Program Notes


BORN: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany)

DIED: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)

Keyboard Concerto No. 3

COMPOSED: Bach probably arranged the Keyboard Concerto in D major in the 1730s from a concerto (initially spotlighting another instrument) he had written while living in Cöthen, or else during his first decade in Leipzig, where he moved in 1723. We lack information about the early performance history of the concerto

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1973, Peter Serkin was soloist and Seiji Ozawa conducted. MOST RECENT—October 2014. Former Principal Keyboards Robin Sutherland was soloist and SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was leader

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo keyboard instrument (here played on piano), strings, and basso continuo

DURATION: About 17 mins

Keyboard Concerto No. 4

COMPOSED: Bach apparently copied out his Keyboard Concerto in A major as early as ca. 1730 or at latest ca. 1737-39, perhaps arranging it from a concerto for oboe d’amore he had written probably around 1723. We lack information about the early performance history of the concerto

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—March 1989. Joshua Rifkin was conductor and soloist

INSTRUMENTATION: Solo keyboard instrument (here played on piano), strings, and basso continuo

DURATION: About 14 mins

THE BACKSTORY The principal source for Johann Sebastian Bach’s seven concertos for solo keyboard instrument—plus a fragment of an eighth—is a manuscript collection he copied out as a self-standing album, seemingly in the period 1737-39. Bach did not waste paper; he began inscribing each movement immediately after the one that preceded it, even beginning a new concerto on the same page as the preceding one if space allowed. Although the numerals attached to Bach’s works—for example, the Orchestral Suite No. 3—were generally attached by later editors, in the case of the keyboard concertos the numbers are authentically Bachian: the concertos played in this program do indeed come third and fourth in the manuscript.

The collection of Bach’s harpsichord concertos is somewhat analogous to the anthology of concerti grossi he assembled to support his application for a job with the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. As with the Brandenburg Concertos, there must have been a reason Bach went to such an effort. The most likely explanation is that he created these works to be played by the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble he directed in Leipzig from 1729 through 1741 except for a two-year absence in 1737-39. Bach had moved to Leipzig in 1723 to oversee music at the city’s principal churches and to teach at the Saint Thomas School, but the Collegium Musicum presented a supplemental freelance opportunity that would have been very appealing to a middle-aged musician with a large and ever-growing family. It was a society of university students, interested amateurs, and professional instrumentalists who met most weeks to play music for their own pleasure and the delectation of an audience. In cold months, they gathered on Friday evenings at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig’s Catherinenstrasse; during the summer, the sessions took place on Wednesday afternoons, generally at the same proprietor’s garden-café near the Grimmische Tor on the outskirts of town.

The Leipzig group was renowned, and this was a serious concert organization rather than just a recreational hobby group. After Bach relinquished his post, the enterprise was renamed first the Neues Concert and then, in 1743, the Grosses Concert, which would grow into the acclaimed Gewandhaus Concerts, one of Europe’s most venerated musical organizations.

During these years, Bach produced concertos that spotlighted one, two, three, and as many as four harpsichords. Since the manuscript of the solo-harpsichord concertos seems to date from the time he was absent from the Collegium, he may have prepared it to use on his return. He could efficiently dip into his back-catalogue of compositions when crafting “new” pieces for the Collegium. Only one of his concertos seems to have been originally conceived for the keyboard: his Concerto in C major for Two Harpsichords (BWV 1061). The rest are widely thought to be transposed and “fleshed out” arrangements of concertos he had written earlier for other instruments.

THE MUSIC The D major Keyboard Concerto (BWV 1054) began as a concerto for another instrument; its prototype still exists—the brilliant Violin Concerto in E major, certainly written just as Bach was ending his six-year tenure at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen (a period that also saw the production of the Brandenburg Concertos), or perhaps from the beginning of his days in Leipzig. This is one of the most jubilant of Bach’s concertos, positively exultant in its first and last movements. The central movement, in B minor, provides a valuable document about late-Baroque ornamentation; since the keyboard instrument is unable to sustain tones as a violin can, the keyboard version includes elaborate embellishments (proffered by Bach himself) that help give the illusion that the keyboard instrument tastefully fills the spans allotted to it.

The A major Keyboard Concerto (BWV 1055)—or at least its first and last movements—may have started life as a concerto for oboe d’amore, whose range coincides perfectly with the soloist’s melodic lines. The oboe d’amore version of this concerto also quite possibly dates from Bach’s Cöthen or early Leipzig years. Among Bach’s keyboard concertos, this one is particularly sophisticated in its adaptation, which has led some musicologists to believe that it was one of the last of those Bach arranged, drawing on experience he had gained in recasting various concertos before this one.

Bach’s admiration for the new style of Vivaldi is evident in this work, although Bach’s inclination toward counterpoint and polyphonic textures far exceeded Vivaldi’s. In the joy-filled opening Allegro, the soloist’s lines are frequently punctuated by a ritornello (recurring instrumental passages) in the accompanying strings, reflecting up-to-date Italianate style. The central Larghetto is highly expressive, its emotions intensified by the use of sustained chromatic bass lines; but the final Allegro ma non tanto, where vigorously accented, dance-like rhythms rub shoulders with more expansive melodic episodes, brings the concerto to a jovial, rather self-satisfied conclusion.—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 3 and 4—András Schiff, soloist and leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Decca)  |  Murray Perahia, soloist with and leader of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Sony)  |  Christophe Rousset, harpsichordist, with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Academy of Ancient Music (L’oiseau-lyre)

Reading: Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford Composer Companions series, Oxford)  |  Bach, by Malcolm Boyd (Schirmer)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge) 

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