Sinfonia 1

BWV 787 (page 1)

“A Rush of Happiness is Here and Makes Me Want to Spread the Joy!”

Wouldn’t it be fun if someone came up with words to Sinfonia 1? The never-ending sixteenth-note texture (an example of “atomic rhythmic basis,” as described by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel in The Bach Reader, defined as “a smallest note value beyond which there is no further significant subdivision”) creates an energetic moto perpetuo feel. I would love to hear a choir trying to articulate that many tongue-twisting syllables, in a vocal arrangement with lyrics beginning with “A Rush of Happiness is Here and Makes Me Want to Spread the Joy!”

Sinfonia 2

BWV 788 (page 4)

“Ray Brown, Come Lay It Down”

In measure 5 of the secondo part, one can almost hear jazz bassist Ray Brown enter, playing a bluesy line and creating a groove similar to his 1958 classic “Upstairs Blues.” At measure 5, Bach’s  meter is transformed into a solid  feel with triplet subdivisions.

Sinfonia 3

BWV 789 (page 8)

“You Are So Nice”

The affable Affekt of this Sinfonia fits the quirky subtitle which could be sung to the motif played in measure 1 by the secondo part.  There is a bouncy happiness to this small piece and it is hard to believe that after its approximately one-minute duration, we’ll all be in a better mood.  Thank you, Bach!

Sinfonia 4

BWV 790 (page 11)

“It’s Time to Slow Down”

There is no question that the tempo for Sinfonia 4 is not fast and the mood not upbeat. Whether or not it is actually a sad piece, it does promote reflection, something we can only do when we slow down the pace — of our lives or the piece.

Sinfonia 5

BWV 791 (page 14)

“Pleasing But Profound”

With its pleasant turns of phrase, agreeable harmonies, and non-fugal texture, this piece almost belongs to the galant style. The simple pleasures of life — afternoon tea, a walk with the dog, a game of chess — are front and center even while Bach, incapable of writing insipid ditties, imparts drama (through excursions to C minor and F minor) and depth.

Sinfonia 6

BWV 792 (page 17)


The joyous rush of the opening melodic ascent recalls the similar gesture and resulting mood of Sinfonia 1 — happiness! But Sinfonia 6, with its triplety groupings, is even happier, skipping or skateboarding on some jubilant journey. Bach did not put a tempo or character marking, but it is definitely not Largo.

Sinfonia 7

BWV 793 (page 21)

“A Quiet Quest”

Like Sinfonia 4, there is a contemplative character to Sinfonia 7. The opening melodic ascent, this time in minor and with slower note values than the opening melodic ascent of Sinfonia 6, seems to be inquisitive or prayerfully pleading. Some struggle is eventually overcome at the end — that Picardy third has meaning.

Sinfonia 8

BWV 794 (page 24)

“Double Time Times Two”

I envision the left hand of the secondo part as a blazing bass line in a jazz trio, which means I have converted one quarter note of Bach’s Sinfonia into a whole  bar for the jazzers. The drummer would have to use brushes and make sure that the hi-hat is well mounted, since it would have to be clipped on every other sixteenth-note throughout the piece — at least 216 times throughout the approximately one minute and thirteen seconds of the piece’s duration.

Sinfonia 9

BWV 795 (page 28)

“The Sadness”

It is hard not to sense a theological underpinning to this music, perhaps something related to Golgotha but certainly a deep sadness. Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) could have been thinking of Sinfonia 9 in his description of the key of F minor which, according to him, “seems to represent a mild, calm, and at the same time a deep and heavy . . . fatal anxiety.”

Sinfonia 10

BWV 796 (page 32)

“Scamper ‘Round and Make Some Sound”

The pert playfulness of Sinfonia 10 suggests that the “bewigged, jowly old German Capellmeister” (to use John Eliot Gardiner’s description of a common, stereotypical concept of Bach) knew how to have fun and play with unabashed abandon. Is it too far a stretch to imagine J.S. Bach jamming with one of his sons at an adjacent keyboard, playing the alternate ending in measures 33–48? Something tells me Bach could have easily played the 32nd notes of measures 45–46 on the organ pedals, “as if his feet had wings” (a phrase used by firsthand observer Constantin Bellermann in 1743).

Sinfonia 11

BWV 797 (page 36)

“Jazz Waltz for Ghosts”

Bach’s  meter keeps this minor-mode piece from being lugubrious: it is sad but light, emotional yet wispy, close to a siciliano in character. My accompaniment gives it a gently lilting dancelike quality, less boisterous than a Lindy hop but perhaps a bit more animated than a minuet.

Sinfonia 12

BWV 798 (page 40)

“You Want to Dance?”

Yes, this quirky subtitle could be sung to the secondo’s opening notes, like several others in the book. In fact, “You Want to Dance?” and “Can You Come Play Now?” (Sinfonia 14) have almost interchangeable motifs, the result both of my monodimensional brain but also of the comparable moods of the two Sinfonias. Yet I do think No. 12 is slightly dancier than No. 14.

Sinfonia 13

BWV 799 (page 43)

“Morning Chant”

The subject of Sinfonia 13 sounds like a Gregorian chant that might have been sung in a monastery during an early morning ritual. Regardless of any theological context, there is a flowing solemnity in the piece that converts to some innocent musical hopscotching at measure 21, and becomes even livelier once thirty-second notes enter in measure 36. Can’t monks dance? Caspar Ruetz may have thought so.

Sinfonia 14

BWV 800 (page 46)

“Can You Come Play Now?”

Like Sinfonias 1, 3, 5, 6, 10, and 12, there is definitely a playful mood here, reminding us that we humans are as much Homo ludens as Homo sapiens. Budding lyricists can find a way to expand the subtitle, as it appears in measure 1, throughout the remaining 23 measures (good luck with the demisemiquavers and semiquavers in measure 23 — maybe “Ask your mommy if we can go out and kick the ball around the yard until the sun goes down, until it’s dark” or for more mature keyboardists “Now it’s time to hit the gym and burn those carbs that I ingested eating all that food your mother fixed for us”).

Sinfonia 15

BWV 801 (page 49)

“Give Me A Second”

I would almost prefer that duettists not use my optional introduction: the look of panic on the secondo pianist’s face, waiting for the correct microsecond to enter with that minor second in the first measure, would be Instagram worthy. Perhaps panic is not a useable interpretive technique (ask conductors who have tried to accommodate singers in the spirit of colla parte?), but being nimble and having the ability to feel thirty-second-note subdivisions are definitely worthwhile skills to have in performing this arrangement of Sinfonia 15.

— John Salmon

Greensboro, North Carolina

February 20, 2017

--== Navigation menu to samples of each piece: ==--

Sinfonia 1  |  Sinfonia 2  |  Sinfonia 3  |  Sinfonia 4  |  Sinfonia 5  |  Sinfonia 6  |  Sinfonia 7 |  Sinfonia 8

Sinfonia 9  |  Sinfonia 10  | Sinfonia 11  |  Sinfonia 12  |  Sinfonia 13  |  Sinfonia 14  |  Sinfonia 15

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