March 15, 2007
This is my first official blog ANYWHERE! I just got home from performing what might be the Western Hemispheric Premiere of the J.S. Bach Viola Concerto at LACO’s chamber music home, Zipper Hall in the Colburn School. It’s always great to play new works but this opportunity was unique in that I had a chance to expose an audience to a premiere of a long-known “lost” concerto that was recently reconstructed from remnants of other arrangements of the same music by Bach. There is some controversy whether the piece was intended for the viola, but who cares? It’s great music and I’m grateful that I was in the right place at the right time!
For any of you viola nurds, my notes on the viola concerto are posted below, if you’re interested.
Wishing you good music,
Notes about the Bach Viola Concerto in E-flat
The Bach Viola Concerto is a restructuring of two original manuscript arrangements in Johann Sebastian’s own hand; one is an E major harpsichord concerto dated around 1730 (BWV 1053) and three cantata movements from 1724, the latter include the first and second movements of the cantata Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169) – namely the sinfonia and aria “Stirb in mir Welt – as well as the third movement of the cantata Ich geh und such emit Verlangen (BWV 49). Several renowned musicologists have long known that these pieces were remnants of this lost concerto. Knowing that those manuscripts are autographs is very important to researchers since it allows one to objectively observe how Bach adapted the music to each instrumentation and key.
The problem of the original solo instrument can doubtless only be solved in connection with the question of the concerto’s original key. Wilfried Fischer the musicologist and Bärenreiter editor of tonight’s viola version is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the original key was E-flat. This choice takes into account these two main factors: Observing Bach’s process of arranging versions for various instruments which contain many, many revisions AND the range of notes in the solo part (2-1/2 octaves). There is a plethora of other reasons, but I’ll spare you.
Aside from the key, the hypothetical choice of solo viola is probably the bigger question. As a violist, I’ll take anything by a good composer…especially J.S. Bach! As Mr. Fischer’s notes state, the reason for choosing a viola is based on the facts listed below in relation to the key of E-flat. The only negative observation I have is that most string players, i.e. violinists, violists & cellists might concur that the key of E-flat is awkward and “not the key of choice” which lends some suspicion as to the choice of a string instrument. Also, J.S. Bach was usually quite careful about how a piece “lies” on a string instrument, being a violist himself.
Mr. Fischer discounts the three most likely instruments: oboe, flute & violin.
- The Baroque oboe’s range does not go low enough.
- Transverse flute would need to be in the key of F major, but that key would not accommodate the 2nd violin and section viola ranges.
- The range of notes in the solo part is too narrow for the violin and lack some of the characteristic bariolage, rolling chords and open string figurations that are typical of the other Bach violin concerti.
- The range of notes and style of writing perfectly fit the character of solo viola parts of J.S. Bach.
The general facts lay bare, I (and Mr. Fischer) rest my/his case and with that I am certain I have probably opened a Pandora’s Box and will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability.