Thinking About Bach at the Keyboard

January 28, 2008

jsbfade.gif The Italian Concerto and the “Goldberg” Aria with Variations were meant to show two different approaches to music for the keyboard. Though Bach published little in his lifetime, he did see to it that both these works were issued in his summa on keyboard technique, the four-volume Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Study). Here is the layout of the volumes:

I. Six Partitas (suites of dances), 1731
II. Italian Concerto and French Overture, 1735
III. Organ compositions: chorale-preludes, two-voice pieces, and the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, 1739
IV. “Goldberg” Variations, 1741–2

The Italian Concerto is the ultimate product of one of Bach’s long-term projects: to transplant to German music the concerto style as the Italians had developed it. A major result was his many concertos that set soloists in relief against orchestra; but even more inventive were Bach’s efforts, between 1708 and 1717, to devise concertos that a keyboard player could perform without an orchestra. The seven organ examples included three that were transcribed from the composer who represented the avant-garde of concerto-making, Antonio Vivaldi. They used the smaller organ division nearer the hearers (the Rückpositiv) for the concertino solo parts, and the larger, higher-up division (Oberwerk) for the full-orchestra ripieno; thus could one player perform a whole concerto.

During the same period, Bach was experimenting with sixteen “concertos” for clavier alone, six of which were also arranged from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. In these he went yet a step further: he removed the concerto’s usual element of spatial contrast and trusted the player to provide even that illusion by skillful use of purely keyboard resources. The naturalization of Italian orchestral techniques to the German keyboard could go no further — except by producing his own completely new “Italian” concerto. And by 1734 Bach was so fluent in the modern Italian style that he could confidently call an original work, in an engraved and published book, an Italian Concerto, when it was neither from Italy nor with orchestra. Metaphor and illusion in music can go no further.

Tomorrow: the “Goldberg” Variations

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