The Clavier-Übung II

(BWV 971 and 831)

The so-called Italian Concerto (BWV 971) and French Overture (BWV 831) were published together in 1735 as the second instalment in a series of keyboard works which Bach called Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). In this set, Bach demonstrates his skills and knowledge in the keyboard transcription of two main orchestral genres – concerto and overture suites – the genres that respectively represent two main national styles of the day, Italian and French.

Historical Background

The musical tastes of the early eighteenth century are much concerned with the differences in national styles. As can be seen in the Six Partitas (BWV 825-30, published in sequence from 1726 to 1730, and reissued together in 1731 as ‘Opus 1’), Bach has successfully demonstrated his extraordinary skills in assimilating all the styles or forms that were available to him. In them, the foreign musical elements became an intrinsic part of Bach’s own style, and with them Bach accomplished one of his important compositional aims. How much more could he explore in a future project?

A fresh inspiration came from his involvement with the collegium musicum from 1729 as its new director. Naturally, his interest in the genre of orchestral and chamber music grew considerably as he spent a much energy and time preparing for performances. The programmes presumably included works by well-known Italian masters such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Locatelli as well as his countrymen Telemann, Hasse, and the Graun brothers. Bach most probably performed keyboard solo as well; he surely included his own works, not only from the recently published Partitas but also keyboard transcriptions of works by other composers, including those that he wrote in Weimar as a young man. Bach must have been aware how much he learned through the process of transcription, and how deeply it influenced on his development as a composer, as the essence of Italian styles is clearly reflected in his keyboard works.  The opening movements of the English Suites and Partitas are some of the best examples of what he learned from this experience. Bach’s enthusiasm in this genre was also reflected in his teaching at the time, as we know that his pupil Johann Adolph Scheibe (1708-76) copied one such transcription, the Concerto in C minor (BWV 981), which Bach arranged from one of Benedetto Marcello’s violin concertos (1708). It may be worth noting that Scheibe’s own arrangement of Vivaldi’s violin concerto also survives, which which provides additional context for his review of Bach’s Italian Concerto ten years later.

In a newspaper advertisement on 1st May 1730, the people of Leipzig saw the following announcement: ‘now Bach’s fifth Suite [i.e. Partita No. 5 in G major, BWV 829] is available, and with two more appearing by the forthcoming Michaelmas fair the set will reach completion, as is hereby notified to lovers of keyboard instruments’. While the sixth was published later that year, the seventh did not appear. It is commonly thought that this unpublished suite was the C minor suite (BWV 831a) that we now know as an early version of the French Overture through two surviving manuscript copies, one in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, and the other by Johann Gottlieb Preller (1727-86). According to the Bach scholar Georg von Dadelsen, Anna’s copy, the earlier of the two, was made no later than 1733.

It is uncertain why Bach decided not to adhere to his original plan to publish this C minor suite in 1730; it may be that this suite was not only too distinctly French in character but also far greater in scale, and thus at odds with the other suites. The duplication of C minor key might have been another factor (even though it may already have been transposed to B minor at this point in time; but even so, it would ruin the sophisticated sequence of keys Bach devised for this set: B flat–c–a–D–G–e, gradually expanding upward and downward intervals – viz. a second up, a third down, a fourth up, a fifth down, a sixth up). Yet perhaps more important was its requirement of a double-manual harpsichord; this could have prompted Bach to decide that his ‘Opus 1’ should consist of six keyboard suites that can be played with a single-manual harpsichord, leaving the seventh to the next set that requires a double-manual instrument.

One of the most distinctive features of the C minor version is that in the dotted-rhythm section of the overture it frequently has semiquavers where the published version has demisemiquavers. Many of the notational differences are simply a matter of convention; the performer of the time was expected to read it according to the rules of the old French tradition. The published version explains the older notation, but not in every detail. Not only is the same type of rhythm sometimes notated less fully than elsewhere, but also the fine nuance of double-dotting and notes inégales is never expressly indicated in notation.

In clear contrast, the early version of the Italian Concerto has an entirely different history. This version is also transmitted in two manuscript copies, the one in the hand of the Nuremberg organist Leonhard Scholz (1720-98) and the other the Bernburg organist Johann Christoph Oley (1738-89), both containing the first movement of the Italian Concerto only. Although they respectively contain some variants and independent corrections, there is sufficient textual evidence to show that they originated from an early version of this movement that Bach wrote many years earlier, possibly dating back to his Weimar years. To begin with, both its thematic and accompanimental materials are somewhat different and developed differently from the printed version. The texture in the sequences is often dominated by the right-hand melody, demoting the role of the left hand to a simple chordal accompaniment.

There are fewer decorations, too, and no forte / piano indications are given. Interestingly, Scholz’s copy has the heading Allegro moderato, a tempo designation lacking in the printed version. But more interesting is that the Scholz version has a conspicuous tutti/solo contrast in the texture, which lends credibility to the possibility that Bach reworked it from a lost solo concerto.

The remaining movements of the Italian Concerto do not appear in an early shape in any of the surviving manuscripts – probably because they were new compositions for the Clavier-Übung II project. In a recent article, Federico Garcia argues that the first movement could have been the product of a transcription while the other movements could not. He concludes: ‘Bach composed the first movement of [what would be] the Italian Concerto with the idea of imitating, to the last detail, a keyboard transcription of an orchestral concerto.’ His observation that the character of free development in Bach’s Italian Concerto complements and completes the ‘realistic evocation’ of the first movement sounds plausible.

The Original Edition

The work first appeared at the Easter fair of 1735. The title page was inscribed as follows:

Second part of the Keyboard Practice, consisting of a Concerto after the Italian Taste and an Overture after the French Manner, for a harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister to His Highness the Prince of Saxe-Weissenfels and Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis. Published by Christoph Weigel Junior.

Bach had just turned fifty, and four years had elapsed since the publication of the previous set, the Six Partitas. By this time, Balthasar Schmid and Johann Gotthilf Ziegler, two of Bach’s gifted students who engraved the music for him, had long left Leipzig. On this occasion it was a Nuremberg publisher, Christoph Weigel Jr. (1703-77) to whom Bach entrusted the engraving and publication of the work. Weigel was the son of a well-established engraver and art dealer in Nuremberg, who had just become independent from his father’s business; this work is thus one of his first projects. In his recent study Gregory Butler has identified the names of engravers who worked for Weigel: the Italian Concerto was the work of Johann Georg Puschner, a prolific Nuremberg engraver, and the French Overture was produced by a team of three engravers led by an associate of Puschner, Johann Christoph Döhne. The title page was the work of Balthasar Schmid, who had yet to start his own music engraving business in Nuremberg.

Currently sixteen copies of the original prints are known to have survived. Of these, five are the first imprint (which includes Bach’s personal copy that records numerous corrections in his hand), and eleven the revised, second edition. The latter most likely appeared within the following eighteen months, judging from Bach’s Weissenfels title which remained uncorrected. (The appointment ceased in the summer of 1736 owing to the Duke’s death on 28th June, and the Dresden appointment to the post of Hof Compositeur which Bach desperately wanted for several years was finally granted on 19th November 1736.) The newspaper advertisements issued in Nuremberg on 1st July 1735 and Leipzig on 13th August 1735 may in fact refer to the dates when this revised edition became available in the respective towns.

When comparing the two imprints, it is surprising to discover how numerous and wide-ranging the changes were. The most obvious is the re-engraving of pages 20-22, which was clearly to have a better page turn at the end of page 21 (‘Gavotte 2de’). The first issue is full of mistakes. When comparing with the corrections found in Bach’s personal copy, it is clear that the person who entered corrections into the first imprints was unfamiliar with music. Not all the corrections were entered properly; some were miscorrected and others left uncorrected. More puzzling still, some of the changes recorded in Bach’s personal copy appear correctly in the second imprint, but others do not. There are also some texts in the second imprint that look as if they were revised, later readings, but Bach’s personal copy shows no trace of them being revised. The newly re-engraved pages contain fresh errors as well, hinting that Bach did not proofread them. Walter Emery suggests that there was once a proof copy, now lost, prepared from Bach’s personal copy to which Bach transferred his corrections with additions and omissions. But the loss of this proof copy alone is not sufficient to account for the complex textual problems inherent in the work. It indicates that much of the work was carried out in Nuremberg, and not under the watchful eyes of the composer, and that the project was not managed as well as it could have been. Emery’s conclusion that ‘everyone connected with the [production of] the original edition was criminally careless’ speaks for Bach who must have been very disappointed with Weigel.

For us, this work provides an excellent model for studying how an eighteenth-century composer worked in partnership with the emerging music-publishing business. For musicologists, it also provides an ideal opportunity to discuss how composers’ ideas could be misrepresented during the process of preparing an edition, and how they should deal with the text in a modern critical edition.

Character and Reception

There is little information about how the general public received this work. The only known contemporary review of is that by J.A. Scheibe who in December 1739 noted that the Italian Concerto was ‘arranged in the best possible fashion for this kind of work’. He expanded this in 1745: ‘I believe that it will be doubtless be familiar to all great composers and experienced clavier players, as well as amateurs of the clavier and music in general. Who is there who will not admit at once that this clavier concerto is to be regarded as a perfect model of a well-designed solo concerto?’ Remember that this is the same man who in May 1737 attacked Bach’s compositional styles as ‘turgid and confused’. Such an attack would have been unnecessary if Scheibe had been acquainted with the Italian Concerto or genuinely appreciated Bach’s musical language.

What Scheibe conveys in his later, positive comments is intriguing. He seems to be praising Bach here because, in the Italian Concerto, Bach appears to have abandoned his trademark principles of thoroughness and rigour – which we normally find in his other works including orchestral concertos – by featuring a homophonic texture, short and well delineated melodic lines, and slow-moving harmonies. Does this mean that this work is a proof for Bach to have surrendered to the emerging tastes of new generation as Scheibe seems to be claiming?

Scheibe was wrong. As discussed above, it is the shift in Bach’s compositional aims in this work that makes it look as if Bach accommodated himself to modern tastes. Instead of assimilating and developing stylistic ideas in his characteristic manner, Bach on this occasion appears to have imposed on himself a stricter guideline to separate two national identities, and pursued them in a clear, straightforward manner. This he maintained until the last movement of the overture, Echo, in which the two were deliberately mixed to bring this extraordinary work to a satisfying close. Throughout this work Bach explored contrast in many areas, from stylistic ideas such as form, phrase lengths and texture to their effective implementation in the actual performance by specifying the change of manuals by indicating forte / piano distinctions. More broadly, Bach contrasted three-movement concerto form with eleven-movement suite structure; his choice of keys was F major versus B minor – diametrically opposite in the tonal system, and separated by the tritone interval. In addition, Bach also sought contrast in his compositional approach between the first two Clavier-Übungen. The structural simplicity was a necessary requirement for effectively projecting such contrasting images. To present an exemplary model of its kind, perhaps, was the fundamental aim of this work.

(c) Yo Tomita 2006
This essay was written for Masaaki Suzuki's recording of this work released in Spring 2006 from BIS. (BIS-CD-1469)