The Kennedy Center

Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Richard Freed

The Concerto in D major was composed in Leipzig in the late 1730s and probably performed there by Bach?s Collegium Musicum as soon as the ink was dry. The National Symphony Orchestra?s earliest performances of this work, with the late Rosalyn Tureck as both pianist and conductor, were given on April 10, 1970, in Annapolis, at Philharmonic Hall (since renamed Avery Fisher Hall) in New York two days later, in Constitution Hall on April 14 and 15, and at the University of Maryland?s Ritchie Coliseum the day after that; in the orchestra?s most recent performance of the concerto, on June 2, 1978, the solo instrument was a harpsichord, played by Igor Kipnis, and Tam?s V?s?ry conducted.

In addition to the solo instrument, the score calls for a small string ensemble with continuo. Duration, 16 minutes.

While purists in the last century inveighed against Leopold Stokowski and others who undertook big, colorful arrangements of Bach?s music?his organ works, for the most part?for large modern orchestra, Bach himself was one of the most active transcribers of all time. He rewrote numerous works of his own in varying instrumentation, and similarly adapted more than a few compositions by Antonio Vivaldi and other contemporaries. The work that opens this week?s concerts is a prime example of that activity.

Bach composed all seven of his solo keyboard concertos (originally for harpsichord, of course) in Leipzig during the 1730s, at which time he also made a start on an eighth, with winds as well as strings in his orchestra. As a matter of fact, No. 6, in F major, has a pair of recorders, as it was transcribed directly from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, for violin, recorders and strings. The Brandenburgs all date from Bach?s earlier period in service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-C?then, when he composed all of his violin concertos. Most of his subsequent keyboard concertos are similar transcriptions of those violin concertos; some of the originals are clearly identified, others lost, and some of the latter are assumed to have been for oboe or oboe d?amore rather than violin. Even after creating the keyboard concertos, Bach further recycled individual movements from some of them, in yet different instrumentation, for use in church cantatas. In addition to his solo concertos, those for two and three harpsichords, also composed in Leipzig, are transcriptions of his earlier ones for violins (or in one instance for violin and oboe) and his Concerto in A minor for four keyboard instruments, BWV 1065, was transcribed from a four-violin concerto in B minor by Vivaldi. In the case of the present work, there is no element of mystery or speculation on a lost original: this is Bach?s transcription of his Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042. (The keyboard concertos were in each case written in a key one tone lower than the original work for violin.)

Reference to the Brandenburg Concertos may remind us that the fifth of those six works was actually the first significant keyboard concerto, even though the harpsichord in that work shared solo honors with a violin and a flute. Bach had hit on something new, and more than a dozen years later he seemed eager to follow up on it. Because of the nature of the respective originals, in the format established by Vivaldi and his compatriots in their small-scaled concertos for violin and for oboe, Bach?s Leipzig concertos seldom look forward to the grander piano concertos of the Classical and Romantic eras as clearly as the Fifth Brandenburg did, but the very idea of his creating such works, even if not from new materials, is an indication that the keyboard concerto had ?arrived.? Significantly, in this respect, his own concertos have been performed at least as frequently on a piano as on a harpsichord, for some two hundred years now.

The D-major Concerto?s first movement (for which Bach did not specify a tempo, but which is regarded as an Allegro) opens in a jubilant spirit, with a fanfare-like tutti. While it was the custom of the time that tutti and solo passages alternate rather than combine, the two elements are more closely related to each other in Bach?s concertos than in those of Vivaldi and his other contemporaries.

The middle movement (Adagio e sempre piano), as serene as the two outer ones are animated, is in the form of a chaconne. The ground-bass subject is introduced in the lower strings and recurs constantly between passages for the solo instrument, which have the character of an intimate soliloquy in separate sections?not so much interrupted by the strings, one might say, as affirmed by them following each solo utterance.

The exuberant finale (Allegro assai), one of the simplest and most straightforward such movements in any of Bach?s concertos, has the direct appeal of a folk dance.