Happy birthday, Johann

The 329th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach gives me an excuse to post one of my favorite Bach compositions — the Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971, published in 1735. Originally scored for a two-manual harpsichord, today it is most often performed on piano, although it has also been adapted to a wide variety of other instruments and instrumental ensembles.

Although I’ve always loved this piece, I’ve never understood why it was called a concerto, since it was composed for a solo instrument. After a little investigation, here’s what I learned: An Italian concerto relies upon contrasts between the full orchestra and smaller groups of instruments which act as soloists. In BWV 971, Bach achieved this effect on the two-manual harpsichord by substituting the forte (loud) manual for the full orchestra and the piano (soft) manual for the soloists. This contrasting effect is muted somewhat when the piece is played on a modern piano, but it loses none of its beauty or charm in the process… as can be seen in this performance by Umi Garrett, recorded when she was just eight years old:

 

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