A few weeks ago, I was greeted at the office by a colleague with the words: “You’re beaming, what’s wrong?” I laughed and said: “I always radiate joy when I enter this building!” Bursts of laughter as we both knew this was a lie. Nevertheless, jokes aside, I usually start every day in an optimistic and joyful mood. I like to get up, to greet my family, the cat, the sun and our garden, and while I drive to the office, listening to classical music gives me a sense of peace, of happiness. When I am at the office, I go about my work feeling good. After so many years, I am still an interested and dedicated team member. Strange, isn’t it, when so many people complain so much about so many things?
Perhaps they should occasionally to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto No. 4 for Harpsichord, Strings and Continuo in A (BWV 1055). It’s a short piece, but it feels like a shot of optimism, vaccinating you for 24 hours against all kind of dark forces like anger, jealousy, selfishness or arrogance, regardless whether these dark forces emanate from someone else or from yourself. I think it’s inconceivable to feel bad in the presence of such heavenly music. And it’s still cheaper than a session with your psychotherapist.
The concerto in A belongs to a series of works that he wrote or rewrote in Leipzig while he was busy with the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble of gifted amateur musicians enjoying performing secular instrumental music. According to the available sources BWV 1055 might be the only concerto that is not drawn from earlier material, but a new composition from the period of 1738-1740.
The musicologist Konrad Küster calls it experimental, but one has to be an expert in Baroque music to distinguish different concert types and composition styles and to see the difference between “experimental” and “mainstream”. This said, could Bach ever have written “mainstream” music? I doubt it. He was demanding in terms of harmony and counterpoint – a piece had to be flawless – and his talent would have prevented him from writing anything common.
However high Bach’s standards may have been, the piece is not demanding for the audience, not at all. It is relaxing and easy-going, the harpsichord takes care of that. Now I hear there are people who do not like the harpsichord. I find this quite unbelievable, but Bach was a prescient and polyvalent man, he anticipated objections and wrote the score so that it could easily be arranged for an oboe d’amore. This version is more accommodating for our ears polluted by mainstream music and our addiction to the modern piano does not help things, Bach’s music looses its edge somehow. But if this helps me winning at least one listener over to Baroque music, than this post has fulfilled it’s destiny.
The harpsichord version has been recorded by the English Concert, while the oboe variant had been released on a legendary recording by the Lucerne Festival Strings from the 1950s. Try it. Tomorrow. On a Monday morning. You will be surprised.
© Charles Thibo