Apotheosis: Bach and Brahms

On Saturday, April 20 at 3 p.m. the Santa Barbara Music Club will present another program in its popular series of beautiful classical-music concerts. This afternoon, pianist Betty Oberacker and clarinetist David Singer perform the program “Apotheosis,” a grouping of works that represent the summation of a practice or of a composer’s musical style. The roster features Oberacker’s performance of two preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: C major, BWV 870, and in F-sharp minor, BWV 882. She concludes the Bach portion of the program with the sparkling Italian Concerto, BWV 971. Singer then joins to conclude the program with the Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120/1, for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms. This concert, co-sponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Library, will be held at the Faulkner Gallery of the library, 40 East Anapamu, Santa Barbara. Admission is free.

The word ‘apotheosis’ has become clichéd, at least in musical discussion, lying just below the most overused words, like ‘genius.’ We tend to ascribe these words to beloved composers, as if they lie beyond reproach. The works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) provide strong examples, as popular opinion often regards him as the apotheosis of the Baroque period writ large. That is quite a broad claim. Yet we can glean some truth to these sweeping statements by examining specific works or even characteristics of works against a specialized backdrop. 

Take, for example, tonality. It suggests for some a safe haven for “pretty” music, providing the aural comforts of a musical home. It shields us against the dissonant, so-called difficult music of the past 110 years or so. For others tonality is but one tool among many composers use in their craft, expression, and so forth, and we can find it juxtaposed easily with dodecaphonic, modal, and other pitch organizations. Finally, tonality can mirror cultural hierarchy, a way to perpetuate musical systems of Euro-centric hegemony. Regardless of associations, tonality became the default harmonic practice of Western music between 1600 and 1900 with its 12 major and 12 minor keys. By the 1720s, tonality had been developing for well over a century but barely received systematic, practical grounding in a collection of musical compositions. That all changed when Bach published The Well Tempered Clavier, and, for this reason, the work stands as an apotheosis of Western tonality. 

Bach composed 48 preludes and fugues, two in each major and minor key and spanning two publications, Book I in 1722 and Book II in 1742. Bach capitalized on the differences each key suggested with regard to character, mood, tuning, and affect. By doing so, Bach codified tonality. This afternoon, Betty Oberacker pairs the most polarizing tonalities of the 24 possible keys, the Preludes and Fugues in C major, BWV 870, and F-sharp minor, BWV 882 from Book II of The Well Tempered Clavier. The former is in major, the other in minor. For those versed in music theory, the octave divides into 12 semi-tones. In relation to the pitch C, F# bisects evenly into six semi-tones (the tritone). Therefore, the pitch centers of C and F# lie as far away as one can get in tonality. 

Tonality and key relationships also informed the Baroque concerto. The three-movement genre, one of Italy’s most important contributions to Western instrumental music, differed in character and associativity based on tonality. The genre itself denotes two types in Western music. The first is the one with which we tend to be familiar: instrumental ensemble or orchestra playing with a soloist. The second type aligns more closely with its seventeenth-century Italian roots: an instrumental ensemble performing in alternation between all the players (tutti) and a small selection of players (concertino). Yet the word ‘concerto’ itself can suggest opposites, which is where tonality comes into play. ‘Concerto’ implies harmony or agreement, as well as competition or vying. The affect of a particular key within tonality often would confer onto the concerto the character either of agreement or of competition. 

All this drama emerged from the examples set by the Italian masters including Corelli, Torelli, Locatelli, and Vivaldi. By the time Bach had received the Italian-style concerto in Germany, it had been well established but was quite new to him. Bach therefore furiously studied, copied, transcribed, and arranged the concertos of the Italian masters. His knowledge of the genre consequently grew enough to provide several examples of his own. While he scored the Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, for solo keyboard, the work illustrates his absolute mastery of its form and organization. In addition, it is one of the few works for keyboard that Bach designates for two-manual use (traditionally on the harpsichord). Thus the performer could simulate the concerto style of traversed dynamics – many players vs. few players, tutti vs. concertino, or loud keyboard vs. soft keyboard. Betty Oberacker’s performance on the piano this afternoon substitutes the manual changes of the harpsichord with the dynamic shadings of the piano. It is possible to suggest The Italian Concerto as summative in character, as one of Bach’s most ardent detractors Johann Adolph Scheibe admitted the piece “is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well designed solo concerto.” Bach published the Italian Concerto in 1735 as part of the second volume of the Clavier-Übung (“keyboard exercise”) in which he pairs this work with a French Overture. The competition characteristic of the concerto surfaces yet again, as debates over Italian and French styles had, by then, lasted for over a century.  

For some, the life of Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) coincided with the rise and fall of so-called High Romanticism in Germany. The temptation to regard his late works as apotheosis of whichever genre or form certainly can be great, as Brahms has produced several masterworks. The clarinet, ironically, never figured largely into his composing. Yet his final two chamber works, sonatas for clarinet and piano, stand as masterworks and also as the first of their kind in the genre. In this sense, the sonatas function as both signpost and summation. On the one hand, they are premier works upon which later composers might build; on the other hand, the pieces came from the pen of a composer who has mastered his craft and has reached the end of his life. Consequently, we can regard the clarinet sonatas as apotheosis on a level personal to Brahms; they summarize chamber-music writing, the area of composition for which he may well be best known. 

The conditions under which Brahms composed the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120/1, and its companion piece in Eb major, strike as fueled by retrospect. In 1891, Brahms had ostensibly retired from composing altogether. After hearing the clarinet music of Mozart and Weber, however, Brahms decided to explore the instrument’s potential. In addition, he cultivated a friendship quite late in life with the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, which resulted in a flurry of chamber pieces for the instrument: Op. 114, 115, and 120. Brahms regarded the clarinet as a fitting instrument for his twilight years, as it can sound both opulent and brooding. Betty Oberacker and David Singer close this afternoon’s performance with a sonata that captures both aspects, as the first movement broods with melancholy and closes in optimistic opulence.