The other day I felt tired, miserable, distressed. I felt like hiding from the hideous world, from which I felt totally disconnected. Hiding – but where? Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is a good place to hide, a sanctuary of singular beauty, where I always feel welcome, where I can stop thinking, where I don’t have to talk or to explain or justify. In the realm of Bach I can be. To be, to exist, without any conditions attached to it – philosophers from Parmenides to Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel have struggled with the concept. How good it feels to be permeated by Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords, Strings and Continuo in C minor (BWV 1060), to forget reality and to contemplate Beauty, Purity, Eternity.
A short time ago I wrote about a serene early morning in Vienna, where I visited the Stephansdom before the tourists started to populate the place. As you can see in the picture, the church was almost empty and the peaceful, silent atmosphere was perfect for a meditative morning moment. Bach’s concerto elevates me to a similar level of serenity, even though Bach has written it as a secular piece of music. But as we have seen before, Bach connected even his secular music to God, his inspiration being God’s gift to him, the mortal, and his ambition being to serve God in the best way possible by excelling in the field of composition.
The concerto was most likely written during Bach’s tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig; the earliest trace goes back to the period between 1744 and 1748. His student and later son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol wrote down the score. It is related to the Concerto for two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043), the two pieces share many parallels. Musicologists disagree over the question whether a version replacing the two harpsichords by a violin and an oboe is the original version or not. Konrad Küster, music professor at the University of Freiburg believes the harpsichord version is the earliest one.
The Bach biographer Christoph Wolff estimates that the concerto war written around 1736 and seems to concur with Küster. He writes: “It is hard to imagine how Bach rose in the esteem of his contemporaries when he started to give concerts where the harpsichord took over an exposed solo part instead of just being part of the concertino group (flute, violin and harpsichord). Bach was the pioneer of a new, developing genre tradition…” Thus he helped the keyboard, first the harpsichord and later the piano, establish itself as a part of the European orchestral tradition.
The version for two harpsichord has been recorded by the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock, the version for violin and oboe by the Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, by Hilary Hahn and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and by Itzhak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
© Charles Thibo