Music that Speaks

Instrumental Recitative

Following on from episode 12 of my podcast Voorbij de oren (in Dutch), I present here a short recital around the theme ‘instrumental recitative’. Most of the subject matter is discussed also in the blog essays Bach on the piano and Arioso dolente. Spoken short introductions in Dutch.

Not on Spotify.

  • 1’49” J.S. Bach, Chromatische Fantasie BWV 903 (ca. 1720)
  • 10’45” C.P.E. Bach, Andante from Sonata in F major Wq 48 nr. 1 (‘Prussian Sonatas’, nr. 1) (1740)
  • 13’10” C.P.E. Bach, Fantasia in c from Sonata Wq 63 nr. 6 (‘Probestücke’, nr. 18) (1753)
  • 19’29” L. van Beethoven, Sonata in A-flat major op. 110 (1821): Moderato cantabile molto espressivo – 25’06” Allegro molto – 27’14” Adagio ma non troppo (Recitativo, Arioso dolente)Allegro ma non troppo.

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia could also be called toccata, judging by the passage work with which it begins. But it is mainly the exceptional recitative that emerges from it unexpectedly that breaks the conventions of the genre – or any genre.

The coupling of the fantasia with the fugue has often been seen as problematic; the recitative is emotionally profound, the fugue mostly playful. There is also some speculation that the two did not originally belong together. To be honest, I too cannot muster the same enthusiasm for the fugue as I do for the fantasia. In any case, the fantasia can very well stand on its own.

The slow middle movement from Emanuel Bach’s Sonata in F Wq 48 consists of an arioso that is twice interrupted by recitative. The word ‘arioso’ does not appear in the score, but the recitative is labelled as such (recitativo). This is also an instruction to the player to handle the tempo freely.

The Fantasia in c minor is the third movement of a sonata, one of the Probestücke or demonstration pieces that Emanuel Bach marketed as a supplement to his treatise on playing keyboard instruments, the Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen.

This position as the final movement of a sonata is unusual, and there is actually hardly any relationship to the movements that precede it. Except that there are strong contrasts in affect or emotional character between them. Those extremes are also found to follow each other abruptly within the fantasia.

Spontaneous bursts of feeling, fierce sentiments, intense sensitivity and tenderness are characteristic of the Empfindsam style, or Sentimentalism, of which Emanuel Bach is the main musical representative.

In the case of Beethoven’s Sonata opus 110 it would be a shame to single out only the recitative. The movements are connected to each other, and form a kind of coherent scenario.

This is not Beethoven’s only sonata which includes a recitative (op. 31 nr. 2 is the other one), but it is a good match for the previous pieces: it contains a recitative and arioso, just like Emanuel Bach’s Sonata in F; and Beethoven continues that quasi-vocal movement with a fugue, just like in J.S. Bach’s Chromatic.

I think a comparison with Emanuel Bach’s works can illustrate how Beethoven adopted elements of the Empfindsam style – in particular an extreme sensitivity, alternations of sentiment, and moments of intense tenderness.

Tenderness is predominant in the first movement, as can seen from the instruction in bar 1: con amabilità – amiably, in German, sanft. It can also be noticed in the crescendos, which often do not end in a forte, but are followed by a restrained subito piano. Except at the end of the sonata, where the fugue comes to a euphoric conclusion; a victory over the melancholy of recitative and arioso. The programme that some interpreters wanted to apply to Bach’s Chromatic – interpreting the fugue as a process of increasing affirmation, a triumph over dejection and doubt – is in fact a typical Beethovenian model.

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