J.S. Bach Italian
Concerto, The Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue
brief note about the Italian Concerto BWV 971, Capriccio on the
departure of a beloved brother BWV 992, Fantasie and Fugue in C minor
BWV 906, Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue BWV 903, Fantasie and Fugue A
minor BWV 904 and the Fantasie and Fugue A minor BWV 944 as featured in
my CD "Bach Italian Concerto and more".
and Other Pieces
Together with the Overture in the French
Style, the Italian Concerto
makes the second part of the Clavier-Übung, published in 1735 at
Nuremberg. The original title reads "Concerto nach Italienischem
Gusto" (Concerto in the Italian taste).
It is intended to be performed on a harpsichord with two keyboards. The
title page of the Goldberg Variations is the only other place where
J.S. Bach specified a particular instrument for a keyboard work. The
original instructions "forte" and "piano" prove the importance given by
the composer to the specific instrumentation of this piece.
Bach cherished the "Italian Style" particularly when he was at Weimar
(1708-1717). As a Concertmaster he had the possibility to closely
explore Italian composers' craft. Even though he often employed
themes by Corelli, Albinoni and Legrenzi, he particularly favored
Following the tradition of the time, he transcribed many of Vivaldi's
concertos, originally composed for other instruments to organ or
harpsichord. In his transcriptions, Bach never re-writes the music as
it is. He always embellish a theme by special ornamentations or even
harmonizations. The Italian Concerto follows the framework initiated by
Corelli and Vivaldi: fast, slow and fast movements.
The first movement of the Italian Concerto, rapid but with no tempo
indication, is also complying with the "Italian" style as exposition,
development and an identical (re) exposition.
"Solo" and "tutti" sections are clearly delimited and further
emphasized by the indications "piano" and "forte". The second movement,
"Andante" is the best part of the work with its "through-composed"
beautiful melodic line evolving over an "ostinato" left hand, typical
of the Italian masters and remarkable in its elegance. The last
movement "Presto" is similar to the first in its overall structure.
With this piece Bach realized one perfect harmony between the Italian
and Germanic styles.
A "young-Bach" composition, probably from 1704-1706: The Capriccio on the departure of a beloved
brother BWV 992
is referring to the leaving of his elder brother Johann Jacob appointed
oboist to Charles XII of Sweden. J.S. Bach is then organist at Arnstadt
and engaged to his cousin Maria Barbara. During the last months of 1705
he was traveling through Germany, including Lübeck to fulfill his
dearest wish: to hear the famous Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
organist at Marienkirche. Back at home he will resign and relocate to
This charming Capriccio is composed at a time when Bach was spending
endless hours copying by hand the works of great composers of his time.
The famous composers of the time which Bach studied in depth were:
Boehm from Germany, Marchand, Grigny, Couperin from France, Vivaldi and
Albinoni from Italy. Among them one he particularly favored and
replaced on the master's death in 1723 was the Cantor of the
Saint-Thomas of Leipzig: Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722).
It is probable that the "Biblical Sonatas" (Biblische Historien) by
Kuhnau, published in 1700, where the composer depicts with imagination
and craft various scenes of the Tora ("Old Testament"), impacted on
this piece. The six pieces are that many delicious "scenes" with
evocative Italian and German subtitles depicting the farewell and leave
of Johann Jacob.
The famous Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue BWV 903 is first
published in 1802. This extremely popular piece is probably composed in
Köthen between 1717 and 1723 and re-worked in Leipzig in 1730.
This set is one of the works by J.S. Bach who made the strongest impact
to the romantic era composers. No other composer than J.S. Bach at his
time realized a keyboard piece with such a dramatic impact.
The Fantasia is presented almost as an "improvising chart". Only the
basic musical structure is given. It can be performed in numerous ways,
all can be right (or wrong). The speed of the many lines are indicated
vaguely, of course there is no dynamic or tempo indication, and the
arpeggiated chords can be performed in all possible ways. At the end
what makes a good rendition of the piece is the last overall impression
The piece articulates as a vast Toccata. Fast and wide scale lines
running through the entire keyboard (of that time), which certainly had
an incredible impact on the listeners of the epoch. Arpeggiated chords
with extreme richness, including un-resolved harmonic tensions and
provocative dissonances alternate with cross-hands sections in a
brilliant, dazzling ecriture. Then follows a vast "arioso"
sectionalized by arpeggiated chords which bring many unexpected
harmonizations. A long chromatic coda ends the Fantasie by mixing
elements of the initial "Toccata" and the following "Arioso".
The Fugue contrasts with the preceding Fantasie, it begins with a calm
and serene exposition of the theme, almost in a "strict counterpoint"
style. However it will soon develop into "free-style" fugal ecriture.
The counter-subject is much more flexible, this counter-subject will
provide for all the lengthy divertimentos to follow. Seldom, if never
in the harpsichord music of J.S. Bach, the theme appears once doubled
at octaves in the bass with "block-chords" on the other hand towards
A Frescobaldi style Toccata starts the Fantasie and Fugue A minor
In many other places, for example in the Fugue in E major of the
Well-tempered Clavier II, Bach employs the "old-fashion" polyphonic
style with grandeur and amazing emotional impact. The Fantasie here
adopts such a style: a noble reserve and profound beauty. The
four-voice double-theme fugue is one Bach's bests. The gay and
energetic first theme is in complete contrast with the supplicant,
descending chromatic second one. The mixture of both is making for a
very interesting fugal texture.
The ten measures long Fantasia from the Fantasie and Fugue A
minor BWV 944
is like one single phrase taken out from the Chromatic Fantasie. The
indication "Arpeggio" instructs the performed to "improvise" something
out of those chords by arpegiating them in many ways. Then follows one
hundred ninety eight bars (typically 8 pages) long, single-themed
fugue. The mono-rhythmic (with 16th. notes only) theme is extending to
six full bars. It is the initial aspect of the organ fugue theme BWV
543. The fugue becomes a "moto-perpetuo" making use of most ranges of