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Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach

Only the youngest of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons departed the German homeland. Born in 1735, Johann Christian began his long sojourn in Italy in 1755 and converted to Catholicism; luckily the stern father as five years dead. Like so many Protestant musicians who worked in Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the sensual—even theatrical—appeal of Catholicism and opera proved difficult to resist: the mighty fortress of Lutheran austerity could not long hold out against the siege of sumptuous decadence.

On J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, Christian went to live with one of his older half- brothers, Carl Philipp Emanuel, in Berlin. Like all Bach son’s, Christian had been trained by his father in his birthplace Leipzig to be an organist; the teenager continued these studies in Berlin with the help of a two-manual clavichord with pedal board he inherited from the family collection.

Berlin had one of Europe’s leading opera houses founded by the musician-warrior, Frederick the Great. It was here that Christian got his taste for Italian musical theatre. But the Berlin opera was by then already a conservative institution at least a decade behind the latest musical fashions being stamped out in Italy. This most up-to-date style of so-called “galant” music sought above all to appear “natural”: it was meant to be flowing, simple, clear, orderly, appealing to the amateur and the connoisseur.  In contrast to the endless repetitions of words and phrases favored by J. S. Bach in his cantatas—themselves miniature, sacred operas—these Italian texts were to be treated more as refined conversation  and elegant oratory, rather than bombastic sermon. The galant was music that put the “lite” in Enlightenment.  There was just enough profundity to be found in its radiant superficiality. Far easier to mimic than either the complex and colossal fugues of his father and the restive intensity of his guardian half-brother’s music, the galant style was quickly mastered by the youngest Bach son after his arrival in Italy.

After winning an important position as second organist at the Milan Cathedral, he continued to study complicated contrapuntal music with the famed pedagogue Padre Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. In 1760 Bach received his first opera commission from the Royal Theatre in Turin.  A showcase aria from that musical drama is heard towards the end of the young French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s recording La dolce fiamma: Forgotten Castrato Arias by J. C. Bach, which I’ve been revisting this week. In a sort of entrance rite into the fraternity of eminent European opera composers, the twenty-five-year-old Bach set Artaserse, a libretto by the leading creator of operatic texts of the period, the Imperial poet, Pietro Metatasio. If you think Hollywood feeds insatiably at the trough of the remake, that level gluttony is nothing compared to the habits of eighteenth-century opera. At least forty different composers and production teams tried their hands at this script, first written and staged three decades before Bach got around to it.

From Bach’s breakout opera, Jaroussky’s makes the obvious and excellent choice to sing Vo solcando un mar crudele. The character, Arbace, friend of Artaserse, has had a tough go of it, as is recapped in the preceding recitative:

No, fate can have no more
Calamities for me. All in one day,
All oh God! have I experienced.
I lost my friend, my sister reviles me,
My father accuses me, my darling weeps,
And I must stay silent
And cannot speak.

He cannot sing speak, but he can sing. Indeed, he must, for this is opera, and no one pays to hear silence—at least not much of it.

Deploying a favorite cliché of the period, Bach introduces this soliloquy with brooding octaves, which, unexpectedly give way to sweet, flowing strains, as if to signal the reverie of lost love. Bach repeatedly retreats towards poignant solace, before throwing the singer’s thoughts—and voice—back into the dire straits of the dramatic present.

The aria that follows, Vo solcando, is climactic—and climatic: the singer is tossed on angry waves and headed for emotional shipwreck:

I plough through a cruel sea
Without sails, without rudder:
The water heaves, the sky darkens,
The wind is rising and my skill is poor.

 

In such a storm one might expect a tempestuous minor theme and heaving harmonies. But Bach’s is music of the light even under stormy skies. Minor melodies are rare birds in the skies of the later eighteenth century, and only one of the arias on this collection is in this darker mode. Instead, a sunny theme seems buoyed by the waves, lapping rather than leaping; the tumult is evoked instead by a long crescendo leading up to the soprano’s entrance.  The excellent orchestra behind Jaroussky is called Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and it provides the necessary weather for buffeting this ship forward. His finger to the wind, director Jérémie Rhorer finds the gusts and eddies that bring this style  to life. Built of simple figures, predictable harmonies, and regular phrases, this is music that lives or dies in performance, and here it soars.

Jaroussky is a great singer and even greater musician.  His intonation and his technical facility in tossing off demanding passages, trills, and other feats of 18th-century song are remarkable.  Trained as a violinist, he has made a career as a countertenor mostly in seventeenth-century music over the last decade, but also in Handel’s operas. I was lucky enough to hear him in the part of Telemaco in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ullise in 2005 in Berlin in Frederick the Great’s reconstructed opera house. In that performance Jaroussky found anger, fear, and hope in the character through his absolute control of timbre, dynamic shading, and sense of timing that draws one into each phrase as if into the inner feelings. The singing was perfect but still human.

But the seventeenth century is not the eighteenth, and to be a convincing singer in one era does not mean that success is ensured in another. One might at first think that the purity of Jaroussky’s voice and his unmatched control would be perfect for the music of the Enlightenment and its attachment to clarity and ease. In fact, this weightless music needs a weightier heroism, even when racing up and down through the technical flourishes of the galant virtuoso’s musical lexicon. I don’t think it is merely a modern, realist taste for the more overt display of anguish that makes Jaroussky’ impressive performance sometimes seem more like a demonstration of musical skill than an effort to bring these characters to life. Even though he manages the bravura with such facility, Jaroussky is at his best in the intimate, almost fragile arias like the cavatina from Artaserse, Perché tarda é mal la morte.

 

Vo scaldano was first sung on stage by Gaetano Guadagni one of the biggest stars of the period: a Brad Pitt blockbuster type with glorious soprano voice, but—given the anatomical alteration that ensured these gifts—no kids. He commanded a bravura technique, but also, as the great musical observer Charles Burney wrote, had an “artful manner of diminishing his voice like the dying notes of an Aeolian harp. “ Jaroussky has these gifts, too: speed, range, ornament, infinitesimal shadings of dynamic and color. He is also master of the graceful and pathos-filled diminuendo, as in the album’s closing aria Ch’io parta? from Temistocle. an opera written in 1772 for the Mannheim court, then the most famous musical establishment in Europe. The end of the long opening phrase seems to be carried off by the breeze, before yet more floodgates of rage are thrown open.

Guadagni was one of the great theatrical stars of the middle of the eighteenth century, thought difficult to work with by many directors. Handel felt him worthy of three new arias for the 1750 version of Messiah. Guadagni later premiered the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s famous version; this would vault Guadagni to the front ranks of Europe’s operatic stars. J. C. Bach later expanded Gluck’s short opera, a scant 90 minutes long, with much additional music to make for a full theatrical evening for his London audience. When Guadagni returned to the role in Bach’s expanded version in Naples in 1774, Bach wrote him a crowd-pleasing aria, La legge accetto, which closes Act I of the opera when Orfeo has accepted Zeus’s conditions for the retrieval of his beloved Eurydice. This piece is heard here, too, and provides another demonstration of orchestral finesse behind singing both poised and powerful. It is a highlight of the recording.

Like many a modern-day stars, Guadagni was also infamous for his off-stage antics, as in this vignette, reported by Horace Walpole in a letter of 1749:

“Francis Delaval, a wild young fellow, kept an Italian woman, called the Tedeschi [the soptrano Caterina Tedeschi]. He had noticed one day that she was actually then in bed with Guadagni, a handsome young eunuch, who sings in the burlettas. The injured cavalier takes one of his chairmen and a horsewhip, surprises the lovers, drags them out of bed, and makes the chairman hold Mars, while he flogged Venus most unmercifully.  After that execution, he takes Guadagni, who fell on his knees and cried and screamed for mercy— ‘No, Sir,’ Delaval said, ‘I have another sort of punishment for you,’ and immediately turned up that part, which in England is accustomed to be flogged too, but in its own country has a different entertainment—which he accordingly gave it. “

The sack is not the stage or the studio—at least not usually—and this vivid scene says nothing about Guadagni’s singing, but the faintest suggestion of the risky intemperance conveyed by this episode might have brought still more flamboyance to the recorded, a touch of danger behind the galant façade.

Of all the Bachs, Christian was the only truly international star in his lifetime. He rode his Italian success to London in 1763, where he came to dominate the opera scene. Thus he became known as the “London Bach,” a genial man with a talent for accessible, marketable music for the stage for the home. The strength of character and long-reach vision that sent him venturing across Europe without the security of a solid Lutheran job back in the Bach heartland is captured in Thomas Gainsborough fine portrait of him from 1776.

Bach continued to receive commissions from across Europe, and he became the prime force in the public concert life of the British capital. Ultimately, however, he might have wished for that lost Lutheran security, as his ventures led him to financial troubles and an early death in 1782.

“What a loss to the musical world,” wrote the young Mozart, who had met J. C. in London in 1764 and been warmly supported by him. The modern musical world continues to rediscover the music of this youngest Bach son (plans are taking shape for a scholarly edition of the many operas) thanks to the talented, imaginative efforts of Jaroussky, who like J. C. Bach, has the courage to explore distant musical destinations and bring their landscapes to life.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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