Being the youngest sibling from a musical family, I had the great good fortune to hear music-making at home every day when young. I’ve often pondered on which pieces from those days continue to influence me today. Last year I consciously returned to one of them … the second movement from Handel’s Suite in G major HWV441 … as the starting point for the 9th set of my Songs without Words project which is dedicated to my eldest sister, whom I remember playing the piece. (Click on the link HERE to see this set of piano pieces.)
To the best of my knowledge, I am yet to lean on early memories of my mother’s party piece at the piano – Leander Fisher’s ‘The Robin’s Return’ – but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its subconscious influence…
One of my stronger childhood musical memories is of another sister and my brother playing Henry Geehl’s piano duet arrangements of three movements from the Bach cantatas.
Whilst ‘Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring’ (as it is more usually known) may be the best known of these, my memories are haunted by the second: ‘Sheep may safely graze’ (Schafe können sicher weiden’). Looking back, I think this is where my appetite for rich harmonic progression was born.
Constructed in a ternary sandwich form, the opening section conveys a calm pastoral scene in Bb major, underlined by the tonic pedal at the start of the introduction. The first phrase of the chorale melody gently takes us to the sunshine of the dominant, and the next phrase briefly visits the woolly warmth of the subdominant; but for these passing inflections, however, the opening section is a reliably diatonic staple diet – almost like grass.
It is the middle section where my nostalgic memories of harmonic adventure courtesy of my siblings lie. It is often true that we only know something by experience of its opposite. Safe-grazing is all very well for us sheep, but Bach ‘shows’ us a less placid, untroubled world in this passage. Almost immediately we are rounded up and taken into the darker world of the relative minor; but that does not suffice for Bach – two bars later he takes into the more sorrowful C minor.
But this tonal route map is only a dry headline. The wonder is the harmonic mastery with which this journey is steered with all the cunning of the wisest of sheepdogs. As early as the second beat of the section (b.213) the we feel the gravitational pull of G minor with a chord of VIIb – the inevitable tonal destination is only confirmed a bar later. Thus apprenticed in the minor side, the subsequent route to C minor is wonderfully prolonged: its shadow is felt as early as b.224 but its confirmatory cadence is only reached at b.263. How is this achieved? Through assured use of subtle chord inversions: V7d, Ib, VIIb, Ib, V7b, Ic, IIb, V7d and Ib, each delaying the unequivocal perfect cadence.
Complementing this harmonic mastery is a melodic contour that is magnificently expressive – mostly high in register, incorporating an expectant rising sequence (b.23-24) and having the widest leap of the piece so far: a swooning diminished 7th that – with Ab and B – can only belong to C minor.
It is easy to think that momentum in music – a highly desirable quality in many instances – depends on rhythm: one only has to think of the driving rhythms on snare drum and xylophone (among other instruments) in the development section of the opening movement to Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony with its insistent anapaest pattern (though, of course, Bach got there first in the opening movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto!).
However, harmony too can create momentum: Bach signposts the next harmonic or tonal destination and we are captured by the music’s desire to move in that direction.
To my mind, the best is yet to come. From C minor, after a ritornello passage, the middle section continues and carries the music to another minor key – D minor (relative of the dominant) and onwards back to G minor before, via descending sequence (to balance the earlier rising sequence) to close the middle section in F major, ready – through a dominant-tonic resolution – for the da capo return to Bb major.
And here again, progression of harmony drives the music on, and the masterstroke is the sleight of hand in b.31 where we sense a brightening of the tonal weather as the E natural leads us into F major at b.321, but the return to major tonality (and safe grazing) is fleeting: by b.322 we sense an immediate coldness of D minor. The sheep are once more bleating. With a deft touch, Bach points the moment with an octave leap in the melody, quite literally a moment of heightened tension:
The cantata from which this movement is taken, ‘Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV208, was written by Bach for the 31st birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels on 23 Feburary 1713. Recording this extraordinary movement today in 2020’s strange world of Coronavirus lockdown, linked by modern-day technology to a violinist 150 miles away in Liverpool, how fantastic it is that Johann Sebastian’s sublime harmonic creativity of 307 years ago can speak to us of safe grazing set against a dark backdrop.
And how grateful am I for those early musical experiences of hearing my siblings play such great music! Thank you.