Concerto in D minor after Vivaldi, BWV 596

December 5, 2021: Paul Jacobs, organ

While Bach was serving as court organist for the Duke of Weimar between 1708 and 1717, he avidly absorbed the style of Vivaldi and other masters in part by transcribing their concertos for clavier or organ. This particular endeavor resulted in sixteen clavier concertos (BWV 972–987) and four organ concertos (BWV 592–594, 596; not counting 595, which is a version of 984). Vivaldi is represented nine times, Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello once each, and Torelli and Telemann once each. Several are transcribed from unknown sources and four from concertos by the young Weimar prince, Johann Ernst. All but four of the concertos are in the three-movement, fast-slow-fast configuration that would become the norm for Bach’s own concertos.

Johann Ernst was actually the pupil of Bach’s court colleague Johann Gottfried Walther, and both Bach and Walther transcribed different concertos for the youth’s instruction and enjoyment. They can be dated to such a narrow time frame partly by evidence of the manuscript paper, but also because Prince Johann Ernst had just returned in July 1713 from two years in Holland, presumably having heard Italian concertos played on the organ by Jan Jacob de Graaf and bringing back collections of works by Vivaldi and others from the famous publisher Estienne Roger of Amsterdam. Bach likely made his transcriptions before the prince left Weimar in July 1714.

One of the publications Johann Ernst must have brought back was Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico, op. 3, a collection of twelve concertos issued by Roger in 1711, which was to become the most influential publication of the first half of the eighteenth century. The present D minor Concerto is Bach’s transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto grosso in D minor, RV 565, for a solo group of two violins and cello with the accompaniment of strings and cembalo, which appeared as No. 11 in the Opus 3 collection. Bach stays faithful to the substance of Vivaldi’s original, but, as would have been conventional practice, fills in the texture and harmony of the continuo and adds melodic ornamentation. His manuscript is remarkable for its specific markings as to organ registration and the use of two manuals.

The first movement opens with darting canonic figuration alternating between the two manuals and static harmony that breaks loose just before three chordal measures marked “Grave.” These serve as preparation for the full-fledged fugue that concludes the movement. The lovely relatively brief slow movement flows gently in a siciliano rhythm. The final movement unfolds briskly in a free ritornello form, its main theme featuring repeated-note lines that intertwine in the “solo” voices so as to create delightful brief dissonances. Bach reused this theme in the opening chorus of his Cantata 21: “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis,” which was first performed on June 17, 1714, shortly before Prince Johann Ernst left Weimar. The movement continues its propulsive drive to the end with the active lines in a variety of textures migrating from manual to manual.
—©Jane Vial Jaffe

[from Vivaldi Concerto grosso in D minor, RV 565, op. 3, no. 11 (2 vlns, vc, strings, cembalo)

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Bach also adapted concertos by other composers, notably Vivaldi, whose Italian concerto form exerted a lasting influence on him. He employed Vivaldi’s three-movement model—fast, slow, fast—for his concertos, as well as the ritornello form (in which a refrain alternates with episodic excursions), though adapted in his own way, and with his particular contrapuntal leanings.

Was Bach aware that with his keyboard concertos he was creating an entirely new genre

In about 1713–14 a decisive stylistic change came about, stimulated by Vivaldi’s concerto form. Bach’s encounter with Vivaldi’s music found immediate expression in the concertos after Vivaldi’s opp.3 and 7 (
BWV593 etc.). Features adapted from Vivaldi include the unifying use of motivic work, the motoric rhythmic character, the modulation schemes and the principle of solo–tutti contrast as means of formal articulation; the influence may be seen in the Toccatas in F and C
BWV540 and 564. Apparently Bach experimented for a short while with a free, concerto-like organ form in three movements (fast–slow–fast: cf
BWV545 + 529/2 and
BWV541 + 528/3) but finally turned to the two-movement form, as in
BWV534 and 536. Of comparable importance to the introduction of the concerto element is his tendency towards condensed motivic work, as in the Orgel-Büchlein.

In 1711 Etienne Roger, the Amsterdam publisher, brought out what was to become the most influential music publication of the first half of the 18th century: Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico op.3, dedicated to Grand Prince Ferdinando of Tuscany; it comprised 12 concertos divided equally into works for one, two, and four solo violins. The change to Roger from local publishers, which several other eminent Italian composers made about the same time, reflected not only the superiority of the engraving process over the printing from type still normally used in Italy (a superiority acknowledged in Vivaldi’s preface to L’estro armonico) but also the enormous growth in demand for the latest Italian music in northern Europe. The third, fifth, and 12th concertos from op.3 (along with the concerto published individually under the title ‘The Cuckow’, RV335), became staples of the repertoire of many violinists, were arranged for a variety of instruments, and were extracted for use in violin tutors throughout the 18th century and beyond. Nowhere was the enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s concertos stronger than in Germany. Bach transcribed several of them (including five from op.3) for keyboard, and his noble patron Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar wrote concertos in Vivaldi’s style.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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