Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The most perfect instrumental miniature that you have never even heard of


It is a Sonatina from JS Bach's Cantata 106

For me this is sublime: perfection in a short (two and a half minutes), small group, instrumental piece.

I love it for its use of my (secret) favourite instrument - the treble recorder: indeed a pair of them.

What makes this unique in my experience is two features: the loveliness of the melody; and the effect which Bach appears to have invented just for this - of  using one recorder to hold a note while the other oscillates between that same note and others below or above it.

The above YouTube recording is inferior to the one I first heard - which was a 1970s LP featuring David Munrow, with the Early Music Consort of London - I recorded it 'live' onto a cassette tape which I long treasured....


  1. I've actually never encountered a recorder outside a primary-school classroom. It's an unexpected surprise to hear them in the wild. Do you think there are triangles out there somewhere, too?

  2. There's a triangle in one of the pieces from The Planets. What is rare, though, is my other primary school instrument, the wee yellow stick with a bell on each end.

  3. You might explore the cantatas in general. It's important to listen to historical performances (as best we can determine) because, for example, recorders really sound rather different from flutes -- the same goes for the rest of the instruments. And Bach didn't have a huge choir -- with a smaller choir (like he had) you can hear the inner lines. I still like the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt recordings best -- everyone else seems to want to do Bach at such screaming fast tempos. I've listened to the complete sacred cantata cycle (200 cantatas) several times now, and I've always been enchanted anew. And I think they work a sort of spiritual alchemy on your soul.

  4. @wm - I may just take that advice.

  5. One premise of the medieval era was that God/Spirit infused EVERYTHING. A premise of the so-called Enlightenment is that God/Spirit infuses NOTHING. (Enlightenment ideas were planted in the Renaissance, finally fully flowering c.1750). In this sense Bach is in many ways the last of the great 'medieval' composers. A fun easy book to read is Gaines _Evening in the Palace of Reason_ which is about Bach (a representative of the 'medieval') meets Frederick the Great (a definite representative of the so-called Enlightenment). Their meeting actually took place. Gaines explores the stories of Bach and Frederick, how their meeting unfolded, and the larger issues that their meeting represents. In this sense, Bach stands for many of the issues you are discussing in your blog.