pentecostal church, so-called “shakers”,
who put themselves in trancelike states through their ecstatic shaking. Not only does the aspect of trance apply to minimal music – but also to the sensual, meditative and ritual potential of music in a larger sense, evident, for example, in the structural complexity of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who dedicated
his life and works to the glory of God. This is where a bond between the two seemingly
unrelated types of music can be found.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburgische Konzerte Nr. 3 und 6
In contrast to the freelance composers of our day (who are very dependent on commissions),
baroque composers were closely bound to the court environment and demands of the respective rulers. This situation often led to massive conflicts, of which Bach himself could tell many a tale. A major conflict with Duke Wilhelm von Weimar, for example, – who refused to give Bach permission to leave his service for Bach’s next post in Köthen at the court of music-loving Prince Leopold von Anhalt-
Köthen – led to Bach’s imprisonment for several months. Bach’s working conditions in Köthen were much better. Far away from the dictates of sacred music, he was responsible for the entire gamut of music in a court that desired secular and instrumental works above all. A number of Bach’s most important works – such as his solo violoncello suites, WellTempered Clavier or major orchestral pieces – stem from the Köthen years (1717–1723), after
which Bach was appointed musical director
of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
The six Brandenburg Concertos – probably reworked in 1720/21 from previous compositions
– are (according to Albert Schweitzer) “the purest revelation of polyphonic style”. The dialog between the various sub-groups (tutti and concertino) is permeated by an inner
tension that is repeatedly kindled and kept alive; motoric movement is the driving force behind the dialog. Here we come full circle: this motoric is also a basic principle of minimal music. The first movement of Concerto
No. 3 in G major depends entirely on a swinging tutti ritornello, from which individual groups of strings emerge to play solo passages,
subsequently returning to the tutti. We first hear the violins, then the violas, and finally,
the cellos play their solos, accompanied by a small continuo group. Instead of a slow middle movement, Bach only notated two long chords forming a half-cadence in E minor. This “movement” has been handled in many different
fashions throughout the ages: playing only these chords, improvising over them – or even replacing them with other slow movements from Bach’s oeuvre. In this recording, conductor
Achim Fiedler decided to insert a free arrangement
for solo violin of the beginning of the Prelude in E minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Part I, which Bach wrote at almost the same time as the Brandenburg Concertos. After
the calm radiated by this short moment, the effect of the final Allegro – a fugal perpetuum mobile – is all the stronger, even more than the opening movement would imply.
The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is characterized
by pulsing rhythmic motion as well as its instrumentation. No violins are used; only lower strings, and these all solistically. The two viola da gambas with obligato violoncello are also a highly unusual combination. The particular importance of the viola may have to do with Bach’s special preference for this instrument;
in any event, the virtuosic demands made on both violas goes far beyond anything usually required during the baroque era.
Steve Reich „Triple Quartet“
In addition to Philip Glass and La Monte Young, Steve Reich (*1936) is one of the most prominent representatives of minimal music. Conscious of the fact that the characteristic feature of his older works (e.g. Drumming from 1971), i.e. condensing widely spread-out ostinato components into a sound continuum, could not be reproduced at will, Reich has turned to more compact forms in recent years. This is evident in his Triple Quartet, written in 1999 as a commission by the Kronos Quartet.
Three versions of this work exist: one for string quartet with pre-produced tape, the one for three string quartets (twelve musicians) heard on this recording, and an arrangement for a 36-person string orchestra. The work’s harmonic structures are based on a cycle of minor chords – from E minor to G minor, B-flat minor and C-sharp minor back to E minor. This cycle occurs twice during the first movement and is brought further into focus by altered dominant chords. Although the fast-slow-fast sequence of movements corresponds to the traditional form used by Bach in his concertos, Reich’s three movements continue seamlessly from one to the next. Additional similarities with Bach can be seen in the orchestration with three instrumental groups and the obvious
parallels to Brandenburg 3, as well as the stretto canon in the first movement and the parallels here to Brandenburg 6. Reich’s fascination
for canonic webs also shows up in the slow middle movement. The third movement achieves particular weight through its greatly increased rate of modulation; when it finally returns to its home key of E minor and its fast tempo, the moment of tension is closed just as the closing of a circle.
Steve Reich was inspired both by the Finale
of Béla Bartók’s 4th string quartet and by Alfred Schnittke’s quartets, although no close formal, harmonic or melodic orientation is perceptible. On the contrary, these models are only vaguely discernible in the overall sound. The brevity and irresistible effect of the Triple Quartet result much more from the unique combination of stoic equanimity of the rhythmic impulses and the work’s subliminal expressivity.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler