Notes by Bruce Lamott

Harpsichord Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1058

Antonio Vivaldi by anonymous (c. 1723)

Bach had a lifelong affair with the concerto, dating back to his days as court organist for the ducal court in Weimar from 1708 to 1714, where he encountered the concertos by famous Italian composers, most notably Antonio Vivaldi, found in the music library of young Duke Ernst August. Bach not only learned by copying them, he transcribed them so that he could play them on the harpsichord and the organ. Vivaldi’s concertos in particular changed Bach’s approach to musical form, and playing these transcriptions likely planted in him the novel idea of liberating the utilitarian continuo harpsichord from its accompanimental role of improvising harmonies over the bass part to instead become a soloist on a par with Vivaldi’s virtuoso violinists.

Bach also realized the versatility of the concerto form, transcribing and transposing his own violin concertos for the harpsichord, as was the case of this concerto, originally written for violin in A minor and transposed to G minor for the harpsichord. The first is the most “violinistic” of its three movements, with leaping melodic figures that suggest string crossings. Just as the solo violin joins in unison with the first violins at times, the right hand of the harpsichordist disappears into the string ensemble only to resurface in solo episodes.

In the slow movement, the gently pulsing and heaving repeated bass pattern (ostinato) undergirds the plaintive solo with an almost Sisyphean affect of striving and resignation. Above the descending half-steps (chromaticism) in the bass, the solo ventures into almost “bluesy” harmonies.

The rollicking gigue of the third movement begins and ends with a complete ritornello, and in place of the idiomatic violin writing for open and rapidly repeating stopped strings (bariolage), the harpsichord downshifts into a flurry of sixteenth notes scales and oscillating figures, twice the speed of the prevailing eighths in the orchestra.

Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (“Coffee Cantata”), BWV 211

Café Zimmermann (detail) by Johann Georg Schreiber (1732)

Coffee drinking in the German-speaking world was only about as old as J.S. Bach himself. Two years before his birth, coffee beans were left behind by Turks hurriedly retreating from the siege of Vienna in 1683, resulting in the first Viennese coffeehouses. The seductive beverage was regarded in some corners with suspicion. In 1674 an anonymous Women’s Petition against Coffee Representing to Publick Consideration the Grand Inconveniencies accruing to their Sex from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor even protested that it led to impotency in Englishmen. Though not allowed in coffeehouses in some European countries, women in Zimmermann’s Café were found both among the performers and the audience.

In the “Coffee Cantata,” the closest Bach got to writing a comic opera, a father (Schlendrian) is distressed at his daughter Lieschen’s infatuation with the beverage, though exactly why remains unclear. It’s seems to be the eternal parental answer to a teenager using proscribed substances: “Because I said so.” After he threatens to deprive her of fashions, freedom, and even marriage, Lieschen momentarily relents—but confesses to us secretly that she will demand a prenup from any potential suitor that permits her to drink coffee whenever she likes.

The libretto, by the poet and Leipzig bureaucrat Christian Friedrich Henrici (known by the pen name “Picander”), is a far cry from the pious religious librettos he wrote for Bach’s church music, most notably the St. Matthew Passion. It is laid out in the familiar forms of an Italian comic opera (opera buffa) or intermezzo, with recitatives providing narration and dialogue and arias expressing the feelings of the characters. There is also meta-humor in Schlendrian’s second aria, which Bach sets tongue-in-cheek in the chromatically pathetic style of a saint or sinner, not the fulminating rube who sings the first aria. Lieschen’s character is enlivened by her interplay with a transverse flute obbligato in her first aria, and a florid obbligato harpsichord part in the second. In the finale, as in most opera buffas, the hapless male protagonist capitulates, and Schlendrian admits that Lieschen will likely join her mother and grandmother in the “sisterhood of coffee drinkers” (Coffeeschwestern).

Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052

Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cothen by anonymous (1710)

The dating of Bach’s Collegium concertos is problematic, as some of them took their original form in his years in Cöthen (1717-23) when, as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, he was required to compose concertos as part of his normal duties. Many of these original works are lost but survive in the transcriptions for harpsichord that he wrote for his sons, his pupils, and himself to play with the Collegium orchestra. While the “violinistic” origins of the G minor harpsichord concerto (BWV 1058) are clear, the “original” version of this D minor concerto—if there is one—is lost, although several attempts have been made to reconstruct one. What has survived, however, are organ solo versions of all three movements which first appeared in Bach’s earlier church cantatas. The earliest version of the orchestra parts of this concerto was copied by C.P.E. Bach in 1734; his father wrote the final version in 1738.

The harpsichord part in this concerto is more “clavieristic” along the lines of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with dramatic shifts in texture and range, bursts of rapid figuration, and even a written-out, albeit much shorter, cadenza in the first movement. Unlike the violin-derived G minor concerto heard earlier in this program, the harpsichord here rarely doubles the first violins, taking center stage from its first solo entry. To be sure, there are plenty of virtuosic string techniques in evidence such as bariolage and Bach usurps the bass line for a prolonged progression over repeated D octaves prior to another gust of rapid-fire figuration before the closing ritornello.

The second movement is Vivaldi-like in its unison opening and closing ritornellos. This theme moves to the bass line once the florid solo line begins, but supports it throughout the movement. The solo is a model of improvisatory lyricism in the Italian style, richly ornamented with figuration and uninterrupted until a brief cadenza leads to the final ritornello.

The third movement is similar to the Third Brandenburg Concerto in its use of corta (didi-DUM or DUM-didi) rhythmic figures. Bach exploits every possible sonority of the harpsichord from continuous two-part counterpoint to sparkling flashes of rapid figuration to thick, percussive chords, covering the entire compass of the keyboard. A false ending occurs when the soloist interrupts what should be the final ritornello in D minor and leads the orchestra into overtime with more flights of virtuosic fancy. Of Bach’s seven concertos for solo harpsichord, this is the longest, most complex, most dramatic, and—in my opinion—least likely to have been originally written for anything but a keyboard instrument.

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1746)

The coffeehouse Collegium had both a chorus and orchestra, and when they weren’t singing, the choristers also played instruments, the majority of which were provided by Zimmermann himself. Both barista and impresario, Zimmermann supported Bach’s church music as well, and contact with these town-and-gown musicians also allowed Bach to augment the meager forces and limited budget allowed him for music at St. Thomas and the other Leipzig churches for which he was responsible. The musicians are said to have played at sight (i.e. without rehearsal), and special performances for civic celebrations, noble visits, birthdays, etc. were added to the regularly scheduled weekly concerts.

Bach composed only four orchestral suites, all for his Collegium. One modern writer described them as “truly symphonic—large-scale in conception and boldly etched in their sectional orchestration.” But the more we imagine that he originally wrote them for the intimate ambiance of Café Zimmermann with its capacity of 150 or so, the less “symphonic” they seem. Inflated out of proportion by large modern orchestras, strident brass, and sometimes slowed to a pompous crawl, this suite often conceals its elegant origins as dance music augmented with the mellower, more integrated sound of natural (valveless) Baroque trumpets and performed to the occasional clink of coffee cups.

Bach called his orchestral suites, written around 1730, Ouvertures, a common designation for compilations of French dances now called suites. The production of the Third Suite was a group effort: Bach wrote the first violin and continuo parts, Emanuel wrote out the trumpet, oboe, and timpani parts, and Bach’s student Johann Ludwig Krebs wrote out the rest, instrumentation that the late Joseph Kerman termed a “festive Baroque orchestra.” However, the musicologist Joshua Rifkin (he who also first proposed the concept that Bach’s choir was essentially a solo ensemble) has argued that it may have been originally written for strings alone, with other parts added later.

The suite opens with the customary three-part French Ouverture with rising sweeping gestures and crisp dotted rhythms punctuated by trumpets and timpani. The lively fugal section (marked vite) that follows is propelled by corta figures until the first violins emerge from the texture in a soloistic concerto-like section. The opening material then returns, symmetrically framing the middle section.

One of Bach’s greatest hits follows. The lyrical Air (the English term for “aria”) in the first violins is set over striding octaves in the bass and interwoven with lines from the second violins and violas. It gained popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century as a parlor piece played entirely on the lowest string (G) of the violin with inevitable schmaltz and unavoidable slides.

The French court dances comprising the rest of the suite were known collectively as Galanterie. Bach encountered them played by the French band of the Duke of Celle while he was a choirboy at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg in 1700-02. The Gavottes are paired in the order ABA: Gavotte I – Gavotte II – Gavotte I, as were other dances in the period, including the minuet. This formal organization continued as the third movement “Minuet & Trio” of the symphony in the Classic era and the “Scherzo” of the Romantic.

The eccentric Bourrée is marked by second-beat leaps that displace the accent, resulting in syncopation. It is reinforced by a terse figure in the bass that seems left over from Gavotte II. The Gigue is a type called an Italian Giga, in a continuous stream of galloping eighth-notes.

The absence of documentation pertaining to Bach’s ten-year directorship of the Collegium compared to the numerous complaints, petitions, and perceived affronts he voiced to civic, school, and church officials in the same period suggests that his relationship with Gottfried Zimmermann was a congenial one and that the hours spent in the Zimmermannsches Kaffeehaus were some of the most enjoyable in his life. No money ever seems to have changed hands, neither for the musicians nor for the producer of this extraordinary repertoire. They were literally amateurs, making music for the love of it. Surrounded by talented university students, civil servants, pupils, and family members playing to well-caffeinated audience, Bach enriched the musical life of Leipzig at its social center, free of the criticism that vexed and constrained him in the church.