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Along with the awe one feels about the magnitude and the majesty of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is the realization that Bach came not to this sphere to invent or revolutionize, but to magnify and glorify that which he found in the then-world, to crown the Baroque period, to be its magnificent culmination. That realization is indeed familiar to us; it was not to his contemporaries. Unlike his exact contemporary Handel, who traveled about Europe and finally settled in England where he became an on, off and on again national hero, Bach was hopelessly provincial, never setting foot outside Germany. Would the Italians, the French or the British have taken Bach to their collective hearts had they had the opportunity to welcome him on their soil? We will never know. Those of his countrymen who knew him at all were dazzled by his performances at the organ but considered him merely a workmanlike composer of no special distinction. Even his musical sons thought papa an old fuddy-duddy, not a musician of his time.
Considering the low esteem in which his music was held, it is a miracle that the manuscripts themselves ever survived (though many of them didn’t), finally to be brought out publicly in the 1820s, by Felix Mendelssohn among others. Since the 19th century emergence of his long dormant works, Bach's music has undergone various incarnations, but its purity was largely a well-kept secret. This is not to say that the essence of the music even then was completely obscured, only that, as with Da Vinci's The Last Supper, upon which the ravages of time inflicted tragic disfigurements that only recently have been removed, Bach's works suffered a severe identity crisis. Only relatively recently, as a result of the work of dedicated, diligent, and practical musicologists have the crusty layers of mistaken tradition been chipped away, revealing the real Bach. And that Bach is not only beautiful and impressive, but also precise, incredibly facile, endlessly inventive, intellectually staggering, moving, sublimely expressive, intensely virile, profound, joyous.
In his early years, Bach held a succession of jobs that contributed importantly to his development. In 1717 he took his penultimate post as court conductor to Prince Leopold at Cöthen. There he composed a great variety of secular music - solo, chamber, and orchestral - and many instructive pieces. He flourished in the atmosphere of the court, partly because the young Prince, himself a skilled musician, was zealous about the quality of music provided, primarily because of the fine orchestra of players maintained there. Already familiar with the orchestral music of the Italian masters Corelli and Vivaldi through painstaking study of their scores, Bach could now put his hard-gained knowledge to practical use. He did, and with disarming results, for in Cöthen were written many secular works, among them the six Brandenburg Concertos.
During his stay in Cöthen, Bach suffered the loss of his wife Barbara, whom he had married in 1707. He remarried, in December 1721, this wife, Anna Magdalena, bore him 13 children, bringing his total progeny to 20, of which only nine survived him. Bach's Cöthen period ended in 1723 when, after Prince Leopold's marriage to an unmusical girl resulted in the lessening of the importance of music in the court, the composer felt it was time to move on and again serve God in a church capacity. It was to Leipzig that his fortunes brought him, where as Cantor of St. Thomas he lived out his life, laboring prodigiously, undergoing many humiliations, but never receiving the peace of mind, and certainly not the honor, his genius should certainly have afforded him.
When in 1729 Bach became director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, most of whose weekly concerts were given in Zimmermann's coffeehouse, he was called upon to supply much of the music. Considering the composer’s keyboard prowess and inasmuch as his keyboard-playing elder sons were in residence during the early years of his directorship, it is not surprising that many of the works for the Collegium took the form of harpsichord concertos. And since the teacher-organist-composer was already notoriously overworked, it is no wonder that these concertos are either reworkings of his own compositions -- primarily of violin concertos, the original scores of most of which have never been found -- or transcriptions of pieces by others. Thus it is to the happy circumstance of his association with the Collegium Musicum that we owe the existence of Bach's keyboard concertos, and to the convention of the day that smiled upon plagiarism, self or otherwise. Going even further in Bachian compositional economics, we find the first two movements of the present concerto turning up as the Sinfonia and first chorus respectively of his cantata, BWV 146, and the finale as the Sinfonia in the cantata, BWV 188.
The D minor Concerto, in typical Baroque fashion, is predicated on the dramatic conflict between solo and tutti (orchestra), each being armed with independent (sometimes equal) musical materials which are weapons used to gain dominance, although there are times when orchestra and solo reconcile and share the material. Bach maintains unusual consistency in the matter of minor-keyed seriousness throughout the Concerto, even to casting the slow middle movement in its own minor key. The material here, unfolding like a pathetic aria, is austere, even tragic, but in a pictorial, not a personal way. The compositional organization in this Adagio is concise and transparent: the first tutti theme, a long (13 measure) theme, becomes the bass to the keyboard's melody, and as such is ever present, complete or in part, as the keyboard pursues an ever-more flowering expressiveness. The unfolding of the aria-like melody entwined in the orchestra’s theme is so powerful and compelling that the whole emerges as nothing less than a miracle of inspired invention.
The first and third movements have a degree of unity rarely found in Bach works: the rhythmic figure of the respective first themes bear a strong family resemblance, and both movements have very similar technically demanding repeated-note passages for the solo. Still, the work is endowed with amazing variety, achieved through many elements, including harmony, thematic development, rhythmic vigor and, fascinatingly, the major-minor shifts that we associate with the Romantics of a century later. There are several examples of the latter practice in the first movement. Particularly affecting are the times when the tutti's main, minor-keyed theme glows like warm sunlight through storm clouds when turned to major. Heavenly.
The considerable virtuosity demanded from the soloist in the fast movements is, of course, vastly different than that which we know and love in the grand 19th-century concertos, including the Emperor. But make no mistake, Bach’s D-minor Concerto is not for the faint fingered.