Monday, November 3, 2014

Concerto Guide: J. S. Bach

As we saw last week, Bach took his inspiration for the concerto form from Vivaldi. There is even a story of him sneaking out at night when he was young so he could copy out a Vivaldi score by hand. Bach was a master synthesist, taking dance movements and ornamental style from the French, but for the concerto, he turned to the Italians because they had invented the whole idea of a concerto. One masterful recreation of Italian concerto style is found in Bach's Italian Concerto for solo keyboard. The necessary contrast between solo and tutti (the whole orchestra) was achieved by a mechanical device that coupled the two keyboards of the harpsichord together. Let's let Elaine explain how this works:

As she mentions, Bach was the first composer of what we might call a keyboard concerto and he did it by first transcribing a number of violin concertos by Vivaldi for one or more keyboards and orchestra. In 1721 he gathered together six of his original concertos, including one for keyboard soloist (though joined by solo violin and flute) and sent them to the Margrave of Brandenburg in hopes of winning a court appointment. Alas, the Margrave did not even send an acknowledgement and they were likely never performed. The six together, each for a unique group of soloists, are now known as the Brandenburg Concertos, after the Vivaldi Four Seasons, probably the most famous concertos from the Baroque era. Richard Taruskin in the Oxford History of Western Music makes a special point of how very eccentric these concertos are. Each group of soloists is an oddity in itself. The first concerto, for example, has the bizarre combination of two natural horns, three oboes, bassoon and violino piccolo, a small violin, now obsolete. These are the solo instruments! Let's have a listen. Here is the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with that first concerto, in F major. The piece begins at the 40 second mark:

That's quite a sound! One wonders what Vivaldi would have thought. Equally unprecedented is the role of the harpsichord in the Brandenburg No. 5, where, halfway through the first movement, about where an Italian concerto would have been coming to an end, the harpsichordist takes over and launches into a lengthy solo that is unique in the Baroque era. Akin to what later on became the soloist's cadenza in the Classical era, at the time this was unprecedented. The harpsichord solo starts just after the 6:30 mark in this recording by the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra.

Bear in mind that a whole concerto, in three movements, by Vivaldi only runs around ten minutes in length. The Brandenburg No. 5 first movement alone is over ten minutes.

Bach also transcribed his own original violin concertos. One of the most famous of his concertos is the one for two violins in D minor, that he later transcribed for two harpsichords in C minor. Here is the original for two violins:


Rickard Dahl said...

It's the first time I hear about the concerto for solo keyboard. Pretty radical idea to have a concerto for just one instrument. Then again it seems like the idea of concertos for keyboards in general was radical back in those days.

The Brandenburg Concertos are amazing in many ways. Just one of the interesting things (as you've mentioned) is the combination of instruments. Great examples of concerti grossi. Too bad the Margrave of Brandenburg didn't recognize the genius of Bach.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that the experimental side of J. S. Bach's music is often forgotten or ignored.

Rickard Dahl said...

Indeed. Some of Bach's stuff is quite experimental. I have almost finished listening to WTC Book 2 and there have certainly been a few preludes or fugues which have stood out as experimental. The prelude in a minor in book 2 for instance has some really out there chromaticism (the kind that Stravinsky might have called or thought of as "always contemporary"). Or at least that's the way I see it. See at 1:54:20.

I suppose I prefer when the chromaticism is more subtle rather than stated so explicitly.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just wait until you get to the last fugue in B minor. That will bend your ears! Oh, sorry, you said Bk 2. The very chromatic B minor fugue is in Bk 1.