The supposed year of start of this transcription process coincides with the return back home from the Netherlands of the Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, nephew of William Ernest Duke of Saxe-Weimar – who was Bach's employer at that time. The prince studied at the University of Utrecht from 1711 to 1713 and during the years spent in Holland he indulged his interest for music by collecting musical material coming from the fervent Dutch editorial market. The Prince himself was fond of Italian music: he was a violinist and composed some concertos in Italian style. Upon his return, Johann Ernst brought back new Italian and French music, some of it in manuscript and some in published form, amongst which figured two collections used as models by Bach: the Estro Armonico op. 3 and La Stravaganza op. 4 by Antonio Vivaldi – both collections published in Amsterdam respectively in 1711 and 1712. The presumed year of conclusion of Bach's elaborations of Italian compositions, 1717, corresponds with the year of publication of the concerti op. 7 by Vivaldi – the latest transcribed by Bach.

Nevertheless, it might also be possible that Bach started this process of assimilation of the Italian repertoire earlier. Afterall, the hypothesis suggested by Hans-Joachim Schulze that the practice of re-arranging compositions for solo keyboard would have been introduced in Weimar as a commission on request of the Prince Johann Ernst after his return from Holland (where he supposedly had the chance to attend to the performance of the blind organist Jan Jacob de Graaf – famous for playing Italian concertos on the organ of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam since 1702) is not entirely convincing.

In fact, it is more probable that Johann Gottfried Walther, distant cousin of Bach, who was appointed as organist in the Stadtkirche in Weimar in 1707 and who was the music teacher of the Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, had already adopted the habit of arranging Italian compositions for solo keyboard since years before, later on inspiring his cousin to follow his example.

This assumption, put forward by Geiringer, Paumgartner and Basso22, is based on the fact that the models that Walther used for his transcriptions are much older than the ones used by Bach. The arrangements made by Walther, which survived the merciless flow of the time, are 14 out of 78 (according to what the composer stated in his autobiography). Except for one concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann, one by Joseph Meck, one by Blamr and one by Antonio Vivaldi (revealingly not included in any of Vivaldi’s printed collections), all the others are compositions dated between the end of the XVII and the first decade of the XVIII century, such as: Arcangelo Corelli (sonata op. 5 no. 11, Rome, 1700), Tommaso Albinoni (two concerti from his op. 2, Venice, 1700), Giorgio Gentili, Giulio Taglietti, Luigi Mancia, Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori and Giuseppe Torelli (one sinfonia and two concerti from his op. 8, Bologna, 1709).

According to Paumgartner23, Walther had a great influence on his cousin and to him should go the credits of having introduced Bach to the practice of transcribing concertos and also to the old fashioned one of composing variations, or partite, upon chorales. Furthermore, the compositions of Torelli, who worked in Ansbach and Berlin, had certainly been circulating through Germany since the beginning of the XVIII century, as had the music of other Italian masters.

About Torelli, Michael Talbot wrote: “His influence on German musicians was considerable, one of his pupils being Johann Georg Pisendel (...) Long before Vivaldi's concertos made an impact in Germany, Torelli's concertos provided good models, and their influence is clearly visible in such works as J. S. Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043.”24

Bach could have come in contact with the music of Giuseppe Torelli, as a first hypothesis, thanks to Walther, who knew well the music of the Veronese master. As we previously saw, Walther not only made arrangements of three compositions by Torelli, but also left us one of the very first biographical report about him in his Musicalisches Lexicon25. Walther mentioned Torelli's op. 7, Capricci Musicali per camera à Violino e Viola overo Arcileuto, printed in Amsterdam on the occasion of a visit of the composer in the Dutch capital. Walther stated that the print of Torelli's op. 7 was dedicated to the amateur violinist Giacomo des Obry. 

Another possible connection between Bach and the music of Torelli could be the visit that Bach received in Weimar in 1709 from the virtuoso violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, on his way to Leipzig, coming from Ansbach, the city where he studied with Torelli. At that time Pisendel had not met Vivaldi yet, since he went to Venice in 1716-1717. Pisendel is likely to have acquainted Bach with more of the Italian concerto repertoire26.

As well as the other concertos transcribed by Bach, the concerto BWV 979 is not simply a reduction for keyboard, made for practicing purposes. The re-elaboration of the models with the addition of his personal interpretation led to the creation of an own language, in which the severe counterpoint is enriched with the intensity of the cantabile quality of the melody and the compelling dynamicity of the Italian writing.


As Alberto Basso pointed out, the time that Bach spent in Weimar (1708-1717) represents his personal  journey to Italy20. In Weimar Bach had the possibility to frequent the musical library of the court, where the duke and his nephews had collected several compositions by a variety of Italian masters, such as Frescobaldi, Legrenzi, Corelli, Marcello, Albinoni, Vivaldi and Torelli.

For our investigation, an interesting issue regards the dating of the concerto BWV 979, for which we have to take several considerations into account.

Hans-Joachim Schulze gave the following explanation for Bach's transcriptions: 


Bach’s organ and harpsichord transcriptions BWV 592–596 and 972–987 belong to the year July 1713 to July 1714, were made at the request of Prince Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, and imply a definite connection with the concert repertory played in Weimar and enlarged by the Prince’s recent purchases of music21.


Fig. 16 Christoph Riegel, Weimar: Town and residence, engraving from Der getreue Reiß-Gefert durch Ober- und Nieder-Teutschland, Nuremberg, 1686.

Bach's transcription BWV 979

Fig. 17 The court chapel or Himmelsburg at the Schloss in Weimar. The organ, at the top of the picture, was overhauled by J.K. Weisshaupt in 1707–1708, shortly before Bach's arrival, with further improvements by H.N. Trebs in June 1712–May 171427.