Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Among the works of JohannSebastian Bach it is the concertos that present the most intractable problems.
The first list of works published by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach and JohannFriedrich Agricola in the Necrology merely numbers various concertos for one,two, three and four harpsichords, adding "a quantity of other instrumentalworks of all kinds and for various instruments", presumably signifying allthe then available chamber and ensemble music of Bach. It is not known exactlywhy the ensemble music of Bach is so obviously neglected, while the clavier andorgan works are listed in detail. Perhaps it was that at Bach's death there wasso much available that more exact statements seemed too difficult. There is,however, the possibility that the second son of Bach certainly remembered verywell the manifold activity of his father as a composer and performer in thisfield, but found few traces of it in what he had left; the general listing ofensemble works was then the solution of a difficulty arising from thediscrepancy between his memory and the actual situation. It seems from thisthat at the time of Bach's death there were only actually in existence thefifteen concertos for harpsichord known today and the three concertos for oneor two violins.
It must be borne in mind that Bachin his years as a chamber musician and later as concert-master to Duke WilhelmErnst and Duke Ernst August of Sachsen-Weimar from 1709 to 1717 and above allas Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen from 1717 until 1723directed competent ensembles and was responsible for their repertoire. It is,therefore, astonishing that hardly anything can be traced of this output, sincethe concertos known today, apart from the Brandenburg Concertos, belongmainly to his period in Leipzig, from 1723 to 1750. This mustnot be taken as an indication of Bach's own self-critical distancing of himselffrom his earlier compositions, but alternatively may show that he hadcontracted to leave behind at his departure the compositions he had writtenduring his service at Weimar and at Cothen (as is similarly documented forGottfried Heinrich Stolzel and Georg Eenda and was at the time not at allunusual). Nevertheless Bach must have taken with him to Leipzig copies, perhaps the ideas ofhis compositions, since about 1740 he made from this material a series ofharpsichord concertos, falling back, seemingly without exception, on earlierworks for solo instruments.
The Concerto in F major, BWV 1057,for harpsichord and two recorders should be known to most music-lovers in itsoriginal version as the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. Bach made his transcription about 1739/40, for aperformance of his Leipzig Collegiufu musicum. For this transcription he leftthe string parts largely untouched and kept the sound quality of the originalwith the two recorders. The solo violin part he transferred to the harpsichord,giving special attention to the transcription of the idiomatic violinfiguration. Bach retains in his transcription the finely judgedinterrelationship of the various instruments, in the solo group and between theconcertino and ripieno, with the part for three soloists in the new compositionexpanded from the four-part original.
Among Bach's concertos the Concertoin A minor, BWV 1044, for flute, violin and harpsichord, the so-called TripleConcerto, has a special position. It can be placed beside the FifthBrandenburg Concerto as a related work, its origin, its more sombre,elegiac character and its unusual density are, however, unique and make it onthe whole an exceptional addition to the body of Bach's concertos.
Unfortunately the work survives only in two copies by students of Bach, madeseemingly after the death of their teacher, so that there is no verifiableevidence of its date of composition. From the maturity of style it is probablethat it was written in the late 1730s or in the 1740s.
Like the other concertos with obligatoharpsichord, the Triple Concerto is partly based on earlier work. Incontrast to the F major Concerto this is not a transcription of a Cothenviolin or wind concerto, but a far-reaching reworking of pieces for soloharpsichord or organ. The first movement is based on a Prelude with a Fugue,BWV 894 from 1714 at the latest, while the second movement is anarrangement of the second movement of the organ Trio Sonata, BWV 527.
Unlike the other concerto arrangements, in which only the solo parts must beadapted for the new medium, while the orchestral part remains substantially thesame, here the material of the Prelude and Fugue is adapted forthe solo part of the harpsichord, to which Bach then adds newly composed partsfor the other two solo instruments and for the orchestra. The original triostructure of the graceful central movement is expanded into a quartet that,with an exchange of parts in the repetition, is played by the soloists alone.
In spite of this Bach creates here a unified work, a compositional tour deforce, in which there is no doubt of the artistic skill and great originality.
The Concerto in D minor,BWV 1063, for three harpsichords, is of particular originality. Its originis unknown and there are widely differing theories on the matter. According toan old tradition, stemming perhaps from Bach's pupils or from his familycircle, he wrote the work for himself and his two oldest sons, to provide achance of developing every kind of performance talent. This would suggest acomposition date of about 1730, just before Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl PhilippEmanuel left home. This theory, however, does not explain the heterogeneousnature of the work and the different handling of the solo instruments in allthree movements, which must suggest, as in the case of BWV 1044, a pasticcio.
Bach shows in this work his sovereign mastery and at the same time his freehandling of the Vivaldi concerto-form, which is seen in the first movement, forexample, in motivic writing and in several places a development that breaksdown the barriers between the ritornello and the solo episodes. At the climaxof the movement, at the entry of the final ritornello, the ritornello theme andthe virtuoso figuration of the first harpsichord are intermingled. The secondmovement, uniquely among Bach's concertos, is a simple two-part dance-movement,with varied repetitions, while the final movement is in the commonly foundfugal form.
The Concertos BWV 1064and BWV 1060 survive only in versions for two and three harpsichords andorchestra, but it is today the accepted view that these are arrangements ofconcertos for three violins and violin and oboe respectively. Since theharpsichord parts of both these concertos in many places show evidence of thesupposed original, the reconstruction in the case of BWV 1064 is notinsurmountable and in the case of BWV 1060 the difficulties are notinsuperable.