Close this search box.

Johann Sebastian Bach Facsimiles

Michel Debost | May June 2011

   Long ago, maybe a half century or so, I played in East Berlin. Eastern Germany was still under the thumb of Communism and a very dismal place indeed. The only redeeming thing was that athletes and artists were coveted by the state. I could not do much with the money I earned there. There was nothing in the shops to purchase, except in the music shops, where you could buy for next to nothing all sorts of repertoire the Minister of Culture had decided was not too subversive (no Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, etc). I came upon facsimiles of Handel, old organ works of Buxtehude, a facsimile of Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental Musical Offering, and what was my main interest, a facsimile of one of our masterworks, the facsimile original of the Sonata in B minor a cembalo obbligato e travers solo BWV 1030. Imagine my emotion at almost touching Bach’s handwriting and seeing the scratches his quill made on rough paper while writing a masterpiece.

   A few years later in Florence, Italy I found a publisher (Studio per Edizioni Scelte) of facsimiles by Blavet, French, German, and Italian baroque music, and another facsimile of the Bach Sonata in B minor. This time, the book included four facsimiles: the one I found in Berlin; a separate flute part copied at the time by Penzel; another complete score by the hand of one of Bach’s students, Altnikol; another full score (without separate flute part) copied by another student, Kirnberger; and finally an intriguing reproduction of an unknown copist of only the clavicembalo score (without the flute line) but in G minor. Graphic experts and analysts tend to think that this G minor version predates the B minor. Since the solo part has been lost and does not exist above the cembalo part, it is possible to speculate that the instrument intended was the oboe to which the key of G minor is generally becoming. The violin is also a possibility.
   I was most intrigued by two indications in the fascimile. First, the only mention at the beginning of the first movement is Trio, which implies the presence of two instruments at least. Actually, I have an old vinyl recording of Gustav Leonard and his group playing a version of this for string orchestra.
   Another interesting aspect is the indication at the head of the second movement is Siciliano rather than the Largo e dolce that we are used to. This implies, in my view, that the slow movement, in all its versions, might not be as slow and pompous as generally thought.

   For want of space, I will look only at the first part of the second movement as a basis of comparison.
   Here is a reproduction of the title page, which already calls for a couple of observations:

   The mention “H moll” (B minor in German notation) and “in origineller Partitur” is in Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach’s hand and the rest in Johann Sebastian Bach’s. Even separated by long distances (for the time), father and son were very close.
   A departed organist friend of mine, Xavier Darasse, who made a rule to play organ pieces from facsimiles only, showed me something which I think sheds light on phrasing ideas. In the first example which was cleaned by Edizioni Scelte, as well as the other facsimiles, the Altnicol and Kirnberger versions, the shape of the 32nd notes is not as straight as any printer or computer could do today. Xavier had Bach organ facsimiles also with these graphisms. These 32nd note gestures give illustration to the fact that in most bars, the first three eighth notes are definitely rhythmic. The second parts of those bars have that flourish of freedom, which seems like an answer to the first part.

   Finally, the only facsimile version of the flute part alone to have come down to us thus far is by another one of Bach’s students or partner musician, Christian Friedrich Penzel, who gives a couple of revealing indications.

In the two flourishes at end of the sixth and thirteenth bars, the copyist added a G natural, canceling the G#. Perhaps this was the practice, lost today, that accidentals did not always carry through the bar. When I first heard that, I did a double-take, but now I use both ways and explain to my students that music is not always set in stone.
   This opinion is applicable to the shape of the grace notes as well. In the first bar, Penzel’s grace note is an eighth, implying a long ornament, whereas all the other versions, including Bach’s own, have a grace sixteenth.
   These questions are fascinating and give rise to research and discussions. I often say that since there are ambiguities about Poulenc, who died a mere fifty years ago, it is not surprising that speculation is rampant about music written two hundred and fifty years earlier.