Concerto for Oboe, Violin, and String Orchestra

BWV 1060, Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s six years as Court Kapellmeister and Director of the Princely Chamber of Musicians in Cothen (1717–1723) afforded him time to write secular music, which included more than a dozen concertos. First, Prince Leopold was a connoisseur of music and a musician, playing the viola da gamba, keyboard, violin, and he asked for instrumental repertoire for solo performance as well as for his 13-member orchestra. Second, since he was a Calvinist, the Prince did not require very much music for church services. Bach enjoyed this musical direction and opportunity. However, we do not have an exact date of composition for BWV 1060.

There are two big problems with the provenance. First, the original score was lost. Second, the transcription, which has formed the basis of the concerto’s reconstruction, was not written in Bach’s handwriting. What we do know is that Bach did make a second version for two harpsichords. Recycling his music in the harpsichord transcriptions was a common practice, and an efficient and necessary option to expand the performances of his music.

Differences between the extant harpsichord scores for this concerto in tessitura and melodic characteristics indicated that the composer was writing for contrasting solo instruments. The DNA of solo parts strongly suggested his initial choice of violin and oboe. Furthermore, they offered an imaginative combination in which, even when playing together, their distinctive timbres never faded.

BWV 1060 follows the standard Italian baroque concerto structure: three movements: fast-slow-fast. Other Italian influences (such as aria style melodies and strong rhythmic drive) were stylish in Cothen, and Bach made certain to include such elements which were pleasing to his employer. He was an avid student of Vivaldi, copying Vivaldi scores, and frequently informed by his music in this regard.

The first movement (Allegro) alternates between soloists (concertino) and orchestra (ripieno) clearly defining the separation of forces. A brisk, sturdy main theme is shared by soloists as well as the orchestra, not only in thematic imitation and combination, but also in motivic echoes. The tempo is unflagging, often sustained by long sixteenth note passages supporting independent solo lines.

Similar to Vivaldi concerto procedure, the second movement (Adagio) features an aria influenced melodic line. Beginning with the oboe, Bach fashions an elegant cantilena, drawn in contrapuntal texture as a duet for the soloists. Herein, the orchestra is continually held in the background, submissively producing soft pizzicato accompaniment. The closing features an extended oboe line leading to the closure.

The flashy last movement pops out with a crisp main theme, presented in entirety, which will also reappear within the central and closing sections of the movement (a ritornello.)  Its jaunty personality controls the mood, and it remains the main topic of conversation. Bach makes the most of his instrumental recipe with an emphasis on the baroque taste for contrast. Notice the consistent sixteenth note bustling allocated to the strings and solo violin combined with distinctive, idiomatic oboe writing. This contrasting feature is present as well in staccato articulations combined with legato passages. Baroque terraced dynamics (sudden louds and softs) are utilized throughout, not only within the individual forces, but also by rapid shifting between the instrumental power of soloists and orchestra. Unstoppable rhythmic energy and consistent fast tempo drive the concerto to a dashing conclusion.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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