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About this Piece

Notes for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Keyboard Concerto in G minor, BWV 1058


"Mache dich, mein Herze, rein," from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244


"Ich habe genug," Cantata, BWV 82

Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) long career in German-speaking central Europe culminated with his move to Leipzig in 1723. The city was, at the time, a leading regional trade center, comparable to Hamburg or Frankfurt-am-Main. Leipzig's University numbered among the leading such institutions in Europe, and the city's main church, the church of St. Thomas, with its long tradition of outstanding musicians, was a center for Lutheran church music. Leipzig's wealthy merchant population and proximity to the princely court in Saxony meant that abundant patronage was available and that there was an audience for concerts.

Bach's "job" in Leipzig actually comprised several positions. As music director of the city and cantor at the church of St. Thomas, Bach was responsible for music at Leipzig's four churches; as Kapellmeister to the Saxon court in Dresden, he provided occasional pieces and religious music; and he also directed the Collegium musicum, which gave a series of public concerts at one of the city's coffee houses. The three works on tonight's program demonstrate the wide-ranging skill in both sacred and secular music that made Bach perfectly suited to all of these roles.

Bach composed the G-minor Keyboard Concerto sometime during the 1730s for one of those Collegium musicum concerts. A newspaper announcement from July 1733, preserved in The New Bach Reader, mentions a keyboard as one of the attractions of a new series of Collegium musicum concerts: "It will begin with a fine concert, to be continued weekly, therein a new harpsichord, the like of which has never been heard in these parts before; and the friends of music as well as virtuosos are requested to attend." Bach copied his seven Keyboard Concertos into two volumes in 1739, so we can be certain the G-minor work was completed before that date. The work was an adaptation of the Violin Concerto in A minor, thought to have been written during Bach's period as music director in Cöthen (1717-23), although recent scholarship has argued that the concerto may also date from the composer's Leipzig years.

The work is based on the model of the Italian baroque concerto, with its layout in three movements (fast-slow-fast) and its alternation of orchestra (in this case, strings and continuo, which includes the keyboard) and soloist in the outer movements. Where the concerto diverges from this archetype is in the way Bach treats his thematic material. Rather than contrasting the soloist's material with that of the orchestra, the two are highly integrated and organic, with the soloist developing and elaborating motives first introduced by the orchestra, and vice-versa, something readily apparent in the opening movement. The soloist dominates the slow movement, introducing and then building on a serene, lyrical theme. The finale, a gigue in an unusual 9/8 meter, is the most contrapuntally dense of the three movements, opening with a fugue for the orchestra.

Tonight's two remaining examples of Bach's art were both originally intended for the church of St. Thomas. Both date from 1727, when Bach was at his most busy and inventive as a composer of sacred music. One of Bach's innovations was to invest his sacred music with a sense of compelling dramatic urgency, something apparent in both of the present works. (Another scholar, Joseph Kerman, once argued that the only compelling example of dramatic music between Monteverdi and Mozart was Bach's cantata "Jesu, der du meiner Seele," a position hardly tenable if you think about it, but you can see what he meant.) The bass aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (Purify yourself, my heart) comes toward the end of the St. Matthew Passion - Joseph of Arimathea has just recovered Jesus' body from Pilate and is about to lay it in the tomb - and is meant to reflect the personalized experience of the individual believer.

The congregation at the church of St. Thomas heard "Ich habe genug" (I have enough) nine weeks earlier, on February 2, to mark the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Candlemas). This cantata - the term simply refers to a work combining vocalists and orchestra (in this case, bass soloist with oboe and strings) that is usually longer than an aria but shorter than an opera - was among Bach's favorites, and he revisited it on at least three further occasions, revising the scoring and transposing the music for different voice types. The cantata contains three arias, all of which are cast in the operatic da capo form (A-B-A) - the first, with its elaborate oboe part, testifies to the pool of talented players available to Bach in Leipzig; the second is a profound lullaby; and the third is reminiscent of an operatic triumph aria. The gospel for the Feast, taken from Luke, provides some context for the music - "And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ."

- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Annotator/Designer.