The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Oboe, Violin and Orchestra in C minor, BWV 1060

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Thomas May

In the first part of our program, you will have noticed several instances of Bach recycling earlier material for different contexts. Such repurposing was standard procedure in the Baroque period, whether for the opera stage (hello, Handel), court concertizing, or liturgical worship. It's important to remember that an enormous quantity of the music produced by these composers remained unpublished and would otherwise have remained unused once the initial occasion for a particular piece had passed: recycling was one way of prolonging its "shelf life."

    The Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R is a wonderful case of just such prolongation for which posterity can be thankful. This concerto would not exist today had Bach not decided to recycle it as one of the keyboard (harpsichord) concertos he prepared during the Leipzig years-most likely for his Collegium Musicum gatherings, where the piece was repurposed as a concerto for two harpsichords, string orchestra, and continuo. That manuscript survives in a copy made by one of his students. Bach's source was one of his own earlier concertos from the Cöthen period for two solo instruments. Like almost all of his other concertos from those years, its score vanished long ago. (The Brandenburg set, for that matter, only came to light through a chance archive find more than a century after they were written.) In other words, the concerto we hear has been reverse-engineered, so to speak, from its later manifestation as a duo harpsichord concerto (likely from 1736, according to Wolff).

    Bach himself was of course a phenomenal organist and keyboard player (as well as violinist): it was as a virtuoso organist that he first achieved fame, after all. For the Collegium Musicum, he prepared a variety of concertos for combinations of one to as many as four harpsichords. While Bach wrote a significant chapter in the history of the concerto with his works in the genre featuring the keyboard, these are believed to be transcriptions he made using earlier works by himself or by other composers like Antonio Vivaldi, a peer he especially admired. (The one exception proving the rule is the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which in its original form may be regarded as in effect an early harpsichord concerto.)

    On the basis of close analyses of the differing characters of the two harpsichord solo parts, scholars determined that the original solo instruments in the source concerto were most likely violin and oboe. Scholars used clues from the respective phrasing patterns and use of register to deduce these highly distinctive solo parts.

    The result is particularly enchanting in the middle Adagio movement, in which the two voices dovetail and converse to trace out a "hyper-melody" (as John Adams might call it). The outer movements, in contrast, feature varying forms of dialogue between the soloists and the ensemble. Overall, the BWV 1060 Concerto is in the standard three-movement, fast-slow-fast pattern. The piece is best enjoyed if you jettison as thoroughly as you can any prejudices from the Romantic (and later) concerto paradigm of the heroic "individual" up against the collective or of athletic virtuosity.