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Coffeehouse Concerti

The MHS Review 384 VOL. 11, NO. 6 • 1987

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Julie Jordan

This featured release Volume II of the Complete Harpsichord Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach il­lustrates Johann Sebastian Bach the arranger.


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In the 1730s, Sunday morning concerts in the iocal Leipzig coffeehouses were not uncommon. These weekly meetings were begun in 1701 by the 20-year-old law stu­dent Georg Philipp Telemann for a group of students known as the Collegium Musicum, which always gathered at Zim­merman's Coffeehouse. The private perfor­mances that took place there gradually became established as an important facet of the musical life in Leipzig; the students eventually took their intimate concerts to several of the city's coffeehouses, where there was a limited public, and, during the summertime, to the coffee gardens where fashionable coffee-drinking was a social event, and where appreciative audiences could be found.

Johann Sebastian Bach inherited the directorship of the Collegium Musicum in 1729, providing an opportunity for the birth of the keyboard concerto. There was no shortage of harpsichord players at the time (even within his own family there was a healthy supply); this probably explains Bach's focus on the instrument and his development of concerti for two, three, and four harpsichords.

Bach appeared regularly with his sons in the Collegium; for this he needed effective clavier-type material. As a practical solu­tion Bach resorted to the method he employed while he was writing his in­strumental sonatas with clavier obbligato: He allowed the right hand of the keyboard player to steal the solo part of a previous­ly composed violin concerto while the left hand doubled the bass of the composition. This quick transformation of a violin con­certo into a clavier concerto also served to transform the harpsichordist, from a con­tinuo player to a soloist.

And because the harpsichord was tradi­tionally a continuo instrument, Bach became the pioneer in creating a new im­age for it as a concerto instrument. His seven concerti for one harpsichord and or­chestra (S. 1052-1058) are all transcriptions of works previously written for other solo instruments. The harpsichord concerti in D major (S. 1054), G minor (S. 1058), and F major (S. 1057) can be traced from the violin concerti in E major and A minor and from the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. In these violin adaptations we see some of the simple but inevitable changes, such as step­wise transposition to accommodate the in­struments used in Bach's time.

The Finale of the D major Concerto employs Bach's idiomatic writing of vir­tuoso passages, displayed in the right hand, replacing the original double and triple stops. The F major Concerto (S. 1057), after the Fourth Brandenburg, retains an effective element in orchestration: two recorders in the accompaniment, which element sets it apart from the rest of the clavier concerti and provides an effective contrast against the harpsichord. The G minor Concerto (S. 1057), also after the more famous violin work, utilizes more in­dependent treatment of the bass, which better suits the instrument, and lots of "harpsichordic" filling out; however, the slow movements are less "full-bodied" than the originals with their cantabile violin soli.

The Concerto for two harpsichords and string orchestra in C minor, S. 1062, is bas­ed on the Concerto for two violins in D minor. The S. 1060 Concerto for two harp­sichords in C minor most likely was taken from a concerto for oboe and violin. In these two concerti the orchestra fully par­takes of the musical elaboration and char­ming dialogue between the keyboards and strings. Here the soloists do not always dominate: one or both of them fills the harpsichord's original role as a reinforcing continuo instrument. And Bach barely touches the orchestral writing of the original concerto in S. 1062.

The Concerto for four harpsichords in A minor, S. 1065, is clearly derived from Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for four violins in B minor (op. 3, no. 10). Bach overcomes the problem inherent in the use of four keyboard instruments with his skillful transcription, but he remains thoroughly faithful to Vivaldi's material. This colorful version is technically challenging for the harpsichord virtuoso.

Julie Jordan, pianist, is on the faculty of the Juilliard School, Extension Division, where she received her MM, and is current­ly a candidate for the DMA at the Manhat­tan School.

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