Inspired Music

By George Bozarth

Let’s explore a few of the neo-Baroque works that have been inspired by the music of Bach, Handel, and others. Starting with Mozart and ending with the wonderfully iconoclastic twentieth-century soprano Cathy Berberian, to see some of the fusions of old and new that composers have achieved.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fugue in C minor for Two Fortepianos, K. 426 (1783)
Mozart learned of the music of Bach from the Dutch-born Austrian diplomat Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who served as Imperial Librarian in Vienna (1777–1803), was a fellow Freemason, and who shared his greatest enthusiasms with Mozart. As he wrote to his father in 1782, “I go every Sunday at twelve o’clock to the Baron van Swieten, where nothing is played but Handel and Bach. I am collecting at the moment the fugues of Bach—not only of Sebastian, but also of [Carl Philipp] Emanuel and [Wilhelm].

Constanze Mozart is said to have “fallen in love” with Bach’s fugues, with the result that her husband wrote the Prelude and Fugue in C major, K. 394 (1782) and started a Handelian Suite K. 399.  Also dating from this time is the Fugue for Two Fortepianos in C minor K. 426 (1783), whose subject reflects the shape of the theme of Bach’s Musical Offering.  Mozart soon assimilated Bach’s style into his own, as, for example in his C minor Mass (1784) and Requiem (1791).

In the Fugue in C minor for Two Fortepianos Mozart employs both the subject and its inversion in a rich contrapuntal texture.  But, faced with the problem of how to stop this juggernaut, which grows even richer after he starts to use the melodies simultaneously and in stretto (= when the 2nd voice enters before the first has ended, achieving an intensity like interrupted conversation), Mozart, instead of just dropping a simple dominant pedal point, resorts to a very un-Baroque devise: an intensely warbling Alberti bass!  It’s hard not to chuckle—one wonders whether Mozart, ever the prankster, expected those “learned” members of his audience to react in this way.

I’m going to refer you to two recordings, one on two fortepianos, which to my taste is too “dry”, the other on pair of modern pianos, which I think captures the Baroque/Classical romp much better and also lets you follow along with the music to “see” all of Mozart’s deployments of the subject—which is exciting in itself.

Bart van Oort and Ursula Dütschler

Gunther Hasselmann (2nd pianist not identified)

Felix Mendelssohn, Finale of the String Symphony in G minor, No. 12 (1823)
To teach composition to the vastly talented young Mendelssohn, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), composer, conductor, pedagogue, and friend of Goethe, put his student on a steady diet of Bach and Handel.  So it’s not surprising that, to close his twelfth String Symphonywhich had begun with a French overture, complete with an initial Grave section full of dotted rhythms and a dynamic fugue on a snaking chromatic subject—Felix created a Finale that pours Baroque styles into Classical symphonic form with all the mischievousness of a fourteen-year-old lad.

Felix launchs this Allegro molto like a Bach concerto grosso.  Yet soon the first stylistic disjunction occurs, and we find ourselves in a Handelian fugue (“And with his Stripes,” anyone?!).  But then comes the biggest shift: music that sounds like an audition for the highly Romantic Overture to The Midsummer Night’s Dream—you can imagine serious old Zelter’s reaction! And then these three sections are repeated, as would happen with a symphonic Exposition, before Mendelssohn undertakes a true Development section on his materials.  The symphony’s Recapitulation follows the expected route, until Felix caps the whole affair off with a sudden Mozartian (Beethovenian?) flourish—and a good time’s had by all!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz6PGkfgok8 (click on 12:12 for the Finale)

Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Ward

Johannes Brahms, Sarabande and Gavotte, WoO 5/1 and 3/2
Brahms began his career as a composer with a dynamic Piano Scherzo, then three blow-out Romantic piano sonatas, opp. 1, 2, and 5, (1852–53), followed by a set of Variations à la Schumann, op. 9, and four Romantic piano Ballades on Scottish texts, op. 10.  But then where to go?  This was when he turned to the study of contrapuntal writing and other early music styles, which yielded several neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque choral works, three organ fugues, and pairs of sarabandes, gavottes, and gigues for piano. Let’s listen to his Sarabande No. 1 in A minor and Gigue No. 2 in A major (ca. 1854–55).

The sarabande, the earliest surviving exemplars of which come from Central America, may have evolved from a Spanish dance with Arab influences. A hallmark of this slow, stately triple-meter dance is an emphasis on the second beat. The French gavotte is in duple meter at a moderate tempo, beginning with a two-beat anacrusis (upbeat). Both dances are cast in binary form (AA |BB), with the repeats of each section decorated with improvised ornaments. Here are examples of a Baroque sarabande and gavotte being danced:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF9v-6B_O0A and

Brahms follows all these stylistic traits, but infuses his Sarabande with sighing, melancholic Romanticism.


Lisa Rehwoldt, piano


Sophie-Mayuko Vetter, piano, played rather fast for a gavotte, but with delightful improvised ornamentation in the repeated sections

If these pieces sound familiar, that’s because, after sitting in Brahms’s portfolio of unpublished compositions for twenty-seven years, they emerged as the thematic material for an unique fusion of sonata, rondo, and variations that formed the second movement of his String Quintet No. 1 in F major, op. 88 (1882), with the tempo markings Grave ed appassionato, Allegretto vivace, and Presto.  Brahms creates a hybrid piece that combines slow-movement and scherzo all in one.  The form is:

EXP A (sarabande) | B | DEV/var. 1 of A | C (gavotte) | RECAP/var. 2 of A. 

New Zealand String Quartet and Marias Lambros, viola

John Lennon/Paul McCartney, arr. Louis Andriessen, “Ticket to Ride”
The inimitable Cathy Berberian, enthusiasm of my college years and now again of my old age—I’m currently editing a volume of her hitherto unpublished letters—was a singer who mastered vocal styles as diverse as Monteverdi (she sang in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ground-breaking Orfeo and Coronation of Poppea recordings), Purcell, Offenbach, Eric Satie, Kurt Weill, Gershwin, Villa-Lobos, William Walton, Stravinsky, Luciano Berio (her husband), and John Cage, as well as salon music from the Belle Epoque and folk songs from a variety of countries and cultures.  In the late 1960s she fell hard for The Beatles“I love the Beatles: their films and their songs,” she wrote to a friend, “I have the records going almost every day. The records belong to my daughter, as maniac about them as I was about [Lawrence] Olivier at her age.”—and in the late 60s she released an album of twelve of their songs recast by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen in a variety of styles.  The best known is surely his neo-Handelian rendition of “Ticket to Ride.”  I shall leave Cathy, resplendent in her signature white wig, to introduce you to this selection, as only she can.


(If you’d like to spend a haunting twelve-and-a-half minutes, listen to Cathy’s Five Armenian songs.  Ah . . . )

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