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Last But Not Least

The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Old Bach as a rock musician? Preposterous as a rhinosterous!

Some of us are old enough to remember the middle '60s, when the adult and seasoned were dethroned in favor of the young and feckless and rock swept over the nation and the world like a tidal wave, engulfing a thousand years of musical development. The phenomenon was perhaps the first that showed me clearly what the future would be and let me know that I didn't want to be here when it ar­rived. I suppose something similar happens to every generation. One thinks of Dr. Bar­tolo interrupting Rosina's voice lesson with one of the "good old arias," and I recall my own parents (who had no interest in "classical" music) inveighing against such innocuous songs as "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "I found a million-dollar baby'' as evidence of the beginning of the end.

Something similar to the rock avalanche must have occurred in the early 18th cen­tury with the rise of Italian instrumental music--specifically the sonata and the con­certo, if you can believe it. The difference was that rock is a democratic phenomenon as democracy is presently conceived: the greatest profit from the greatest number.

In his autobiographical This Man and His Music (1982-83), Anthony Burgess says that when he joined the army he "learned that there was a great gulf fixed between the musical and the unmusical, and that most of the world was unmusical." Rock was the first music designed for that majority--an aural screen to shut out the sound of squalling babies, jackhammers, trucks, and professors. The 18th-century revolution was not aimed at the unmusical, about whom no one gave a hoot, but at the presumedly musical. (Doubtless a lot of them, for all their vaunted taste and train­ing, were not really musical, which would explain the success of the sewing-maching rhythms that Leonard Bernstein decries In Vivaldi.)

All this disgruntled maundering is owing to two experiences: (I) the intermis­sions at the pretentious play I attended last night were filled with overamplified sound that to me sounded like feeding time at the zoo, but with which the fat lady in the next seat wailed along happily; (2) I read for the first time the introductory notes to this series of records. These made me think, as I had. not thought before, about Bach's growing infatuation with the Italian con­certo·. Quite· possibly, when he came In 1708 to Weimar, a more cosmopolitan scene than he had thitherto known, he was introduced to this new music by his cousin Johann Walther, who was already hooked on it.

Bach, in his spare time, made keyboard reductions of the Top 40 (the local record shop being closed for renovation). When he had got the style and feel of this with-it music down pat, he launched into produc­ing his own examples, which led to his in­vention of the keyboard concerto. This progress was aided by two subsequent changes of employment, first in Cothen, where the absence of religious duties gave him a free hand, and later In Leipzig, where he took over the local orchestra, which, having been founded by Telemann, an assiduous practitioner of the concerto art, was primed and ready for him.

This last record of the Leonhardt series, which covers the known keyboard-­concerto output (exclusive of the Fifth Brandenburg), includes the two concerti for three keyboards. Having mastered the solo-keyboard variety, Bach had stepped up the number of his protagonists, so that by the early 1730s he was juggling three and four. Legend has it that he wrote S. 1063 to play in company with his sons Friedemann and Emanuel, a notion that the prominent first keyboard part seems to support. S. 1064 is a more inventive and ambitious work, and is indeed regarded as one of Bach's most important efforts in the genre. Both appear to be originals, not bor­rowed from earlier works.

The third item on the record, S. 1059, for oboe and keyboard, exists only as a fragment. However, that fragment cor­responds to the opening of the initial Sin­fonia to Cantata no. 35. The second Sin­fonia, then, would correspond to the con­cluding Allegro, and the slow aria to the middle movement. On such educated guesswork, Leonhardt has "reconstructed" the concerto.

Review from inside front cover J.S. Bach: Harpsichord Concerti, Vol. III .....

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