In Bach's time, the city of Leipzig already had a long-established tradition of Collegia Musica – secular musical organizations, run mainly by the students of the city's famed university. Many of Leipzig's most famous musicians were connected with the students' musical activities – among them several Thomaskantors – and contributed music of the highest quality.
At the beginning of the1700s, two new Leipzig Collegia, which were to enjoy a comparatively long existence, were founded by two young men at the University, one in 1702 by Georg Philipp Telemann, the other six years later by Johann Friedrich Fasch. After Telemann left Leipzig the leadership of his Collegium was taken by Balthasar Schott, the Neukirche organist. In the spring of 1729, Schott moved to a new position in Gotha, and Bach took over directorship of the Collegium.
The concerts were given every Friday night in Zimmermann's Coffee House in the fashionable Catherine Strasse, probably under his auspices. In summer the music was moved outdoors to Zimmermann's coffee garden “in front of the Grimma gate, on the Grimma stone road” – so the address is given in contemporary reports – with summer performances on Wednesdays.
Clearly an enthusiastic music lover and most probably a competent musician, Zimmermann frequently re-equipped his establishment with the latest musical instruments for use by the Collegium and other musical guests, one of his prize possessions in the late 1720s being “a clavcymbel of large size and range of expressivity” which was a Leipzig attraction in itself. It was replaced by an 'even finer instrument' in 1733. German harpsichords were larger and fuller in tone than their Italian and French contemporaries, with a much wider range of sound.
The new instrument would certainly have had two, possibly three manuals, and would probably have been the work of the preeminent Hamburg builder Hieronymus Albrecht Hass (1689-1752). An original and typical Hass instrument, currently owned by Rafael Puyana, was built in 1740, and has three manuals and couplers, five choirs of strings (1x16', 2x8', 1x4', 1x2') with a separate soundboard for the 16' choir, six rows of jacks, a lute stop and harp stop for the 16'. Zimmermann's instrument may well have been mounted on an organ-type pedalboard, a combination used in the home, along with a similar arrangement of clavichord-plus-pedalboard, for organists as practice instruments.
It was in this setting that Bach's concerti for one or several harpsichords received their performances, many of these having been adapted from earlier (eg violin) concertos, or from concertos by other composers (eg Vivaldi). Occasionally, too, vocal music might be given; such an example is the Coffee Cantata, BWV 211, first presented in 1732. It is also on record that works of Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Locatelli, Albinoni and others were performed.
It was here also that Bach established the harpsichord as an instrument worthy of having a 'lead part' in a concerto – an honour previously accorded only to instruments of the string or wind family. The harpsichord had indeed made an ideal continuo instrument, its percussive action serving the vital functions of keeping the players together and maintaining the tempo. In Bach's concertos for single, and especially multiple harpsichords, Zimmermann's audiences would have heard the instrument in an entirely new role, now as soloist rather than accompanist. It is unfortunate that even today this is not fully appreciated by conductors and recording engineers who continue to treat the harpsichord as a background player even in a harpsichord concerto.
Listen to any recording of a concerto for single or multiple harpsichords and your ears will often strain to hear the keyboard part; then listen to the self-same works where the keyboard part is given to the piano, and suddenly – a miracle, the keyboard part becomes not only audible, but actually a prominent feature. We hope you will find in these recordings that the harpsichord parts are a little better served.
Bach's focus on the harpsichord extends to several of his multiple harpsichord concertos where the orchestra plays a minimal, even expendable role. Included here is a work for two harpsichords, BWV 1061.The only autograph we have in Bach's own hand is precisely that: a work for two harpsichords. While the work stands perfectly well on its own as the listener may judge, it is normally heard today with orchestral accompaniment, though the originator of this addition is not known. The middle movement remains without orchestra. This keyboards-only version may be seen as another example of Bach's exploration of new avenues, paralleling his Concerti for Harpsichord Solo which may also have been heard by Zimmermann's audiences.
The Collegium Musicum became, in his later life, Bach's central artistic activity, the church's choral requirements now well supplied to Bach's exacting standards. Bach here enjoyed a musical freedom and appreciative audience he had not experienced since the happy and fruitful period at Cöthen. He remained its director from 1729 until the death of Gottfried Zimmermann in 1741, possibly several years thereafter. A third Collegium, to which Bach would certainly have contributed, was organized in 1743 by Leipzig merchants and termed the 'Grosse Concert-Gesellschaft'. The ensemble performed in the hotel 'zu den drey Schwanen' (see illustration) to a subscription audience that grew to over 200 people by the time of Bach's death in 1750.
In the early 1960s Thurston Dart recorded for the Oiseau Lyre label a complete set of Bach's harpsichord concertos including the present work for two harpsichords, BWV 1060. Thurston Dart noted: “This concerto has survived only in the form of a set of parts and a score, neither in Bach's hand. The pizzicati appearing in the second movement in most editions have no direct authority from Bach, therefore, and they do not accord with his practice in other music of a similar kind. My own opinion is that they are probably a later addition and are best omitted.” The listener may well agree.
At that time, one of London's Great Events was the “Thomas Goff Jamboree” held each year at the Royal Festival Hall. These events featured harpsichords by the London builder 'Thomas Goff of Pont Street' as he was known. Four Goff harpsichords were lined up on stage, with harpsichordists Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Denis Vaughan and others variously taking part year by year. The harpsichordists had enormous fun, bobbing and nodding between themselves while orchestra and conductor struggled to keep pace. The repertoire always included Bach's Concertos for multiple harpsichords, with perhaps the CPE Bach for 2 harpsichords. Goff's instruments included 8-foot and 4-foot options, with quill and leather plectra, and a lute-stop (produced with a damping mechanism). They were also equipped with anything from 2 to 7 foot-pedals for use in making quick registration changes. Stops could also be “half drawn”, allowing subtle changes of volume.
The popularity of these concerts produced two original compositions written specially for the occasion: a set of Variations on a Theme of Mozart for 4 harpsichords by George Malcolm, and a concerto for 4 harpsichords and strings by Thurston Dart after Vivaldi's opus 3/11 – emulating Bach's own BWV 1064 for 4 harpsichords after Vivaldi's opus 3/10. Read more about Thomas Goff at www.baroquemusic.org/goff.html where you can also hear Malcolm's Variations.