Johann Sebastian Bach

Harpsichord Concerto No. 1

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 20 Minutes
Genre: Solo Concerto
Time of Creation: Between 1729 and 1740
World Premiere: Unknown, but probably as part of the concerts in the “Zimmermannsche Kaffeehaus” in Leipzig

Table of Contents

Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in 5 Sentences

Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 (sometimes also: Piano Concerto No. 1) belongs to a group of seven concertos for harpsichord, strings, and basso continuo that Bach wrote between 1729 and 1740. In these concertos, he drew extensively on earlier compositions by himself and probably by other composers (the “parody technique” common at the time, which Bach also used in the Mass in B minor and the Christmas Oratorio). For Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, for example, it is considered quite certain that Bach first arranged another composer’s composition for violin and then reworked this arrangement for violin into a harpsichord concerto. Furthermore, “traces” of the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 can be found in two Bach cantatas (Nos. 146 and 188). Some musicologists question Bach’s authorship completely because of the unusually passionate mood of the Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 (which is often the case with Bach, for example, also with his Toccata and Fugue in D minor).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1

Highlight 1: Introduction

The “unusual passion” (see above) of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 is evident right from the start – syncopated rhythms provide some drama:

Highlight 2: First solo entry

There is a lot of discussion about which instrument can or should be used to play Bach. Today, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 ist mostly played on a concert grand piano. This is the solution which, although historically 100% wrong, corresponds to the practical circumstances of today’s music business.

But even if one chooses a harpsichord as the instrument, the questions do not stop, because not all harpsichords are the same. The problem is aggravated by the fact that it is not clearly documented which instrument Bach himself used: It could have been a large harpsichord (with 16-foot stops), a lute piano, a viol piano, or even a pantalon. It is even conceivable that Bach’s harpsichord concertos were also played on the organ every now and then…

So: questions over questions, no answers. I think the most important thing is that Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 is played at all, because it is a great concerto that demands a lot from the soloist. It starts right away with fast scales:

Highlight 3: Second movement – Adagio

The slow second movement is also very well known:

Highlight 4: Third movement – unusual accompaniment

Almost everyone has probably heard the third movement as well, either consciously or unconsciously. Here, however, there is a peculiarity – the accompaniment never exceeds three voices:

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1

Question 1: In which order did Bach write his harpsichord concertos?

This cannot be clarified unambiguously. The only consensus is that today’s counting is wrong 😊 The “real” Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 is probably the one that is counted today as No. 7.

Question 2: For what reason did Bach write his harpsichord concertos?

Bach’s lifetime was a heyday of instrument making. There was an incredible amount of experimentation (which also complicates the question on which instrument the harpsichord concertos should be played – see above). The harpsichord concertos may therefore have been “experiments” for Bach as well. In addition, he gave his two oldest sons the opportunity to perform as soloists.

Question 3: Are there also concertos for several harpsichords?

Yes, this seems rather exotic today. Bach wrote three concertos for two harpsichords, two concertos for three harpsichords and even one concerto for four (!) harpsichords.

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1

Recording 1: Beatrice Rana, Amsterdam Sinfonietta (live, 2019)

In this very fine interpretation by Beatrice Rana and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 is heard on a concert grand piano:

Recording 2: Jean Rondeau (video production, 2017)

Jean Rondeau, on the other hand, plays Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 on a harpsichord:

1 Quote about Bach's Harpsichord Concerto No. 1

...a new clavicymbal, the like of which has not yet been heard here.

Description of the instrument for Bach's harpsichord concertos in a concert announcement in the Leipzig press. What exactly the "new Clavicymbal" is, however, remains unclear to this day.

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