The Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo is one of the most astonishing works by the young Johann Sebastian Bach. I would like to share with you my personal vision of this luminous and delicate piece – for the first time performed on the organ!
Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brotherThe Capriccio BWV 992 is a programmatic work depicting the different states of emotion which Bach experienced when taking leave of his beloved brother, Johann Jakob. This piece for keyboard with or without pedalboard, in the key of B-flat major, was probably composed around 1704 in Ohrdruf. Bach was then roughly 19 years old. The original manuscript is housed at Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek.
A story of sibling affection in six movements
1. Arioso, Adagio
His friends gather and try to dissuade him from leaving.
Listen to Episode 1
The Capriccio seems to be modelled on the example of the six Biblical Sonatas of Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). Soon to be Bach’s predecessor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, Kuhnau had published his Musicalische Vorstellung einiger Biblischer Historien (Musical Representation of Several Biblical Stories) in 1700, the fourth of which, the Suonata quarta Hiskia agonizzante e risanato) is included in the box set “The Young Heir”, the first volume of my complete cycle of J. S. Bach’s Complete Works for Keyboard.
The title Capriccio (caprice) which the young J.S. Bach had chosen, makes us think of similarly-named works of Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jakob Froberger, and François Roberday, who at the time used the title to describe a work fairly free in form or sometimes fugal in texture. Just like Kuhnau, Bach supplies a descriptive text in German (this time non-biblical) to accompany each movement. This text, already explicit from its title, describes the various incidents and emotions that the composer experiences following the departure of his brother, Johann Jakob – a professional oboist who had chosen to join the army of Charles XII, at the Court of Sweden. The first movement of this piece is quite melancholy; it is intended to express the friendly pressure from Johann Jakob’s friends wishing to dissuade him from leaving.
2. A depiction of the calamities that could befall him.
Listen to Episode 2
Benjamin Alard describes the elements which the young Bach employed to paint a musical depiction of the dangers his brother was bound to encounter on his journey. The choice of performing this work on the organ demonstrates, especially in this movement, how much is gained in intensity and characterisation. To illustrate, Benjamin Alard plays the instrument at the Église Sainte-Aurélie in Strasbourg – an Andreas Silbermann organ restored by Quentin Blumenroeder.
A general lament of his friends.
Listen to Episode 3
The Lamento, composed in the mournful and stark key of F minor, features a basso ostinato typical of Italian examples of the genre which we are often found in operatic works containing dark, dramatic, or plaintive episodes. The key Bach has chosen here is meant to bring tears to our eyes and to make us feel the heartbreak caused by his loss of a beloved brother. Here we also have the use of an unmetered style: following the lamento, a recitative offers a kind of resolution after the distress. Tears were shed, but in the end everyone wants wish good luck to his friend or brother! This is indicated by a lovely cadential figure in F major – the key that introduces the ensuing Aria of the Postilion.
4. His friends gather and, since he cannot be dissuaded, bid him farewell.
Listen to Episode 4
For the young Johann Sebastian, who had lost his parents at an early age and was extremely attached to his elder brothers (and, in fact, raised by them), this movement gives an idea of how keenly Bach must have felt this departure as a loss – and perhaps experienced it inwardly on a biblical scale.
Here we also have the use of an unmetered style: following the lamento, a recitative offers a kind of resolution after the distress. Tears were shed, but in the end everyone wants wish good luck to his friend or brother! This is indicated by a lovely cadential figure in F major – the key that introduces the ensuing Aria of the Postilion.
5. & 6. Allegro poco,
Aria del Postiglione & Fuga all’imitazione di Posta.
Listen to Episode 5
Benjamin explains why Bach’s music, notably the Capriccio, leaves a powerful imprint on the performer: a physical experience that brings one in contact with every forceful gesture of his writing...