Transparent Trio Sonatas

Trio Sonata No. 1, 1st movement (BWV 525) J.S.Bach (1685-1750)
— organ

As we have seen in previous Music Boxes, a 35-year-old Bach, away performing, came home to discover that his wife Maria Barbara (1684–1720) had died and was already buried. After this, Bach turned his back on climbing the corporate – I mean aristocratic – musician ladder, took a pay cut, and devoted the rest of his life to composing music for the church and pedagogy (teaching). Ultimately he composed about 240 CDs worth of music just for the church – about half of it now lost.

As an aside, a list of Maria Barbara’s seven children with Bach tells its own story:

  • Catharina Dorothea (1708–1774)
  • Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784): became a noteworthy composer in his own right.
  • Johann Christoph (1713–1713)
  • Maria Sophia (1713 –1713): twin of Johann Christoph.
  • Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–1788): became a noteworthy composer in his own right.
  • Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715–1739). At age 23, he secretly abandoned a career in music to study law, and died a year later.
  • Leopold Augustus (1718–1719)

One relatively little played example of Bach’s pedagogical music is a set of six trio sonatas he composed for the organ. Now, normally a ‘trio sonata’ is composed for three separate instruments: invariably two high ones such as a violin and a flute, and a bass instrument, usually a cello. In the organ trio sonatas, however, Bach assigns one ‘instrument’ to the right hand, the second to the left, and the bass part to the feet. Because the three parts are independent, the player must independently phrase them. (Near as I can tell, Bach was the first to write organ trio sonatas.) And unlike Big Bach™ organ works with four or five parts going on, where it is hard even for an expert to spot a finger flub in the tsunami of sound, the trio sonatas are very light and transparent, so there’s no hiding!

Johann Forkel was the author of the first authoritative biography of Bach (1802 – some of Bach’s children were still living and Forkel was able to interview them). In his biography he said: “Bach wrote [the organ trios] for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and it must have been by practicing them that Friedemann became the great organist that he afterwards was. One cannot say enough of their beauty.” I feel the same way.