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About this Piece


Composed: ca. 1738

Length: 16 minutes

Orchestration: solo keyboard and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Ever since the first biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) appeared in 1802, commentators have generally underestimated the importance of his seven surviving keyboard concertos. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, the author of that biography, described the concertos as follows: "Notwithstanding the treasure of art which they contain, they are antiquated as regards their form and their setting in other respects."

In his magisterial study of Bach completed in 1880, Philipp Spitta devotes more attention to the concertos, but in his estimation they still fall short of the soloist vs. orchestra ideal achieved by Mozart, a judgment that tacitly affirms Forkel's "antiquated" verdict. Albert Schweitzer comes down much more harshly on the concertos in his 1908 biography of the composer, describing them as "arrangements made with quite incredible haste and carelessness."

Karl Geiringer, in his 1966 Bach biography, writes that the keyboard concertos whose solo parts were originally written for violin, of which BWV 1054 was one, "do not quite reach the high level of the models and accordingly are rarely performed." Modern-day Bach guru Christoph Wolff has yet to weigh in on the concertos in his Bach essays or biography, leaving the works to languish under Forkel's enduring judgment that they were antiquated treasures.

Taken as a group, the concertos actually display many forward-looking characteristics alongside their more conservative ones. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that they were among the earliest works for keyboard and orchestra, and certainly the earliest to endure in the repertory today. True, they lack the combative element, the struggle between soloist and orchestra, that has characterized the concerto genre since Mozart's time, but, in their handling of musical material, they can be surprisingly modern. And none of the seven concertos more nearly approaches what came after them than the D major, BWV 1054.

Bach composed the D-major Concerto during his period in Leipzig - scholars date it to about 1738 because Bach copied all seven of his keyboard concertos out in 1739 - when, in addition to his duties at St. Thomas and the city's other churches, he directed the concerts of the Collegium Musicum at Zimmermann's coffee house. The Concerto was an adaptation of the Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042, which Bach wrote sometime before 1730, in all likelihood during his time as Kapellmeister in Cöthen (1717-23). In its new version as a work for keyboard and string orchestra, the concerto was intended for the Collegium, and the solo part may have originally been played by Bach himself, or by one of his sons. (Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian, though only three or four at the time of the D-major Concerto's first performance, would later have an important influence on the young Mozart, who arranged three of J.C.'s piano sonatas as concertos in 1772.)

The D-major Concerto opens with a tripartite (A-B-A) structure stretched to the point of nearly being a movement in sonata form. In the A section, Bach introduces the essential thematic material of the movement, and he treats this to a series of elaborate variations in the extended B section, which basically functions as a development would in sonata form. If the return of the A section is viewed as a recapitulation, the foreshadowing of sonata form (in the 19th-century sense of sonata form as thematic, rather than harmonic, dialectics) here is really remarkable.

The slow movement is the most typically "baroque" of the Concerto's sections. The piano spins out an elegant melody over a chaconne-like bass figure in the strings that Bach varies slightly each time it repeats itself during the course of the movement.

The finale is a passepied en rondeau (the passepied was a 17th- and 18th-century French court dance, basically a sped-up version of the minuet). Here, Bach alternates between the rondo theme and contrasting episodes in a compact, fleet, and gracious movement that prefigures the finales of many of the great piano concertos of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

-- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.