Program Notes: Bach & Schubert

Renowned baroque and classical conductor Nicholas McGegan returns to the Benaroya Hall stage to conduct a delightful program featuring J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Schubert's Fifth Symphony, broadcasting live on Thursday, May 13, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


THURSDAY, MAY 13, 2021, AT 7:30PM
Bach & Schubert

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Seattle Symphony


JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH    Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066

Gavotte I & II
Menuet I & II
Bourrée I & II
Passepied I & II


FRANZ SCHUBERT    Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485

Andante con moto
Menuetto: Allegro molto
Allegro vivace


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Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066

BORN: March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany
DIED: July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany

During the first half of the 18th century, the dance suite was one of the most important and widely cultivated genres of instrumental music. Following an already well-established practice, the composers of this period — including such leading figures as Bach, Handel and Telemann — employed traditional dance forms as vehicles for sophisticated composition. Many of those forms had been connected with social dancing at the courts of European rulers during the seventeenth century, while others were reserved for more theatrical ballet presentations. All had acquired characteristic rhythms that were both well-known and quite useful to musicians.

No composer cultivated the dance suite more profitably than J.S. Bach. Bach’s works within this format were primarily for solo harpsichord, but also for solo violin, solo lute, solo cello, and four suites for orchestra. The latter works, at least in their initial conception, probably date from early in Bach’s career. We know them, however, only in revised versions that the composer fashioned in about 1730 for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a civic orchestra he directed beginning in 1729.

Scored for oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, and strings, the Suite in C major, BWV 1066, begins with an overture in what came to be known as the French style. Typical of “French overture” movements, this begins with a prelude in slow tempo and with a pronounced ceremonial character; it then proceeds directly to a lively fugal passage. In addition to drawing on Bach’s mastery of imitative counterpoint, this latter section also entails occasionally bringing forth a small group of featured instruments, in this case the woodwind contingent, from the full ensemble. Near the close, the music returns briefly to the ceremonial material of its opening section.

A series of dances follows. The Courante is a sprightly French dance that typically involved coursing melodic lines and supple rhythms. Bach’s example provides just this. Although Bach writes the ensuing Gavotte as two movements, it is really a single dance in A-B-A form, the second part serving as a contrasting central section, after which the initial passage returns once more. 

Similar constructions are found in the Minuet, Bourrée and Passepied movements that close the suite. Preceding these, however, and immediately following the Gavotte, comes a Forlane. Originally a rather wild Venetian folk dance, this retains something of its original character even in the highly cultivated rendition Bach offers here.

It remains to note that Bach’s penchant for contrapuntal textures pervades even his dance music. Every page of this suite offers a skillful weaving of several distinct melodic strands, and melodic echoes occur throughout the work. Bach uses counterpoint in a particularly ingenious fashion during the closing Passepied. The second part of this dance presents a flowing melody, given out by the oboes, but beneath this the theme from the first section of the movement is reproduced note for note in the strings.

Scored for 2 oboes; bassoon; harpsichord; strings.



Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485

BORN: January 31, 1797, in Vienna, Austria
DIED: November 19, 1828, in Vienna, Austria

Since Beethoven, fifth symphonies have been famously weighty and turbulent works. Those of Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, for example, replay the Beethovenian drama of struggle and triumph, while Bruckner’s Fifth achieves for the first time the monumental scale of his mature style. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, a notable example being the Fifth Symphony of Franz Schubert. This composition offers no suggestion of Romantic heroism or grandeur. It is, rather, a work of Mozartean grace, with both its dimensions and spirit being closer to the musical ideals of the Classical 18th century than those of the Romantic 19th.

That this music lacks the emotional urgency of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony or the majestic scope of his Ninth, the “Great” Symphony in C major, is understandable in view of the composer’s youth when he wrote it. Schubert was not yet 20 at the time he completed the piece, in the autumn of 1816. Like so many of his works, it was created for the enjoyment of his circle of musical friends. Schubert participated regularly in an amateur chamber orchestra and it was this ensemble that gave the Fifth Symphony its first reading — and, apparently, its last reading for more than half a century. The symphony’s first public performance occurred only in 1873, more than forty years after Schubert’s death.

The modest occasion for which Schubert composed this symphony finds reflection in its orchestration. Only a single flute and pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns complement the usual string choir. Clarinets, trumpets and percussion are conspicuous in their absence. Schubert, however, makes a virtue of this reduced orchestra, providing it with music whose intimacy would be incongruous with a larger ensemble.

The work follows the classic symphonic format of four movements. The first opens with a scant four measures of introduction before launching into its principal subject. This is a winsome melody enriched by discreet echoes in the bass instruments. Soon a second theme, somewhat lighter in character, appears in the violins and quickly is taken up by the woodwinds. Schubert’s development of these ideas is highly inventive, frequently involving the combination of fragments from each theme in counterpoint.

The second movement forms the heart of this symphony. Here Schubert treats two themes in alternation, the first being a lyrical idea introduced in the strings, the second emerging from a series of yearning woodwind phrases. The composer leads these subjects through far-flung harmonic provinces, their excursions making for one of the most beautiful of all his symphonic movements.

The minuet third movement, in the dark tonality of G minor, is surprising in its violence and recalls the corresponding movement in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, written in that same key. Schubert balances its unexpected intensity with a bucolic central episode. He then banishes any lingering shadows with a bright and high-spirited finale.

Scored for flute; 2 oboes; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; strings.

© 2021 Paul Schiavo

Posted on May 12, 2021