Bach, J.S.: Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin

Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
BORN: March 21, 1685. Eisenach, Thuringia
DIED: July 28, 1750. Leipzig, Saxony

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: 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 sometime between 1720-1736

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—July 2002. Then-SFS Associate Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov and violinist Jaime Laredo were soloists

INSTRUMENTATION: In addition to the solo oboe and violin, the score calls for harpsichord continuo and orchestra of strings

DURATION: About 14 mins

THE BACKSTORY  The Concerto for Oboe and Violin is, in a manner of speaking, an imagined concerto, though one imagined with a high degree of probability. Specifically, there exists in a manuscript copy by Bach’s pupil and (later) son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnikol, a Bach Concerto in C minor for two harpsichords. With the sole exception of the Fifth Brandenburg, all of Bach’s harpsichord concertos are either known or presumed to be transcriptions of works for some other instrument or instruments. In some instances we have the original as well as the keyboard transcription; the C minor Two-Harpsichord Concerto is not, however, one of these, and the work presented here—and in countless performances since Schneider published his edition in 1921—is the reconstruction of its presumed original.

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, Telemann, and Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar (who died in 1715 at the age of nineteen), and he regularly exchanged such scores with his cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, who was making similar transcriptions of concertos by Albinoni, Torelli, and other Italian composers. Nearly two decades later in Leipzig, when he took charge of the University’s Collegium Musicum, founded in 1701 by Telemann, Bach again had occasion to produce keyboard concertos, this time with orchestra, often for more than one solo instrument, and basing them on earlier works of his own. The works from which Bach fashioned his Leipzig harpsichord concertos were written around 1720, when he was Capellmeister at Cöthen.

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), though the manuscript copies in which most of them are preserved are of later origin. The challenge for Bach was to make music for a singing instrument plausible on one that can only pretend to sing (one whose sound decays much faster than that of a modern piano), but also to take constructive advantage of the harpsichord’s greater range, fuller sonority, and ability to play many notes at one time. Consideration of the ranges of instruments and the disappearance of concern for where the open strings occur on a violin almost always led Bach to put the keyboard version into a new key, usually one whole tone down.

The task of the speculative rearranger is to get rid of those features that are specifically harpsichordal—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). The survival of some pairs of originals and transcriptions as models of Bach’s own procedures—for example, the violin concertos in E major and A minor, and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4—is obviously of immense help.

THE MUSIC  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,” and cousin to the great Largo of the D minor Concerto for Two Violins. The orchestra accompanies discreetly, in pizzicato, except for a magic five measures when long sustained chords provide the backdrop against which oboe and violin project their Balachinesque echoes back to the general manner of the first Allegro, though the measures are shorter and the weight is less.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco 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.

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Itzhak Perlman, with Ray Still and the Israel Philharmonic (Warner Classics)  |  Itzhak Perlman, with Neil Black and Daniel Barenboim conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Warner Classics)   

ReadingJohann 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)

(May 2018)