The modern accordion may have been developed some two hundred years after Johann Sebastian Bach died, but it is excellently suited to play music he composed. On their fourth album, BEN BY BACH, the accordion duo TOEAC, Renée Bekkers and Pieternel Berkers, present two of his works, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582) and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major (BWV 1048). A newly composed piece by Benjamin de Murashkin separates them. Called Suite Dreams, it reflects in its movements the sequences of dances that comprised a suite in Bach’s time.
It was Passacaglia and Fugue that made TOEAC decide to record this album. It has been one of their long-time favourites, ever since performing it when they auditioned to be admitted to the soloist class at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 2011. “The accordions bring the various interwoven melodic lines transparently to the fore,” says Pieternel Berkers. “There are precious memories connected with this piece. Being taut with nerves before playing it at the audition for the coveted admission to the soloist class, its soothing calm while playing it suffering from a high fever, travelling with it all over the world. It was a turning point in our career, in our lives. A performance in Germany was posted on YouTube. That still gets us invitations for concerts.”
First and foremost they wanted to pair Passacaglia and Fugue with another work by Bach. After looking around for suitable pieces, they acted on suggestions from various people to try the third Brandenburg Concerto, for a small string ensemble and harpsichord. “It proved a complex piece to arrange, internalise and play,” says Renée Bekkers. “When we followed classes with Jan-Willem de Vriend he pointed out a version for an extended orchestra, in which Bach himself had added melodic parts for wind instruments. It is an arrangement with many sustained lines, which connect the fast virtuoso notes. That contributed to the arrangement we made. These long notes make the music in the arrangement for two accordions more coherent than all those flashes of virtuosity.”
Nevertheless, arranging the music was far from straightforward. “It was quite a challenge to find the best way to share the melodies between our instruments. We trade the lines among each other all the time. Four parts that have to be played by four hands. We had to decide which lines we wanted to put in the spotlight, and how to bring that out most clearly. The melody bounces back and forth between us. In Passacaglia and Fugue the voice leading is far more conspicuous. We were able to perform the Brandenburg Concerto quite often during lockdown. We played it in small scale concerts. On balconies, in a gnome garden, in the entrance of an apartment building. That gave us the opportunity to find out what would work best.”
“There is a remarkable inversion between these two compositions. Passacaglia and Fugue is an early work, but it is quite contemplative. Brandenburg 3, which Bach wrote at a considerably later date, is full of exuberant joy. It has a brilliance that you will not find in Passacaglia and Fugue. We are quite taken by that paradox. To us these two works represent different aspects in our career as a duo. Passacaglia and Fugue belongs to our history. Through working on Brandenburg 3 we were able to further develop our skills. It points towards our future. It makes us look ahead.”
TOEAC wanted to combine Bach’s works with a new composition to act as a counterpoint to the music from the Baroque era. For this they approached Benjamin de Murashkin, a Danish-Australian composer living in the Netherlands. They have known him since their studies in Copenhagen, as there were close contacts between the composition students and the accordion class. De Murashkin’s Tango Orgánico features on both TOEAC’s first album Nordic Music and Moving Rhythms, their third album. They describe de Murashkin as a musical jack of all trades, someone who knows them so well that he understands what they want before they do. They gave him absolute freedom in his composition. The only requirement was that it should consist of autonomous parts that would fit in shorter performances. He came up with Suite Dreams, which consists of the five traditional movements of that form: Praeludium, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was, without any doubt, the most significant composer of the late Baroque era. His oeuvre encompasses over 1100 works, ranging from pieces for solo instruments and chamber ensembles to large scale compositions, such as his passions and oratorios. He managed to combine sophisticated musical structures with emotional expressiveness. One of the techniques he is most known for is his use of fugues. Working with various types of fugues he built harmonies out of melodies that could each of them be autonomous, but which were interwoven into structures of astonishing complexity.
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582)
It is not known when Bach actually composed his Passacaglia and Fugue, but it is generally assumed to be an early work. The passacaglia as a musical form originated in seventeenth century Spain as an interlude between songs. The Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi developed it into a set piece in which variations on a theme are placed over an ostinato bass line. In his Passacaglia Bach wrote twenty variations. In the melodies he turned to church hymns that were commonly sung in Lutheran Germany. Not only did he weave melodic lines into a lively, always moving and dancing fabric, but redoubling the tempo of the bass line by adding ornaments, he often incorporated the ostinato into it, as well. Still, however lively the composition sounds, its mood is melancholic. That mood is maintained in the following Fugue, which starts out slow and pensive. But soon the music dances again with boisterous vigour, as the melodies indefatigably keep intertwining. Apparently written for organ, TOEAC’s accordions make it sound as if it could easily have been composed for them, passing the accents in the melodies back and forth between them and lending the music an exceptionally sprightly energy.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major (BWV 1048)
Bach wrote the third of the six Brandenburg Concertos for ten instruments: three violins, three violas and three cellos, and basso continuo. Although its creation date is usually accepted as around 1720, some people hold that it may have been written at least five years earlier. It consists of three movements. Two fast movements are separated by a very brief adagio of just a few measures. It differs from the other concertos in the series in that none of the instruments has a clear role as a soloist. This is very much an ensemble piece. But within this ensemble there are short flourishes on single instruments or instrument groups. And, just as in Passacaglia and Fugue, the musicians seem to circle and weave around each other in an intricate dance, full of flamboyant movements.
Benjamin de Murashkin
Born in Denmark, Benjamin de Murashkin (1981) moved to Australia at an early age. After taking his Bachelor in composition at the University of Melbourne he moved back to Denmark, where he continued his composition studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, taking his Master degree there, and completing the Advanced Postgraduate Diploma at the soloist class. As he states on his website, he aims at creating a fusion between the intuitive and the systematically approached methods of composition in a language that bears influence not only of the full span of the classical tradition but also of contemporary popular styles. He currently lives in the Netherlands.
“I wondered how Baroque music would sound if it was composed in this day and age,” says Benjamin de Murashkin about Suite Dreams, which he completed in 2021. “It is a dream about an intermediate area between those worlds, something between pastiche and minimalist makeover. Baroque suites were quite new to me, offering new ground to explore analytically and compositionally. I found out that they use the rhythmic characteristics of the dances they comprise, but otherwise the music itself remains relatively. That is something I played around with. What makes TOEAC stand out is that as a duo they are so in tune with each other that their accordions can sound like one instrument, opening up great creative possibilities. In Suite Dreams I take advantage of this by having the accordions trade melodies, and rhythms and flowing passages back and forth in fast continuous movements, creating textures and layers that would not be possible with a single accordion.”
After a grandiose opening, that builds up from one repeated note and fast clicking keys, the Praeludium introduces a slow falling theme that is quickly given new life in a swifter moving world. He then works his way along the four dances. First an Allemande that moves to ever darker chords, before it ends on a frivolous note. It is followed by the Courante, in which a slowly progressing and upward moving melody is hurried along by swift chords. The Sarabande is a solemnly paced piece that slowly dies away, after which the music gets revived in a boisterous and light-footed Gigue, ending in rapidly clicking keys. The composition has come full circle.
Renée Bekkers and Pieternel Berkers founded the accordion duo TOEAC at the age of 17. As a duo they completed their Masters and Soloist Class at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, with Geir Draugsvoll and James Crabb. They have been awarded several prizes. Today they are recognized as outstanding classical accordionists. They play concerts worldwide, producing their own programs. Apart from working regularly with other musicians and composers, they collaborate with artists from other disciplines, such as dance, film, circus and theatre, in their aim to share their music with a broad audience.