View RSS Feed

Pierre's Tuesday Blog

BACH keeps it green

Rate this Entry
This is the seventh of Pierre's Twelve Days of Blogging.

Related thread: Orchestral Transcriptions / Orchestrations

Cette réflexion en français

Gustav Mahler, Ferruccio Busoni, Charles Gounod and Jacques Loussier (only to name those) have this in common: they all adapted or transcribed the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This may irk purists, but IMO all they are doing is perpetuating the tradition established by Bach himself.

When it comes to the "three R's" of green behaviour, Bach means them to be Recycle, Reuse and Re-invent.

Bach Recycles

If we take the time to look closely at the BWV catalog, and - for instance - to people who have annotated the catalog (like Robert Poliquin), you will notice comments like "Taken from the Ritournelle # 7 of BWV 207" or "Transcribed for the harpsichord, in G minor, BWV 1058".

Why did Bach recycle parts of earlier works? Probably because he had to meet a deadline, or simply because he thought he could "do better" - and he often did!

For example, the Brandenburg Concertos make copious use of recycling from the sinfonias and other selections of earlier Cantatas.

However, Bach makes most of his recycling in the concertos for solo instrument and strings, by exchanging the solo keyboard for a violin or oboe. Here's what I mean:

You probably recognized here the great concerto for two violins, BWV 1043. (Full performance is available here). Now, Bach recycles this very concerto by simply exchanging the violins for keyboards, giving us his concerto for two keyboards, BWV 1062 (full performance here):

In his fine Bach works list page, David J. Grossman brings up a set of reconstruvted concertos, which would be the direct ancestors of some of the (mainly) keyboard concertos from the BWV catalog. One such concerto is the violin and oboe concerto BWV 1060r (complete performance here):

According to the BWV catalog, here's the "official" version of this concerto, for two keyboards (complete performance here):

Bach Reuses

Bach tips his hat to many contemporary composers (Vivaldi, Telemann, Marcello, and even his sons!) all over his catalog. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose, and Bach will adapt and reuse these works from other composers, re-casting them for different instruments or under different settings altogether.

He has a number of organ works (BWV 592-597) that are organ settings of concertos by other composers. One of my favourites is his setting of Vivaldi's RV 522 violin concerto. Here is the original:

And now, the Bach organ transcription:

Similarly, Bach's keyboard catalog identifies a set (BWV 972-987) of solo keyboard that he calls "keyboard concertos". (Remember the Italian concerto?) One of these is a setting for solo keyboard of Marcello's oboe concerto (which I featured a few weeks ago in a guitar transcrioption by Liona Boyd):

Now, here's the adaptation by Bach, performed on the piano by Glenn Gould:

(Continued on a separate post)