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8.554217 - BACH, J.S.: Concertos for Two, Three and Four Harpsichords

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Concertos for Two, Three and Four Harpsichords

Born in Eisenach in 1685 into a continuing dynasty of musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach was orphaned in 1695 and went, with his older brother Jacob, to live with their elder brother Johann Christoph Bach, organist at Ohrdruf. He continued his schooling there until 1700, acquiring his early skill as an organist and, it may be presumed, as an expert on the construction of the instrument. From Ohrdruf he moved to Lüneburg as a chorister, employment that allowed his continuing education. After employment as a musician at the court in Weimar in 1703, he next held positions as an organist at Arnstadt, then at Mühlhausen and then again at Weimar, now as court organist. He remained in Weimar until 1717, holding the position of Konzertmeister from 1714 and moving in 1717 to Cöthen as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. He only left after the Prince's marriage to a woman without musical interests made a position that had been very congenial to him now very much less so. In 1723 he took what seemed to him socially inferior employment as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas in Leipzig, with responsibility for the training of choristers and the provision of music for the principal city churches. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life, but was able to broaden his musical activities when, in 1729, he also took over the direction of the University Collegium musicum, founded earlier in the century by Telemann. Whereas in his earlier years there had been need for organ music, Cöthen, with its Pietist court, called principally for secular music. Leipzig demanded a quantity of church music, largely satisfied in the first years that Bach was there, but the Collegium musicum itself allowed a return to the secular instrumental music that had been a principal preoccupation of the Cöthen years.

Bach's solo and multiple harpsichord concertos date from the years 1735 to 1740 and were intended for the Collegium musicum. For these works, in which his sons could join him as soloists, he turned largely to earlier compositions, now re-arranged to create a new form, the keyboard concerto, much as Handel, in the same years, was creating the form of the organ concerto.

The Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords, BWV1060, was derived from an earlier double concerto for solo violin and oboe, with the inevitable strings and continuo. The work is constructed on the contemporary principle of a recurrent ritornello, heard at the beginning, returning between episodes in which the solo instruments, with basso continuo and discreet orchestral assistance, enjoy greater prominence. The Largo ovvero Adagio finds the two harpsichords in dialogue accompanied by the plucked notes of the strings in 12/8 metre. The concerto ends with an Allegro in which the principal theme is heard, the opening figure of which is to be heard again, with varied figuration around it, notably when three rapid notes are set against one.

The Concerto in C major for Two Harpsichords, BWV1061, is clearly an original composition and also survives in a version for two harpsichords without ripieno orchestral accompaniment. In this concerto the solo instruments are given greater chance, for display and dialogue, with occasional interpolations from the orchestra. While structural principles remain the same, there is a clearer differentiation between the two harpsichords, as one answer, the other. The first harpsichord start, the A minor Adagio, answered by the second, in a 6/8 movement that dispenses with the orchestra. The first harpsichord states the subject of the fugue that constitutes the last movement, providing the answer and countersubject and the third entry of the subject again in the tonic. The fourth entry is entrusted to the second harpsichord, followed now by a fifth and sixth, after which the strings are first allowed the subject. The movement and the concerto as a whole allows close collaboration rather than competition between the two harpsichords, treated as of equal importance in a closely interwoven texture.

Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV1043, is very familiar in its surviving original form. The Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords, BWV1062, is a transcription of this Cöthen work, The first movement follows the familiar outline, with its alternation of tutti and solo passages, in both of which the harpsichords busily engage themselves. The E flat 12/8 slow movement is again a Siciliano, in its gently lilting rhythm, while in the final Allegro assai the two solo instruments duly enter in close imitation.

The source of the Concerto in C major for Three Harpsichords, BWV1064, is a lost Concerto in D major for Three Violins, which, like the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, has been reconstructed for modern performance. The first movement allows the three solo instruments, which have joined in the opening ritornello to take an equal share of the solo work, engaging in tripal1ite conversation, over a basso continno, while the orchestra provides an important element in the busy texture. The A minor Adagio offers an aria from the first harpsichord, in which the second and third join. There is a vigorous final Allegro that includes solo passages of some brilliance in which elements of string figuration survive, although contemporary critics found in Bach a tendency to think that what he could do with his finger, at the keyboard could also be done by performers on other instruments or by singers. Each of the three soloists has an opportunity to tackle a solo passage, starting with the third harpsichord, followed by the second and ending with the first, before the final tutti.

Antonio Vivaldi was a figure of the greatest importance in the development of the three­-movement solo concerto. In his Concerto in A minor for Four Harpsichords, BWV1065, Bach transcribes a concerto for four violins by Vivaldi, the Concerto in B minor, Opus 3, No. 10, from the collection published in Amsterdam in 1712 as L'estro armonico. The transcription is masterly, resulting in a work admirably suited to the keyboard instruments. The first movement, with initial resonances characteristic of Vivaldi, is soon transformed, in Bach's arrangement, into true keyboard music. The chordal power of the four harpsichords is used to full effect in the solid opening of the central Largo, before deployment into a transformed passage of arpeggiation, followed by the final solemn chords. In the last movement, as elsewhere, there are apt changes of lay-out, to provide an unusual addition to multiple keyboard repertoire.

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