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A glimpse into the mind of our Artistic Director as she shares her knowledge and expertise on our music selections, the composers, artists, concerts, and more

Quintessential Quintets

We have reached the final concert of our 43rd season, and are so happy to have been able to resume in-person concerts recently. We end on a lighter vein, in keeping with the advent of Spring, and offer you a selection of bright, cheerful chamber music from the Classic era, sure to delight!

We present our largest ensemble of the season. Five fine local musicians will charm us with three quintets written for flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello by Johann Christian Bach, known as “the London Bach”. He was the eighteenth child and youngest son of J. S. Bach, and influenced the music of Mozart, whose celebrated Quartet in F major for oboe and strings, K. 370, and the Flute Quartet in D major, K. 285 are also on the programme. They will be performed by Doris Dungan, Colleen Kennedy, Katie Stevens, Patrick Horn, and Daniel Parker. The musicians are thrilled to be back performing for you live; the impact of the pandemic on the arts has been significant, and we thank you for your support during this difficult time!

Tonight’s works date from 1772 to 1781, within a space of a mere nine years. Musically, this was a period of stylistic transition, having left the Baroque behind while moving through rococo and style galant to classicism. It is instructive to reflect upon what was transpiring in the world around that short period of time. Consortium’s mission is to educate as well as to entertain, hence my interest in historical background. In 1771 Russian forces occupied Crimea, which became part of the Russian Empire in 1783. History recently repeated itself, with a similar scenario being played out in our time, as Russia invaded and annexed Ukrainian-held Crimea in 2014, and is continuing now with similar atrocities. Meanwhile, British explorer James Cook completed his first voyage around the world in 1771.

The American Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776, although the American Revolution continued from 1775 to 1791, the year that Mozart died. King Louis XV of France had died in 1774 and was succeeded by Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette. Both were guillotined in 1793 after the uprising of the French Revolution and the abolition of the monarchy in France. These were turbulent times. It is remarkable that the character of so much music of the period, by Haydn, Carl Stamitz, Boccherini and others, belied the stormy nature of many contemporaneous world events.

J. C. Bach greatly eclipsed his father in fame during his lifetime. He was fifty years younger, moved away from the Baroque contrapuntal style, and composed in the new, graceful and melodious “style galant” which had come into particular fashion in the mid to second part of the 18th century. He left Germany to study in Italy when twenty, became organist of Milan Cathedral, and wrote operas in Italian under commission both in Italy and England, where he soon became a permanent resident.

He moved to England in 1762, referring to himself as “John Bach”, and became music master for life to Queen Charlotte, wife of the mad King George III. Both royals were musical, and Johann Christian, who was their senior by only three to eight years, accompanied the flute-playing king just as his elder brother C.P.E. Bach had accompanied the flute-playing Frederick the Great at the Prussian court. In 1765, together with composer-friend Abel, he established England’s first subscription concert series, which became very popular and fashionable, not unlike Consortium’s! Society of Georgian England flocked to these performances, which especially promoted instrumental music by the best composers and artists, many from the Continent. In 1774 the series moved to the Hanover Square Concert Rooms, which were decorated with paintings by J.C.’s friend, the celebrated English artist Thomas Gainsborough, who also painted his portrait.

J. C. Bach was highly prolific as a composer, with 48 authentic symphonies to his name (contemporary with Haydn’s), 29 concertos, 11 operas, numerous sonatas, chamber music, and even songs for summer open-air concerts at Vauxhall Gardens. J.C. Bach influenced the style of the early classical concerto and symphony, and it is thought that Mozart owed more to him than to Haydn. Early Mozart works sounded very much like Johann Christian’s. The harpsichord had been the main keyboard instrument through much of the 18th century, but J. C. championed the cause of the new fortepiano, giving the first piano concert in London in 1768. A set of six piano concertos was dedicated to Queen Charlotte, and the last movement of the sixth was a set of variations on “God Save the King”, which enjoyed great public acclaim!

Johann Christian was thought by some to be the true English successor to Handel in terms of fame and repute. In the late 18th-century the name “Bach” could only mean Johann Christian and not Johann Sebastian, who was out of fashion and forgotten. He remained the most popular musician in England throughout the two decades that he lived there. Unfortunately, his health declined and he died in poverty on New Year’s Day 1782 at the age of 46 (the same age that Robert Schumann of our previous Consortium concert lived to). His enormous debts caught up with him, and it was Queen Charlotte who stepped in after his death, erased his debts, and provided for his widow.

Turning to the music, we will hear three of the six Quintets Op. 11 which Johann Christian Bach composed in 1772, and were dedicated to the Bavarian arts-loving Elector-Prince Karl Theodor, whom J. C. met at the Mannheim court. The music is elegant, gracious, intimate, with a conversational manner as the instruments indulge in playful dialogues and interchanges. The composer’s aim is to please and to delight, through bright and lovely music of great audience appeal. Numbers 2 and 5 are in two movements, rather divertimento-like in tone, and include cheerful quick writing with flute flourishes, and a quite danceable minuetto. Middle sections move into contrasting minor keys.

Number 6 begins with a refined allegro with all the instruments sharing in the action, followed by a lyrical, gentle, very beautiful andantino wherein the flute and oboe share the songlike tune. We then swing into a jolly, chirpy final movement, at first dominated by the flute, but then the violin takes over, with the winds breaking in too. Violin and viola have a brief duo in the minor, but a merry return to the initial theme ensues, and all end joyously! An anonymous 18th-century arrangement of all six exists for two pianos, a witness to their popularity.

We are delighted that Doris Dungan and Colleen Kennedy have joined us. They first performed together for Consortium 40 years ago, appearing in 18th-century costume at our “Music at the Court of Frederick the Great” concert of February 1982. They will each be showcased in a Mozart quartet for solo wind and three strings.

Mozart’s oboe quartet, written for renowned oboist Friedrich Ramm of Elector Karl Theodor’s court orchestra, combines virtuosity and expressivity, tailor-made for Ramm. A contemporary claimed: “No-one has yet been able to approach him in beauty, roundness, softness and trueness of tone combined with the trumpet-like depth of his forte.” It begins with a lilting Allegro, followed by a brief but soulfully-intense, aria-like Adagio. The rollicking rondo finale is playful, but requires much agility, as the oboe engages in quick runs, great melodic leaps through a wide range, a short section of counter-rhythm against the strings, finally climbing to end on a quiet high f, the oboe’s highest possible note.

Mozart composed three flute quartets, commissioned by Ferdinand de Jean, a wealthy amateur flautist in Mannheim and surgeon with the Dutch East India Company. Small, informal ensembles were favoured at social gatherings and talented amateurs appreciated performing music such as Mozart offered here. We present the first and most famous, K. 285, in the sunny key of D. The work is sparkling and refined. Movement 1 casts the spotlight on the flute and is virtuosic. A wistful, serenade-like adagio in B minor follows, with pizzicato-string accompaniment. According to Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein it is “perhaps the most beautiful accompanied flute solo that has ever been written … suffused with the sweetest melancholy”. It leads right into the perky Rondo, full of merry music-making and Mozartian exuberance!

The eight-year-old W. A. Mozart had met J. C. Bach in London in 1764 while on tour with his father Leopold, remained for a little over a year, and ended up studying composition with him for a few months. Mozart as a young prodigy had previously enchanted Marie-Antoinette, 7-year-old daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by performing for her at age 6 at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna in 1762, the same year that J. C. Bach moved to England and twelve years before she became the last Queen of France. Similarly, the young Mozart charmed the 20-year-old Queen Charlotte during his 1764 London visit, even accompanying her on a song!

Mozart, who continued to admire Johann Christian Bach, stated “I love him with all my heart, and have the highest regard for him”. Upon hearing of his death in 1782, Mozart wrote “What a loss to the musical world!” They had remained close friends. It is therefore fitting that these two composers be paired on our concert.


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