When One is Enough

by George Bozarth
Co-Artistic Director, Musique du Jour Presents

Today we come to Johann Sebastian Bach’s final two concertos for multiple harpsichords, the second Triple Concerto and the Concerto for Four Harpsichords. We know that the latter is a recasting of a Vivaldi concerto, and we suspect that the former may be based on an Italian concerto as well, though its textural density seems uniquely Bachian.

CONCERTO in C major for Three Harpsichords and Strings, BWV 1064

Allegro – Largo – Allegro

This triple concerto survives in nine manuscript copies, but no autograph score in Bach’s hand has been discovered.  In five of the manuscripts the concerto is in C major, in the others four, D major, which, as the key most suitable for violin works, suggests that it may have been based on an Italian violin concerto, possibly one by Giuseppe Torelli or Antonio Vivaldi. As Baroque violinist and conductor Marc Destrubé has observed, “the prevalence of violinistic figuration in the keyboard parts” lends support to this notion.

Right from the start the three harpsichords hunt as a pack to seize the strings’ tutti opening.  Such synchronicity continues throughout, so much so that the players often duplicate each other’s notes and are always weaving their contrapuntal lines into a close fabric to present a constant wall of harpsichord sound. When one voice charges up, another plunges down, sequences of notes spiral around and about, trills and rapid-fire sixty-fourth notes attack, all in all creating a wildly joyous Allegro.  One is left breathless!

Relief from unrelenting dynamism comes with the central movement in A minor, a not-too-dark pearl permeated with sighs – though when the second violin sighs downward, the first violin sighs upwards, creating little relief points that temper depression throughout. For the most part the strings leave the four harpsichord to themselves.

The openly joyous theme of the final Allegro is all sequences, first rising upwards, then cascading downwards in straightforward figures. Soloists and tutti work together throughout much of the movement.  But when the soloists take off on their own, they display supreme virtuosity, with their triplet and sixteenth-note passagework, all swirling and twirling, like the Solomonic columns in Renaissance and Baroque churches, also heard in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto].  Notwithstanding a somber minor-key section just before the last C-major ritornello, if you need to experience a dynamic, life-affirming piece of music, this movement should do the trick.


Solomonic columns, Marktkirche, Paderborn, Saxony – PDF

Our performers are Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Siebe Henstra and Menno van Delft, with the Netherlands Baroque Society.


CONCERTO in A minor for Four Harpsichords and Strings, BWV 1065

Allegro – Largo-Larghetto-Adagio-Largo – Allegro

Scholar Michael Talbot has described Antonio Vivaldi’s set of 12 concertos for strings, L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), Op. 3, as “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.” Indeed, when Vivaldi had them published in Amsterdam in 1711, no less a contemporary than Johann Sebastian Bach sat up and took notice. Soon he was at work, seeing how they ticked, literally making them his own by arranging them for organ. (The rest of musical Europe took note too: between 1711 and 1743, twenty reprints of the Amsterdam edition were issued.)  Through this process of copying and reworking, Bach honed his compositional craft and learned the pioneering form of the orchestral ritornello concerto, in which the opening tutti section was repeated, in full or in part, between the modulatory sections of soloistic display.

Anonymous, Portrait, probably of Antonio Vivaldi (Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca della Musica di Bologna)

Antonio Vivaldi, L’estro armonico, Op. 3 (1st edition, Amsterdam, 1711)

Johann Ernst Rentsch the Elder, Possibly the Young Bach (Angermuseum, Erfurt)


Bach, Organ Concerto in D minor, BWV 596

In Vivaldi’s originals, which were first performed by the soloists and members of the composer’s all-girl orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, each concerto consisted of seven independent parts for strings, plus a basso continuo for violoncello/violone and harpsichord.  Within each of the four groups of three concertos in the opus, the first was for four violins, the second for two violins, and the third a solo violin concerto. In each concerto for two violins, the violoncello has soloistic concertante passages, as it did in the traditional Roman concerto grosso, in which a concertino group of two solo violins and cello played in contrast to a tutti of the full string orchestra.


Ospedale della Pietà, Venice


Francesco Guardi, Orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice

So reducing these orchestral works for organ, Bach quite literally had his hands (and feet) full, but not so much that he couldn’t add even more notes to Vivaldi’s originals!

Most likely in the period from July 1713 to July 1714, while serving as organist at the court of the Duke of Weimar, Bach arranged three of the solo violin concertos for unaccompanied harpsichord:

  • No. 3 —> BWV 978
  • No. 9 —> BWV 972
  • No. 12 —> BWV 976

The-Ducal-Court-of-Weimar – PDF

Artist’s Reconstruction of the Weimar Chapel

During the same period he transcribed two of the double violin concertos for the solo organ:

  • No. 8 —> BWV 593
  • No. 11 —> BWV 596

In the late 1720s or early 1730s he made his final arrangement, of one of the concertos for four violins as a concerto for four harpsichords, strings, and basso continuo, changing the key of the piece from B minor to A minor.

  • No. 10 —> BWV 1065

In the first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Four Violins – which begins with a soloist presenting the ritornello material, before the tutti takes it up – Bach adds to Vivaldi’s original his own punctuating string entries during the solo sections and increases the excitement of the soloists’ passages with fast runs and trills.  He also enriches the string’s long-held notes with trills during the “sliding” modulatory tutti sections and enhances the cello and violone  parts under the soloists with new counterpoint that drives the motion forward.  To the same end, he adds sixteenth notes to the points where the tutti shifts to the soloists and vice versa and deploys one or more harpsichords to fill out the passages where Vivaldi had only one solo violin playing.  In Bach’s version of the first movement, the dynamism never lets up.

The brief, transitional Largo introduces inverted lines not in Vivaldi’s concerto, to create mild dissonance against the soloists’ rising lines in dotted rhythm.  After a Larghetto of rippling harpsichords, the dotted rhythms return, creating the feeling of the opening section of a French overture.

In the Finale, Bach resumes his “improvements” to Vivaldi with extra counterpoint and tutti reinforcement of the solo passages.  And of course he has eight hands at his disposal to fill out the soloists’ soundscape.

Our performers are Siebe Henstra, Menno van Delft, Pieter-Jan Belder, Tineke Steenbrink, with the Netherlands Bach Society:


If you would like to hear to the original version of Vivaldi’s concerto, I would recommend the performance by Boston Baroque, with soloists Christina Day Martinson, Jesse Irons, Sarah Darling, and Asako Takeuchi: