BACH:  Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor BWV 1041  │  Concerto in D minor for oboe and violin, BWV 1060

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany, and died on July 28, 1750, in Leipzig. He probably composed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in about 1730, in Leipzig. We know nothing about its early performance history. The first performance in this country was given on March 31, 1860, in Boston, by soloist Julius Eichberg, with the Mendelssohn Quintette Club. Paul Kochanski was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performances, in March 1932, with Basil Cameron conducting. In the most recent performances, in October 2004, Itzhak Perlman was soloist and conductor. The score calls for an ensemble of strings and basso continuo (here comprising harpsichord, cello, and bass). Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

Nothing certain is known about the origins and early performance history of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, though we may assume it was written about 1720. It was first played at San Francisco Symphony concerts in September 1983 by oboist William Bennett and violinist Jorja Fleezanis, with Edo de Waart conducting. In the most recent performances, in February 2007, Bennett was again the soloist; the violinist was Alexander Barantschik, who was also leader. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

Johann Sebastian Bach was renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso, but he was also a skilled violinist. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been a professional violinist in Erfurt and in Eisenach, so the composer surely grew up surrounded by the sounds of the violin. It was as a violinist that Johann Sebastian obtained his first professional appointment, at Weimar in 1703, and when he died forty-seven years later he left in his estate a violin built by Stainer—probably the luthier Jacob Stainer, whose instruments remain prized today. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, responding to a biographical query in 1774, recalled of his father: “From his youth up to fairly old age he played the violin purely and with a penetrating tone and thus kept the orchestra in top form, much better than he could have from the harpsichord. He completely understood the possibilities of all stringed instruments.”

Bach supplied violinists with a series of masterpieces, including eight sonatas for violin and harpsichord, and six works for unaccompanied violin. The violin plays a central role as a soloist in three of his Brandenburg Concertos as well as in his A minor Concerto for Flute, Violin, and Harpsichord, and in a pair each of solo concertos and double concertos.

Orchestral music was rarely a focus of Bach’s work. From 1717 to 1723 he was in charge of secular music for the Court of Cöthen, but the thirteen-member instrumental ensemble available to him there fell short of what we would consider a modern orchestra. As a result, his orchestral pieces of those years--stand with one foot planted in the realm of chamber music.

In 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig, where his time was largely given to composing and directing sacred music. But from 1729 through 1741 he also found time to direct the city’s Collegium Musicum—or, as it became quickly known, the “Bachische” (Bachian) Collegium Musicum. The Collegium was a society of university students, interested amateurs, and a few professional musicians who met most Friday evenings to play music for their own pleasure, as well as for the delectation of anyone who cared to drop by. In cold months, the group gathered at Zimmermann’s coffee-house; during the summer, they moved out of doors, either to the café’s garden or to some site on the outskirts of town. Among similar organizations in Germany, the Leipzig group was renowned. Now Bach had an ongoing need for concerto repertory, and he accordingly dipped into his own back-catalogue of compositions when crafting “new” pieces for the Collegium to explore, sometimes refashioning them into versions that spotlighted the Collegium’s specific forces.

Scholars have traditionally maintained that Bach’s solo-violin concertos were composed in Cöthen and revived for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. The assumption is based on slender evidence, and recent thought favors the possibility that they actually originated in Leipzig around 1730. There is no doubt that Bach’s keyboard arrangements of these three pieces date from his Leipzig Collegium Musicum years, when he turned the A minor Violin Concerto into his G minor Harpsichord Concerto, and the E major Violin Concerto into his D major Harpsichord Concerto. The work played in this concert continues to be heard in both versions.

The A minor Violin Concerto, densely concentrated and contrapuntally involved, betokens purposeful seriousness in its outer movements. But in its central Andante Bach provides a slow movement of greater relaxation, though not without a measure of tension, thanks to the dissonances that pile up. In this work we find that Bach has absorbed the principles of the Italian concertos that wielded such a formative influence on late-Baroque music; but if this concerto’s structural techniques borrow from the example of Vivaldi and his cohorts, Bach’s brilliant interweaving of counterpoint is unmistakably his own. 

The Concerto for Oboe and Violin is, in a way, an imagined concerto, though one imagined with a high degree of probability. It is the transcription (published in 1921) of a Bach Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords, music that exists in a manuscript copy (made by a Bach pupil and future son-in-law). This transcription for violin and oboe aims to give the piece back to the two solo instruments for which Bach is believed originally to have written it. For with the exception of the Fifth Brandenburg, all of Bach’s harpsichord concertos are either known or presumed to be transcriptions (by Bach) of works for some other instrument or instruments. Thus the work presented at this concert is the presumed original of that two-harpsichord concerto.

Bach got into the transcription habit early. In his twenties, when he was chamber musician, court organist, and eventually capellmeister and deputy conductor at Weimar, he made solo keyboard versions of concertos by Vivaldi and Telemann. Nearly two decades later in Leipzig, when he took charge of the University’s Collegium Musicum, Bach again had occasion to produce keyboard concertos, this time with orchestra, often for more than one solo instrument, and often basing them on earlier works of his own.

Going mainly by the dates of Bach’s most intense involvement with the Collegium Musicum, we can date the keyboard concertos to 1730-33 (with the exception again of the Fifth Brandenburg). The challenge for Bach in turning a concerto for violin and oboe into one for two harpsichords was to make music for a singing instrument on one that can only pretend to sing (one whose sound decays much faster than that of a modern piano), but also to take advantage of the harpsichord’s greater range, fuller sonority, and ability to play many notes at one time. The task of the speculative re-arranger, then, is to get rid of those features that are specific to the harpsichord—extra notes, trills to compensate for the rapid decay of long notes, etc.—and to restore, when appropriate, features equally characteristic of effective writing for the presumed original solo instrument(s). Differences in range and types of figurations make it clear that the lost original of the C minor Two-Harpsichord Concerto involved two different kinds of instruments in the solo roles, one of them obviously a violin, the other a wind instrument—because of the special espressivo style, almost certainly an oboe.

The music itself is in the three movements that are the norm for Bach and his Italian models. The first is an energetic allegro, made of flavorful short motifs and gracefully turned scale passages. The adagio is a glorious duet, music of touching pathos, with a hint of that passionate enthusiasm the Germans call “Schwärmerei.” The orchestra accompanies discreetly, in plucked strings, except for a magic five measures when long sustained chords provide the backdrop against which oboe and violin project their beautifully choreographed echoes back to the general manner of the first allegro, though the measures are shorter and the weight is less.

James M. Keller (Violin Concerto) and

Michael Steinberg (Concerto for Oboe and Violin)

James M. Keller is San Francisco Symphony program annotator. Michael Steinberg, the Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall, as is James Keller’s Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide.

More About the Music
Recordings: Julia Fischer with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the violin concerto; joined by oboist Andrey Rubtsov in the violin/oboe concerto (Decca)  |  Hilary Hahn with Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the violin concerto; joined by oboist Allan Vogel in the violin/oboe concerto (Sony)  |  Oscar Shumsky with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the violin concerto; joined by oboist Robin Miller in the violin/oboe concerto (Nimbus) 

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)