For many years, many Bach-scholars, starting with his first modern biobgrapher Philipp Spitta, associated his different genres of composition with specific phases in the history of his employment. Thus, most of the organ works were assumed to have been composed when he was organist of the ducal chapel in Weimar (1708–1717), the orchestral works (concertos and overtures) and chamber music while he was Kapellmeister at the ducal court of Anhalt-Cöthen (1718–1722), and the cantatas and other sacred choral works during his tenure as Thomas-Cantor in Leipzig (1723–1750). Real life is rarely so orderly, and the history of Bach’s composition is no exception.

The D-minor Concerto for Two Violins is a case in point. The few concertos by Bach that survive (only 19, including the six “Brandenburg” concertos but not including four which are transcriptions for harpsichord of violin-concertos—a small number by comparison with his 200 cantatas) come down to us in copies that were made in the 1730’s, fifteen or more years after Bach left Co?then, but when he was directing the concerts of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. Furthermore, this concerto for two violins was probably composed originally during the Weimar years: for the last half of his tenure there, Bach bore the additional title of “Konzertmeister” which required the production of occasional cantatas and concertos. The D-minor concerto shows signs of having been composed shortly after Bach had the opportunity to study first-hand the concertos of Vivaldi, which became possible in 1714 when his student Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar brought him a copy of the newly-published L’Estro armonico, Vivaldi’s Opus 3, from Amsterdam.

The history of the “Six Concertos for Several Instruments” (as Bach entitled the collection we call the Brandenburg Concertos) is similarly complex. These are known primarily from a finely-copied score and set of parts which Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, perhaps as a kind of job-application (the previous year he had competed for a prestigious organ-position in the city of Hamburg, so we know he was looking). But he did not compose all of them at that time. Some were revisions works from the Weimar years, like the First, Third, and Sixth; and the others (Second, Fourth, and Fifth) came from earlier during his employment in Cöthen. We know that the Third Concerto dates from Weimar because a copy made by one of Bach’s students in Leipzig from a score that Bach must have kept in his possession bears a note to that effect, undoubtedly copied from the master’s score, or else recording one of his verbal comments. The Third is a highly complex and marvelous piece in having a nine-part string ensemble—three violins, three violas, and three cellos—over the continuo-bass (violone and harpsichord). At times the three three-part ensembles play in dialogue with each other, and at times one part in each plays a solo which is passed to the corresponding part of the other ensemble. It has also the unusual feature of a second movement which consists of only two chords. Some performers insist that Bach intended for nothing more than the two chords to be played, just as they are (they argue that Bach took great care in the other concertos in the set to write out everything just as he intended it to be heard); others believe that it is to be filled in by an improvised cadenza by one of the leaders in the orchestra.

The Fifth Brandenburg, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the last of the six to be composed. It uses the most modern instrumentation of the group: it is the first piece by Bach to use the transverse flute instead of its vertical cousin (the recorder), and it is the first concerto—by any composer—for a keyboard soloist. At first the harpsichord seems just a part of the solo-ensemble of flute, violin, and harpsichord; but as the first movement progresses, the keyboard dominates the textures more and more until all the other instruments fade away and leave the keyboard with a tremendous cadenza. The second movement uses only the three soloists, with the harpsichord sometimes acting as the basso-continuo in a trio-sonata, but sometimes contributing a fourth voice (violin, flute, plus a third melody played by the harpsichordist’s right hand, over the fourth part, a bass line played by the left hand). It seems almost certain that Bach composed this piece in 1719, when he delivered back to Cöthen a new harpsichord of two manuals just completed by the Berlin-based builder Michael Mietke, as a test and a celebration of the new instrument.

Cantata no. 82, “Ich habe genug,” was composed in 1727 for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (2 February). It is based on a passage from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, relating an incident when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord” in accordance with the Law of Moses. They met there an old man named Simeon who had been told in a prophecy that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When he saw the baby Jesus, Simeon recognized that the prophecy was fulfilled in him, and he sang the song that has since become known as the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation….”). The cantata leads us through Simeon’s reactions—and, by extension, our own—upon seeing the Redeemer, through a series of three arias separated by two recitatives: the first aria centers on Simeon’s weariness, the second is a kind of lullaby for himself, and the last a dance-like rejoicing. Unlike almost all of Bach’s cantatas, this one does not use any Lutheran hymn-tune, neither as a cantus-firmus in any movement nor a harmonized chorale as the final movement.

©2008 Daniel Pyle