The Kennedy Center

Italian Concerto

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Peter Laki

We have been taught in school that a concerto is a musical composition for solo instrument(s) and orchestra.  Yet Bach had good reasons when he chose that title for the present solo keyboard work, which he published himself (and he published little during his lifetime) under that designation in 1735.  The Italian Concerto was paired with the French Overture (read: suite) in this printed edition, the second in a series called Clavier-Übung ("Keyboard Exercise") that would be followed by two more volumes of keyboard music.

In juxtaposing the two dominant styles of Europe, often considered as opposites, Bach represented Italy by the concerto form, which he had learned from an intense study of Vivaldi's works back in the 1710s.  And in spite of the absence of an orchestra, the concerto form is clearly recognizable not only in the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) layout but also in the consistent use of the ritornello form in both fast movements.  This means that the movement begins with a memorable theme, called ritornello, that is heard several times (sometimes partially or with some modifications), alternating with episodes of contrasting character.  The ritornello, which always returns in its original form at the end, is usually played by the orchestra and the episodes by the soloist.  In the present instance, this contrast is represented ed by differences in dynamics.  Bach originally composed the piece for a harpsichord with two manuals, where the two timbres were differentiated by registration (these are marked as forte and piano in the score).

With or without orchestra, Bach's concertos are characterized by an extremely sophisticated development of the Italian models.  In the first movement of the present work, the ritornello theme contains several surprising twists and turns, with the end of the phrase repeatedly delayed.  The  expansive lyrical melody of the second movement unfolds over an ostinato, or unchanging, bass, combining a rigorous foundation with quasi-improvisatory freedom.  The brilliant last movement abounds in fast runs and other displays of virtuosity.