Italian Concerto

Johann Sebastian Bach

Italian Concerto in F major

BWV971

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Italian" Concerto is featured in his Clavierübung, Part 2. The preface to the first published edition of 1735 (issued by Christoph Weigl of Nuremberg) made it clear that this "Übung" (or "exercise") was written exclusively for a two-manual harpsichord or Clavicymbal, and was, according to the composer himself, intended "for lovers of music, for their enjoyment," and not solely for the purposes of their technical advancement. The prescribed two-manual instrument was quite clearly a deliberate choice on Bach's part, since its use enabled the player and indeed the composer to explore new timbral contrasts and dynamic gradations that had been hitherto unavailable to keyboard players. Bach's early exploitation and championship of the expanded potentialities of the harpsichord partly accounted for the phenomenal growth in the popularity of the instrument, especially toward the end of Bach's life.

Described by J.A. Scheibe as "a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto," Bach's "Concerto after the Italian Style" is not, as was once supposed, a reduction of a full keyboard concerto with orchestra, but rather an attempt at recreating the elements of concerto style in microcosm in a brilliant work for a solo instrument. This work manages to capture and sustain the fundamental principle of dialogue and exchange between concertino and ripieno groups found in any conventional concerto. Using a fascinating and intellectually rigorous alternation between solo and tutti passagework, Bach manages to assign the normal tutti function of the absent orchestra to the more powerful principal manual of the harpsichord, giving the virtuoso writing normally reserved for the soloist to the second manual. It would be reasonable to call the Italian Concerto a compendium-style work. In this regard at least, it has but one equal in the entire literature, this being the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók.

In its ordering of movements, the work follows the standard Baroque concerto pattern, in which a central slow movement (Andante) is framed by two faster ones. Only in the central movement does the music take the form of a highly ornamented melody line for the right hand heard above a straightforward chordal accompaniment. Remarkably, however, the left hand part (in thirds) actually takes up the main melody of the brilliant opening movement (without tempo marking), already remarkable for its élan and bravura craftsmanship and for the way in which the music echoes contemporary orchestral technique so masterfully. The tonal scheme of the Presto finale is very simple, hardly veering away from tonic and dominant harmonies. The payoff here, however, is the tremendous vitality and dynamism of the music, based on nothing more complex than an F major ascending scale from which Bach crafts his essential materials. As one would expect from a master contrapuntist, the theme is heard in augmentation and diminution, in inversion and contrary motion, and indeed in a whole panoply of spectacular concatenations that leave the listener marveling by the close at the fact that this is a work for just one player, two hands, and two manuals!

Done