For the first seven years of his tenure as Thomas-Cantor and Music Director for the city of Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach focused his energies primarily of creating a monumental body of music for the four churches which were in his charge. The body of work he produced is staggering in both quantity and quality, possibly unrivaled in Western musical history: at least three annual cycles of cantatas (about one hundred cantatas for each of the five years), the two Passions (according to St. John and to St. Matthew), plus works for special occasions, like the Magnificat, and the Sanctus in D (later to be included in the B-Minor Mass), the motets, and celebratory cantatas for the duchies of Anhalt-Cöthen and Weissenfels (from whom Bach held appointments as Court Capellmeister). In addition to the composing, rehearsing, and directing of all this music, he was also active as a teacher. At any one time his household included a number of students — apprentices, we might call them — who lived and worked with him as well as studying; two of his finest and most influential students were his own two eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel.
By 1729, however, Bach realized that the City Council of Leipzig was not entirely in tune with his vision of a “well-regulated church music” (the term he used in a letter to the Council outlining his minimum requirements for realizing his musical goals), and so he turned his attention to other outlets for his musical ambitions. Already from 1726 he was involved in the business of publishing and selling his own music and that of others, beginning with the six partitas for harpsichord that comprise his Opus 1, the first part of the Clavierübung. Another opportunity arose when in 1729 the Collegium Musicum of Leipzig found itself in need of a new director. This organization, which was one of the earliest ensembles to produce and perform public concerts in the modern sense, had been founded in 1701 by Bach’s friend (and godfather to his second son) Georg Philipp Telemann. (Incidentally, the direct lineal descendant of the Collegium Musicum still functions, one of the major musical organizations in Germany: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.) Bach’s Collegium Musicum performed a weekly two-hour concert at the largest and most prestigious coffee-house in Leipzig, that owned and operated by Gottfried Zimmermann (hence the title of this concert). Bach held the directorship of this Collegium through 1737, and again from 1739 through 1741.
For these concerts he had to compose or obtain, and rehearse and perform, a vast quantity of music — his 10-year tenure as director of the Collegium meant producing an estimated 500 concerts! — solo keyboard music, sonatas for flute, for violin, for viola da gamba, trio-sonatas, secular songs and cantatas, concerti, and suites. The need for such large quantities of music, combined with the desire to take advantage of the presence of three of the finest keyboard players of the day, Bach himself and his two eldest sons, led to the creation of a new genre, the keyboard concerto. (While it is true that Handel was creating his organ concerti at the same time in London, that was an evolutionary dead-end. Bach, on the other hand, created a taste for solo-keyboard with orchestra that he passed to his sons, and they in turn to Mozart and Haydn, leading eventually to Brahms and Rachmaninoff.) Most of these “new” harpsichord concerti were arrangements of older concerti, some of which exist also in their original forms: he simply transposed the solo-instrumental part to a key more suitable for the harpsichord and added a left-hand part that mostly elaborates the basso-continuo line. A few of them were new compositions specifically for the harpsichord.
For the Triple Concerto in A minor he took a rather different tack. The first curiosity is the solo-group of flute, violin, and harpsichord. He used the same combination in only one other piece, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto from 1718 — it seems possible that he created this new piece as a companion, perhaps performing it on the same concert (one of the violin-concerti which Bach arranged for harpsichord is the 4th Brandenburg, so he was using or recycling them). What is unique among his concerti, however, is the nature of the composition. Instead of transcribing a concerto, he took a Prelude and Fugue for harpsichord and expanded it into a concerto, expanding it by adding orchestral ritornelli and opening out the sections of the piece with orchestral interludes and development. A slow movement was creating by arranging for the concertino-group (flute, violin, and harpsichord) the slow movement from one of his sonatas for organ. Comparison of the concerto with the prelude and fugue from which it was parodied shows that the newer piece is greatly superior, in both structure and listener-appeal.
The other major orchestral genre of the time was the overture with appended suite, which was extremely popular (Telemann is reckoned to have composed many hundreds). There are four which survive from Bach’s hand. Three of them — the one in C major, and both of those in D major — were probably composed in the 1710’s and revived for the Collegium concerts. The overture in B minor for flute and strings is more likely to have been composed anew for the Collegium: Bach was not familiar with the transverse flute until after 1718; and the only surviving parts date from the late 1730’s. As in other examples of this genre, the opening movement is the largest in scale, alternating between a slower section of majestic character and a quicker, imitative section. It is then followed by a series of dance-movements: a gavotte (even though it is labeled “rondeau”), a sarabande, a pair of bourrées, a Polonaise with a variation, and a Menuet. To round it off a movement that superficially resembles a fast gavotte, but which Bach calls “Badinerie” — a word closely related to the French word “badinage,” meaning playful repartée or witty banter.
There were direct, personal connections between Bach and both Pachelbel and Buxtehude. Pachelbel was a personal friend of the Bach family of the generation before Johann Sebastian, and was in fact the principal organ-teacher of Sebastian’s older brother, Johann Christoph. After being orphaned at the age of ten, young Sebastian lived in his brother’s household and had his first keyboard lessons from him; it cannot be doubted that he gained a close familiarity with Pachelbel’s music, for organ, for chamber ensembles, and for voices. The well-known Canon is a small-scale masterpiece of ingenuity, combining a three-voice canon — the strictest and most demanding of imitative forms — played by the three violins, over a ground-bass — that is, a repeating melodic and harmonic formula played by the basso continuo. The choice of three rather than two violin-parts, which would have made a normal trio-sonata ensemble, shows the German predilection for rich textures. That same predilection is shown in the Partie (an alternate form of the word “partita”), with its four melodic string parts over the basso continuo. In form, the Partie is much like the B-minor Overture of Bach, a succession of dance-movements, but on a much smaller scale.
Bach encountered Buxtehude only once that we know of, when he traveled in 1705 to Lübeck to hear (and probably take part in, as a violinist) one of the older master’s famed Abendmusiken (impetuous young man that he was, Bach overstayed his four-week leave of absence by three extra months!) Buxtehude’s cantatas, unlike Bach’s, were not for the choir of his church, but for a small group of soloists located high (very high!) in the rear galleries of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck. Characteristically of their generation (two generations earlier than Bach) they are in a single movement in several contrasting sections, rather than being a series of discrete movements.
By 1730 both Pachelbel and Buxtehude were probably completely forgotten by all but a few professional musicians like Bach. Hopelessly old-fashioned as they would have seemed to the audiences in Zimmermann’s Coffee House, Bach would probably never have included them on his programs. So much the worse for the Leipzigers of 1730.