Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 2

Thursday February 14, 2013

Bach Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1061


Bach Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043

orchestration: 2 solo violins; strings; harpsichord

CPE Bach Concerto in E-flat major for Harpsichord and Fortepiano, H.479 (W.47)


Tonight’s concert features three concertos from the musical dynasty of the Bach family. Two of the concertos are by Johann Sebastian Bach, while the third is by Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. The elder Bach represents the height of the Baroque period, the absolute apex of the style, and his music reflects this with long melodies, counterpoint and complexity. When he died in 1750, a new style was taking over, and it was in some ways a response to the intricacy of the Baroque period. It favored simpler melodies and regular phrase structure, and one of its earliest exponents was, in fact, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. In a famous quote about CPE Bach, Mozart once called him “the father,” and referred to himself and his generation of Classical composers as “the children.”

The concerto was a genre that crossed over from the Baroque period and continued to thrive in the Classical period, partly because it could show a composer’s skill both in the orchestral support and in the virtuosic writing for the soloist(s). It is the musical relationship of one soloist to the ensemble or of a group of soloists to the larger ensemble that characterizes the concerto style. The concerto, in both the Baroque and Classical periods, has three movements, two fast outer movements and a contrasting slow section in between. Beyond that similarity, there are conventions that depend on the traditions of the time period. Baroque concertos often have outer movements in ritornello form, a structure that has all of the players entering at the beginning and playing the main themes together. After the main themes are established, interludes of virtuosic solo playing are then interspersed between sections where everyone plays. In the Classical period, the soloist is often absent from the opening statement of musical ideas (called the exposition), but then enters and plays his or her own presentation of the same musical ideas. There are also set places for cadenzas — lengthy solo passages—built into the structure. The main theme of any concerto, Baroque or Classical, is contrast—between the sections for soloists and those for the orchestra, and between loud and soft, simple and complex, playful and serious.

The concertos on tonight’s program are written for pairs of instruments, which is rather fitting for Valentine’s Day. The first and last concertos on the program feature harpsichords, perhaps the most important keyboard instrument in the Baroque period. It served as a solo instrument, but was also often part of the basso continuo, a duo consisting of a chordal instrument and a bass instrument. In the Classical period, the fortepiano began to replace the harpsichord in many situations, although basso continuo still appeared in sacred music well into the Classical period.

The Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Harpsichords belongs to a set of multiple harpsichord concertos that JS Bach composed in the early 1730s. In this set, BWV 1060-1065, all but one of the concertos was based on his earlier works. As for BWV 1061, there is still some question as to the nature of the original piece—sometimes the reworked versions are the only ones that still exist—but in this case, there is evidence to suggest that the piece Bach based BWV 1061 on was simply a work for two harpsichords without orchestral accompaniment. By adding the orchestra, Bach allowed the two harpsichords more freedom in their virtuosity.

JS Bach wrote the Concerto in D minor for Two Violins — an original work — around the same time. In fact, this concerto was the basis for harpsichord concerto BWV 1062, part of the set mentioned above. This piece is one of Bach’s most famous instrumental works. In it, Bach shows off the complexity and melodic intricacy characteristic of the Baroque period.

When CPE Bach composed the Concerto for Harpsichord and Fortepiano, he was in his last year of life, 1788, and the Classical period had been underway for a couple of decades. Mozart had just three years left in his short life, and Haydn was still diligently working for the Esterházy family. This Concerto is an important milestone because the harpsichord was rapidly disappearing from concert halls. Its replacement, the fortepiano, became a new and important voice in music. This Concerto, then, is a passing of the torch, so to speak. One analyst has mentioned that the Concerto represents a “robust competition” between the two instruments, adding that CPE Bach had observed the fortepiano’s emergence and was critical to its popularization. So with this piece, we are able to experience the progression of the Baroque style to the Classical, courtesy of CPE Bach, who at the end of his career saw an opportunity to pay homage to the past while looking to the future.

– Christine Gengaro, PhD