Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia (Germany), on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany), on July 28, 1750. The chronology of his keyboard concertos is subject to speculation. The Keyboard Concerto in E major was probably arranged in the 1730s from music Bach had written for cantatas in 1726. We have no information about the first North American performance. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. Performance time: about twenty minutes.
The Keyboard Concerto in D minor was likely created sometime in the late 1720s or early 1730s as a transcription from an earlier violin concerto penned during the period 1714-17. The first North American performance was given in January 1878 in New York; Leopold Damrosch led an unnamed orchestra, and the soloist was B. Boekelman. Tanya Ury was the first to play this work with the San Francisco Symphony, with Pierre Monteux conducting, in January 1946; Robert Taub was soloist in the most recent performances, in November 1992, with Herbert Blomstedt conducting. Both concertos are scored for solo harpsichord with strings and basso continuo; today the solo part is often performed on piano. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.
The principal source for Johann Sebastian Bach’s seven concertos for solo keyboard instrument—plus a fragment of an eighth—is a manuscript collection the composer copied out as a self-standing collection, seemingly in the period 1737-39. Bach did not waste paper; he began inscribing each concerto immediately after writing out the one that preceded it, even to the extent of beginning a new piece on the same page, if space allowed. As with the Brandenburg Concertos, which he assembled to support his application for a job with the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, there must have been a reason for Bach to go to such an effort.
The most likely explanation is that he created his harpsichord concertos to be played by the Collegium Musicum he directed in Leipzig from 1729 through 1741, except for a two-year absence in 1737-39. Since the collection dates from exactly the time when Bach was absent from the Collegium Musicum, he may have prepared it to use on his return.
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. (Seven of his children—ages one to twenty-one—were living in 1729, when he began his Collegium job; six had already died and seven were yet to be born.) The Collegium Musicum was a society of university students, interested amateurs, and a few professional musicians who met most weeks to play music for their own pleasure and the delectation of an audience. In cold months, the group gathered on Friday evenings at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig’s Catherinenstrasse; during the summer, the concerts took place on Wednesday afternoons, generally at the same proprietor’s café on the outskirts of town. Among similar organizations in Germany the Leipzig group was renowned. Johann Heinrich Zedler, in his 1739 Grosses Universal Lexicon, wrote that a Collegium Musicum was “a gathering of certain musical connoisseurs who, for the benefit of their own exercise in both vocal and instrumental music and under the guidance of a certain director, get together on particular days and in particular locations and perform musical pieces. Such Collegia are to be found in various places. In Leipzig, the Bachian Collegium Musicum is more famous than all others.” 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 eventually grow into the acclaimed Gewandhaus Concerte, one of Europe’s most venerated musical organizations.
Bach’s first large-scale biography was published in 1802 by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who augmented hand-me-down information from eighteenth-century biographical dictionaries with information he gleaned directly from Bach’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emmanuel. Writing about the Collegium Musicum, Forkel stated: “It performed vocal and instrumental music and was the medium through which Bach presented his secular Cantatas, Clavier and Violin Concertos, and Orchestral Suites to the public. The proficiency of his elder sons and pupils, and his wife’s talent as a singer, were a farther source of strength to the Society, whose direction undoubtedly made these years the happiest in Bach’s life.” Of his elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann lived in Leipzig until 1733, Carl Philipp Emmanuel until 1734, and a third, less-remembered musical son, the organist Johann Gottfried Bernhard, until 1735. This wealth of talent would have justified Bach’s focusing on keyboard concertos as repertory for his Collegium Musicum. During these years he produced concertos that spotlighted one, two, three, and as many as four harpsichords. Of the bunch, only one seems to have been originally conceived for the keyboard: his Concerto in C major for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1061. The rest are arrangements of concertos he had written earlier for other instruments.
This recycling was apparent to nineteenth-century Bach scholars, including Wilhelm Rust, a principal editor of the monumental Bach Gesellschaft edition of the composer’s complete works, which appeared from 1851 to 1899. Rust went so far as to analyze Bach’s process of transcription, observing how the composer characteristically began by setting down the original solo line (of a violin concerto, for example) as the harpsichord’s right-hand part and its basso continuo line as the left hand, sometimes transposing the music to fit the compass of the harpsichord, and then developing the parts further to make them more idiomatic in their new setting.
The two solo-keyboard concertos performed here mirror one another in their general structures: three movements in a fast-slow-fast arrangement. Buoyant fast movements typically adhere to a ternary da capo plan (where a previous passage is repeated), with lots of alternation between the keyboard soloist and the accompanying ensemble, while slow movements plumb poignant emotional territory. The E major Keyboard Concerto (BWV 1053) was arranged out of movements Bach had previously used in cantatas he had unveiled in 1726: the first two movements from Cantata No. 169 (Gott soll allein mein Herze haben), and the third movement from Cantata No. 49 (Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen). Even these settings, however, may not represent the first form this music took; one school of thought imagines that these movements originated during the Cöthen period as a now-lost oboe concerto.
The D minor Keyboard Concerto (BWV 1052), the longest of the set, almost surely started out as a violin concerto. This is audible in extended passages in the first and third movements in which a melody weaves in close proximity above and below a repeated drone note. That’s not especially idiomatic harpsichord writing; it’s violin writing that would have involved quick alternation between two strings—one for the melody, the other (an open string) for the drone. The impact of such passages remains effective as Bach elaborates them for the keyboard, but their ancestry seems clear.
The outer movements of the D minor Keyboard Concerto come across as moody or even angry. Even the middle movement has an uneasy presence. Set in G minor, it prolongs the minor-mode feel of the opening movement, and its elaborated solo line is akin to similarly serpentine passages of extended introspection that surface in Bach’s sacred music.
This has long been the most frequently played of Bach’s solo keyboard concertos. Wilhelm Friedemann’s pupil Sarah Itzig Levy is known to have performed this concerto in Berlin in 1807 and 1808, and it was also in the active repertory of her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn, who was performing it in Berlin by 1832 and on at least one occasion presented it at the concerts he directed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the revered organization that had grown through the course of a century out of Bach’s own Collegium.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: For piano versions, András Schiff with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Decca); Schiff has also recorded the Concerto No. 1 with George Malcolm and the English Chamber Orchestra (Dal Segno) | Murray Perahia with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Sony) | For a harpsichord version, Richard Egarr with the Academy of Ancient Music, Andrew Manze conducting (Harmonia Mundi)
Reading: Oxford Composer Companions: J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford) | Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton) | The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge) | J.S. Bach: A Life in Music, by Peter Williams (Cambridge) | Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (Harcourt) | Johann Sebastian Bach, by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (Da Capo Press)