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Italian Concerto, BWV 971

March 19, 2023 – Rachel Naomi Kudo, piano

A master organizer, Bach planned a monumental keyboard series, which he began publishing in installments in 1731 under the unassuming title Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercise). This evening’s Italian Concerto holds an important place in this series of “exercises,” which in fact represents the pinnacle of his art and thus an incomparable peak in the whole of music. The first volume contains his six keyboard partitas; the second (1735), a remarkable pair—the Concerto after the Italian Taste and Ouverture in the French Manner, as Bach called them—representing the two leading national styles and the two main orchestral genres of the day; the third (1739), the organ chorales, the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, and the four Duettos; and the fourth (1741), the Goldberg Variations. The Art of Fugue might have constituted Book V, had he lived to see it published.

Bach made a careful study of any style he sought to emulate. Not only had he transcribed a number of early concertos by Vivaldi and Marcello as keyboard concertos, but as director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum he had come to know Vivaldi’s later concertos, as well as further examples by younger German contemporaries writing in the now well-established three-movement format. What is remarkable in Bach’s Italian Concerto is that, though he writes to the “Italian taste,” he makes his own masterful reinterpretation, thus it might better be thought of as the “German-Italian Concerto.”

Composer and critic Johann Adolphe Scheibe singled out Bach’s Italian Concerto in 1739 as the best of this solo type—that is, not a transcription of an orchestral concerto, but written for one performer encompassing both “solo” and “orchestra” at one keyboard instrument. He went on to hint at Bach’s ingenious mix of styles when he said: “We can certainly defy foreign nations to provide us with such a piece in this form of composition—a piece which deserves emulation by all our great composers and which will be imitated all in vain by foreigners.”

Both outer movements follow the customary Italian ritornello form, standardized by Vivaldi, in which periodic returns of thematic material alternate with contrasting episodes. Both movements also bubble along in the vivacious manner long associated with the Italian style, but they also show later developments in their use of four-bar phrases. Of particular interest in this regard is the existence of an earlier version of the first movement, which Bach “pruned” in several place to make more regular four-bar phrases.

The lovely slow movement emulates the Vivaldi style that Bach often adopted—a singing, embellished melody line accompanied simply by a steadily pulsing accompaniment. The piece unfolds in two sections, the second beginning with the same accompaniment progression as the first but with a new highly ornamented melody. Bach’s “German-ness” shows in that all of his Italianate embellishments are carefully written out rather than assumed to be improvised as in Italian practice.

The infectious vivacity of the last movement contributes enormously to the popularity that the Italian Concerto has always enjoyed. It took the hand of a master to create something so captivating from such uncomplicated harmonies and the simple idea of an ascending scale. Though similar in form and key scheme to the first movement, the finale shows Bach’s later outlook in the more extensive recall of episodic material. As the movement barrels irrepressibly to its conclusion, one can imagine Bach himself reveling in playing this work, which, as he states on the volume’s title page, was “Composed for Music Lovers, for the Mind’s Delight.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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