Programme notes Sunday October 5th

Sunday October 5th at 4pm

St. Giles, Downton-on-the-Rock

J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Chaconne for solo violin from Partita in D minor BWV 1004

Most scholars now agree that this Chaconne was written as a memorial to the composer’s recently deceased first wife – the enigmatic Anna Barbara.  It is a work that has fascinated generations of composers and musicologists and has been transcribed many times –Brahms and Busoni to mention but two - as well as inspiring many other works.  It forms the final movement of the Partita in D minor, itself the fourth in a series of six works for unaccompanied violin written during Bach’s relatively happy time at Cöthen under the employment of the enlightened and artistic Prince Leopold.  Much of Bach’s non-liturgical output stems from this time.  He seems to have been interested in the challenge of writing for solo string instruments and the set of six works was certainly begun before events in the summer of 1720 gave him the impetus to write this work and complete the set.  It is believed that on returning with the Prince from an extended trip to Carlsbad over the summer months, and only on crossing his own threshold, did he discover that Anna Barbara had sickened, died and had been buried in his absence.  

Further reading:

‘Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach’
John Eliot Gardner
ISBN: 9780141977591


‘Evening in the Palace of Reason’
James Gaines
Harper Perrenial
ISBN: 0007153937


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): String Quartet in A minor op 132 (1824-1825)

This string quartet is one the five “late” quartets that were Beethoven’s last utterances over the years 1824-1826.  Of these, that in B flat op 130 with its colossal finale, the ‘Grosse Fuga’, that in C sharp minor op 131, and this one in A minor op 132, seem to exist in a sort of sustained state of super-consciousness and are regarded rightly as beyond all the normal rules of composition and form.  They seem to take the listener on a vast spiritual journey and have defied any really meaningful conventional analysis or systematic dissection ever since.  And yet they are completely intelligible on their own terms.  While the C sharp minor quartet op 131, exists in the most remote regions of human comprehension of the infinite, the A minor quartet seems to embrace the human condition with a new depth.  The whole piece orbits the central movement of the five, one which Beethoven heads with the words “Holy song of Thanksgiving from a convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian mode”.  It also contains directions to the players (or perhaps descriptions of his intentions) in German that read as, “With a new energy” over the Andante section, and, “With innermost feeling” on the last return of the movement’s opening music.  This movement is, like the whole work, cast in five sections alternating between the reverence of its opening and music that quite astonishingly breaks out with the renewed vigour already mentioned.  The movements that precede and follow this one both play with a kind of worldly convention, though this is interrupted and cast out during the little fourth movement by a sudden outpouring led by the first violin and we are plunged into a Finale that seems to take us back to the first movement with a deep worldly sadness.

So what was happening with Beethoven whilst writing this music?  His situation was pretty desperate.  Poor, stone deaf and living totally alone in quite appalling conditions he seems to have given up on life other than to complete what compositions as he might. Having abandoned the quest for any sort of life partner and fulfillment through love he nevertheless lavished much attention on a young nephew – even that ending badly.  He does indeed seem to have become ill whilst writing this work and the third movement can certainly be traced to the recovery he made.  But of course there is more going on here and every last ounce of his energy seems to have gone into ensuring that we too would be able to hear the transcendent music he was able decode for us.


Assai sostenuto - Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Molto Adagio - Andante: Heiliger Danksgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lidischen Tonart
Alla Marcia, assai vivace - piu allegro -
Allegro appassionato


Further reading:

‘Beethoven: His Spiritual Development’
JWN Sullivan
Random House
ISBN: 0394701003


‘Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations’
Editor, Michael Hamburger
Thames and Hudson
ISBN: 0500273243




Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Quintet in C major for strings D 956 (1828)

Allegro ma non troppo
Scherzo: Presto - Trio: Andante sostenuto


Notes as for Friday 3rd.

Reading List as for Friday 3rd.