Making sense of Bach – a treasure hunt

Formal perfection. © Charles Thibo

At times I feel like an archeologist: Writing about Johann Sebastian Bach’s music compels me to dig up different, often contradicting sources, balancing one expert’s opinion against the other (as a non-expert!), and if this sounds like a lot of work – it is a lot of work! But at the same time it gives me a lot of satisfaction since it comes close to a treasure hunt across Baroque Germany. Today’s post is about a Concerto in D minor with the catalogue number BWV 1052 and I started out with a version that Bach did not write.

Violin or harpsichord?

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recorded a wonderful version of the concerto with the violinist Itzhak Perlman. But Bach did not write a violin concerto with that catalogue number. Haha! The title of the record doesn’t mention what the digital version at iTunes spells out: “Bach: Concerto Transcriptions”. So I went looking for the original version that Bach composed: Harpsichord Concerto in D minor. But this is not all, the mystery is a much more complex. As with many other works, a precise dating is not possible. Music scientists have established that the concerto was intended to be performed by the Collegium Musicum, just like the Triple Concerto that I recently presented.

Bach wrote BWV 1052 while he lived in Leipzig and he worked on the piece between 1738 and 1740. But again he used fragments that he had composed much earlier and in a totally different context. The first movement is related to the opening movement of a cantata (BWV 146), to be performed by an organ solo and written in – well, the scholars don’t know, but speculate about the period between 1726 and 1728. The concerto’s second, slow movement partly builds on the plainsong “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal” (We need to [cross] many afflictions) of the same cantata, while Bach used the opening movement of another cantata (BWV 188) for the third movement. The score of BWV 188 is not complete and again musicologists can only give us a tentative date: between  1728 and 1729.

Discovering Jean Rondeau

Why is this archeological work important? Because it explains the structure and the mood of the piece. When I studied the violin version I was irritated by the diverse nature of the first and third movement on the one hand and the middle movement on the other hand. These parts did not seem to fit. The first and last movement have a solemn, upbeat character while the second movement invites to mourning and introspection. If you listen to the harpsichord version – and here I recommend a brand new, breath-taking recording with the young French harpsichord player Jean Rondeau – the contrasts between the movements are less stark, and if you know where the different pieces come from it suddenly all makes sense.

Now I would never, never insinuate the Bach’s music could not make any sense, but since many of his works were written with the ambition of attaining an almost godly perfection in musical expression, it would have been only a small step from formal accomplishment to a musical language that could only be understood by the composer himself. Gladly, Bach was constantly reminded by his constantly bickering and rarely satisfied employers, the councillors of the city of Leipzig of very worldly matters and did not have a chance to permanently lose touch with the real world!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.