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Storytelling in J.S. Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother

Let us take a brief break from the late romantic/20th century literature and rewind back to an early work of J.S. Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother. I am preparing it for a concert next month at the Bach Festival & Competition at Hesston College, KS.

To me, this piece is such an interesting and unusual work by Bach. Typically, much of his keyboard music consists of dance suites, which were highly popular during his lifetime. Capriccio, however, goes against the norm and it is unique: this is his only programmatic work, that is, music that has a specific story attached to it. I find that this particular compositional style and aesthetic were highly progressive for its time as program music was more of a nineteenth-century phenomenon.

There has been debate by many scholars as to who is the person that Bach alludes in the title of his work. Many musicians have come to believe that the work was written in 1704 (at the ripe age of 19!) for the departure of his older brother, Johann Jakob, to work in the band of the Swedish King, Charles XII. One of the leading J.S. Bach scholars, Christoph Wolf, however, suggests that the farewell was most likely for the composer’s close friend, Georg Erdmann.

The piece is set in six movements: the first, titled Arioso, depicts a scene where the friends persuade him from leaving; the second, in form of a short fugue, cautions him of the misfortunes that he might encounter on his journey. The friends’ efforts are unsuccessful and they lament over the imminent departure in the third movement. In form of a passacaglia (variations over a ground bass), the performer is required to fill in and, at times, interpret the figured bass. Bach uses tone painting to further illustrate the sorrows: the F minor key and the descending step-wise two note slurs to suggest “sighing” motives. The fourth movement is the friends’ inevitable acceptance of fate. Shortly after, the horse carriage arrives in the fifth movement—marked by the postilion blowing his horn (represented in the music by a downward octave leap). The piece ends triumphantly with a fugue: combining trumpet (represented by the subject) and horn calls.

Personally, I have always been attracted to performing program music. After all, isn't music supposed to convey certain emotions? What better way than for a composer to provide a story and narrative to guide the listener, unless you share a similar mindset as Igor Stravinsky, who famously said that "music is powerless to express anything at all."

What do you think? Do you think Bach is convincing in his narrative in this piece? I'd love to hear your comments! Please enjoy a video of my performance of this work.


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