My second year of celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday: a tale of accidental love

Last year I reported on celebrating the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685. I was still just barely beginning to play the flute seriously then, and I read through some music of his transcribed for flute.

I have progressed tremendously on flute in the past year; the difference between having played flute for a few months and playing it for a few months plus a whole year is really huge. So this year, to celebrate, I played for myself some of Bach’s actual music written for flute: selections from his flute sonatas.

Of course, my Bach bobblehead still watches over me.

J S Bach bobblehead and Franklin

I have a tale of accidental love to tell.

Falling instantly in love with Bach’s flute sonata in E major, BWV 1035, first movement

Alto recorder

In 2011, I started playing alto recorder, teaching myself and joining the Pittsburgh Recorder Society. I first completed the two-volume method by Orr, over the course of approximately two months, February through April 2011. Then I moved on to the two-volume method by Mario Duschenes. One of the great things about the second volume of the Duschenes method is that it contains excerpts of real music. One excerpt that came up was the first movement of Bach’s flute sonata in E major, transposed for alto recorder.

I had never heard this music before, so I looked for recordings of it. This was not so easy! The reason is that I kept on finding recordings of the original flute version, but at the time, I was not yet playing the flute, only recorder, and only interested in recorder. Then I found a recording by Michala Petri and Keith Jarrett. So I worked on this adagio ma non tanto first movement and periodically played along with Petri’s recording.

Actually, I didn’t much like Petri’s performance at all: it lacked in articulation, contrast, and expression:

Falling in love

What really got to me was this passionate performance I found on YouTube on recorder by Maurice Steger. There are idiosyncratic things he does that I don’t do, but there is no doubt about his commitment to full emotional expression:

I couldn’t explain why, but seeing this video was one of the first times I really fell in love with Baroque music. To me, the long phrases, chromaticism, and Bach’s own style of ornamentation give a meditative expression of melancholy and longing. I poured myself into playing this on recorder, inspired by Maurice Steger’s passion for it.

Baroque flute vs. modern flute?

When I accidentally started playing modern flute again in late 2011, I eventually looked up actual flute recordings of Bach’s flute sonatas. I completely stopped playing Bach transposed for the recorder. I just felt that, despite Maurice Steger’s example, I could not get everything I wanted out of the recorder, and I wanted to move to flute. However, the modern flute seemed not so well suited to the music. Eventually, I bought a Baroque flute.

However, because Bach on the Baroque flute has remained much more difficult for me to play than on the modern flute, I have resigned myself to mostly playing Bach’s flute music on modern flute, while trying to keep the music crisply articulated and with minimal vibrato.

(I played the first movement of Bach’s flute sonata in E minor, BWV 1034, at a party earlier this year.)

Here are some videos illustrating a little bit of how the sounds and interpretations may differ.

Baroque flute: Jed Wentz

A performance by Jed Wentz on Baroque flute:

(Update of 2013-07-04)

I no longer like this performance as much as I did initially. It is a bit frantic, with some blazing fast playing that I would like to be a bit slower.

Modern flute: Emmanuel Pahud

A performance by Emmanuel Pahud on modern flute, but playing with fine sensitivity to elements of Baroque style:

(Update of 2013-07-04)

My, taste changes in three months: I no longer like this performance. It is simultaneously still too smooth and too restrained.

Another modern flutist: Nikos Nikopoulos

A random modern flutist playing in a bland legato-all-the-time style:


Bach’s birthday is a good time to remember and re-create and re-experience what was beautiful and special about the music of the Baroque era, before changes in taste and style came along in the late 18th century and onward. For me, the flute sonatas will always be a source of rediscovery and exploration of the Baroque world.

(Update of 2013-07-04)

I have more thoughts on this sonata.

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