tMasterpieces of Joy and Sorrow: The Instrumental Works of J.S. Bach Kayleen Asbo, Ph.D www.kayleenasbo.com
Class Two: Bach and the Italians
In 1717, Bach assumed the happiest post of his life: working as the music master for Prince Leopold of Cothen. An avid music lover, Leopold not only supplied Bach with great respect, but also offered him great freedom to create. Much of the music written was secular, for various combinations of instruments Bach had at his disposal. From his years at Cothen we can date the violin partitas, the cello suites, many of the keyboard suites and most of what we call concertos.
While Bach’s life did not enable him the luxury of travel (he never left Germany in his 65 years), he traveled extensively in his imagination. The music library at Cothen, and his contact with other musicians, enabled him to avidly study the competing styles of the time, paying particularly close attention to the Italian and the French styles.
The concerto was an invention of Italy, designed to show off the increasing virtuosity of instrumental soloists, particularly violinists. In Venice, Vivaldi had created a sensation with his music academy for orphaned girls, and this increased the public’s appetite for these bright, bold, showpieces that were the instrumentalist’s answer to opera: alternating dramatic, exciting fast movements with slow, soulful ones designed to tear you heart out like a good aria.
Amongst the great concerto writers are two that were particularly important to Bach: Antonio Vivaldi and Benedetto Marcello. Bach studied there works intensely and created keyboard transcriptions for the harpsichord where he mastered the art of musical dialogue between “tutti” and “solo”.
Listen below to Marcello's magnificent Oboe Concerto in d minor and then compare it with Bach's arrangement for solo harpsichord
Now compare Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins in b minor with Bach's arrangements of the same work for four harpsichords, BWV 1065