In the spring of 1725, after producing a weekly flow of cantatas for two years as the new St. Thomas Cantor in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach suddenly stopped composing. When he had arrived in May 1723, he had promised the Town Council ia that he would provide new vocal music for the main worship service each Sunday, and at first he made good on this pledge, compiling two annual sets of cantatas in short order. But in May 1725, when it came time to write a third cycle, he hesitated, turning instead to existing works or to pieces by his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach.
We are not certain why Bach delayed work on his third cantata cycle. What we do know is that when he finally began to compose in earnest once again a year later, in the spring of 1726, he focused immediately on a new type of cantata setting that featured the use of obbligato organ. Between May and November 1726 Bach wrote six works—Cantatas 146, 170, 35, 47, 169, and 49 that display a rich array of sinfonias, choruses, and arias calling for organ solo. Almost all of these movements appear to be derived from pre-existing violin and oboe concertos from Bach’s Cothen years (1717-1723), when he served as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold. In Leipzig, Bach carefully revised the music, transferring the solo parts to the organ and, when fashioning choruses and arias, layering in vocal lines as well.
Bach seems to have created this new type of church setting as part of his intense interest in novel vocal and instrument combinations, a passion that comes to the fore in the third cantatacycle. In addition, several of the six cantatas were performed during the annual Leipzig trade fairs, when especially grand pieces were featured in the Sunday worship service for the benefit of out-of-town visitors. It is quite possible that Bach wished to place his own widely praised skills as a virtuoso keyboard player on display in the organ obbligato movements, much as he did several years later, as collegium musicum director, in the concertos for one, two, three, and four harpsichords.
Although the original Cothen sources for most of the organ obbligato movements are lost, we have a good idea of the original music from Bach’s later reworking of the scores as solo harpsichord concertos. In the cantata arrangements: the organ stands midway between solo instrument and continuo instrument: the right hand carries the treble melody in obbligato fashion, while the left hand doubles the bass line in the manner of a basso continuo. In the later harpsichord concertos, Bach treated the left hand of the keyboard differently, freeing it from its purely continuo role and giving it greater contrapuntal independence.
The organ obbligato movements therefore represent an intermediary stage of development between the COthen violin and oboe concertos and the Leipzig harpsichord concertos. The organ obbligato movements are also important because they show Bach’s desire to treat the organ as a chamber instrument rather than a church instrument. The movements display light chamber meters (such as 3/8) and galant instrumental figurations that were new to the organ. The cantata movements set the stage for the Six Trio Sonatas, the Schtibler Chorales, and other progressive organ works of Bach’s final decades.
The Leipzig organ obbligato movements were written for the large three-manual instruments of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches in Leipzig, and thus it is likely that the obbligato lines sounded on full-length 8’ stops, including fashionable orchestral registers (oboes, transverse flutes, gambas, and geigen principals) that contemporary builders bragged could not be distinguished from real instruments. The diminutive sounds produced on portative organs in most modem recordings have little to do with Bach’s own practice. In addition, the continuo parts in the movements were generally realized on the harpsichords that were located in the galleries of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches. The present recording reflects Bach’s mode of performance: the obbligato parts are played on a full-size pipe organ (a 39-stop instrument built by Paul Fritts, 2001) and the keyboard cuntinuo is realizcd on a harpsichord (a single-manual French instrument built by Willard Martin, 1981).
In the present recording, Joan Lippincott has taken miscellaneous organ-obbligato movements from Bach’s cantatas and arranged them in appropriate fast-slow-fast sequences to produce three concertos—two in D minor and one in D major. This is fully in the spirit of Bach, who often created concertos, cantatas, prelude-fugue pairs, and other composite forms by bringing together miscellaneous movements from existing works. In addition, it is clear that the groupings adopted here were sanctioned by Bach himself, since they reflect his own arrangements of the music in his Leipzig harpsichord concertos.
The Concerto in D Minor is derived from three movements of Cantata 35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret, written for September 8, 1726. The fast outer movements of the concerto appear as sinfonias in the cantata, both richly scored for solo organ, three oboes, strings, and continuo. The slow movement appears as the opening aria. To judge from the organ obbligato part, the three movements stem from a lost oboe concerto. Bach later recycled the music as Concerto No. 8 in D Minor for Harpsichord, BWV 1059, of which only a fragment of the first movement survives.
The opening movement, an allegro in 4/4 meter, is cast as a rilornello form with a vigorous tutti theme framing solo episodes for the organ. The middle movement, a siciliano-like piece in 6/8, is derived here from the aria score. The concluding Presto is a brisk 3/8-meter dance in binary form.
The music for the Concerto in D Major most certainly stems from a lost Cöthen instrumental piece that Bach later rearranged as Concerto No. 2 in E Major for Harpsichord, BWV 1053. For his cantatas, Bach converted the opening Allegro and the Siciliano of the concerto into the Sinfonia and alto aria “Stirb in mir, Welt” for Cantata 169, Gott soll allein mein Hertze haben, of October 20, 1726. Two weeks later he returned to the concerto score to appropriate the remaining movement, the closing allegro, for the Sinfonia for Cantata 49, Ich gehe und suche mit Verlangen, of November 3, 1726. In all three cases he converted the instrumental solo (possibly for oboe, or perhaps flute) into an obbligato part.
The opening Allegro is a vigorous ritornello form in 4/4 time. The middle movement is a siciliano, a graceful Italian dance much favored by Bach in his Cöthen and Leipzig instrumental concertos (as we have already seen in the Concerto in D Minor). In the present performance, the alto vocal line added to the score by Bach is omitted. The closing Allegro is a light but extended dance movement in 3/8 time.
The famous Sinfonia in D Major from Cantata 29, Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, has a fascinating genesis. The music originated in 1720 as a single-line, perpetuum mobile Prelude for Partita 3 in E Major for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1006. Around 1729 Bach used the Prelude as the basis for the Sinfonia to Part II of the wedding cantata, Heir Gott, Beherscher al/er Dinge, BWV 120a, assigning the solo violin part to organ and fleshing out the music with oboes, strings, and continuo. Two years later he added trumpets and timpani to the wedding- cantata score to produce the still-more-festive Sinfonia for Cantata 29, written for the change of Town Council ceremony in the St. Nicholas Church on August 27, 1731. The version heard here is from BWV 120a.
The Sinfonia in C Minor from Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, is one of the few early examples of Bach’s instrumental writing. Dating from around 1714, it is scored for oboe, strings, and continuo. in this recording, it is played by oboe, violin, and continuo. Marked adagio assai, it establishes an appropriate atmosphere of angst for the opening chorus of the cantata, “I had much distress and woe in my heart.” It also demonstrates Bach’s early interest in invertible counterpoint, clearly evident at the outset in the exchange of lines between the oboe and the violin.
The music of the Concerto in D Minor comes from a lost Cothen violin concerto that Bach subsequently arranged as Concerto No. 1 in D Minor for Harpsichord, BWV 1052. For his cantatas, Bach divided the concerto music into two portions. He converted movements I and 2 into the Sinfonia and opening chorus of Cantata 146, Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal in das Reich Gattes eingehen, of May 12, 1726. He then transformed movement 3 into the Sinfonia for Cantata 188, Ich habe meine Zuversicht, of October 17, 1728, a work that survives in fragmentary form only. In each case, Bach transferred the solo violin part to the organ.
The opening Allegro, an ambitious ritornello form of 190 measures, displays extensive solo episodes for the organ, including violin figures (double-stop and bariolage passages) that do not fall easily under finger. The original violin part appears to have exceeded the upper range of Bach’s keyboard, so he transposed the notes down an octave in the obbligato organ part and performed them on a 4’ stop—a technique he employed in his Weimar organ arrangement of Vivaldi’s Great Mogul Concerto, BWV 594. The Adagio is a quasi-ostinato form, framed by a unison figure performed by the tutti, in the manner seen in many of Vivaldi’s slow movements. The concluding Allegro is a lively dance in 3/4 meter, with increasingly complex organ solos altemating with the opening ritornello theme.
Visitors to the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches in the late 1720s must have been astonished by the novel sound and technical virtuosity of Bach’s obbligato organ movements. The ambitious scale of many of the pieces (the Sinfonia to Cantata 49 runs 395 measures) shows that Bach did not mind interrupting the worship service with instrumental music of symphonic proportions. Although Handel is commonly credited with the invention of the organ concerto in the mid-l730s, it was Bach, clearly, who first explored the extraordinary possibilities of the genre—as the music assembled here by Joan Lippincott aptly demonstrates.
Sinfonia in D minor : Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35, no. 1-2
Sinfonia in D major: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169, no. 1-2
Sinfonia in E major: Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, no. 1
Sinfonia in D major: Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29, no. 1
Sinfonia in C minor: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, no. 1
Sinfonia in D minor: Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen, BWV 146
Sinfonia in D minor: Ich habe meine Zuversicht auf den getreuen Gott gericht, BWV 188
—George B Stauffer