Though the heart of Bach’s music is sacred and sung—often conveying a Biblical story with the earthy drama of real life—and though he also wrote an entire catalogue of solo keyboard music, he almost never crossed his keyboard music with drama or narrative. In fact, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother may be his only instrumental work to tell a story so overtly.
It is also a very early piece, dating from around 1700–04, when Bach was in his late teens, and has traditionally been tied to the departure of his older brother Johann Jacob, who was an oboist hired into the military band of the Swedish King Charles XII. Unlike Johann Sebastian, who never traveled outside Germany, Jacob ranged widely with the Swedish army, fighting at the Battle of Poltava in present-day Ukraine, and then joining the defeated Swedes in Turkish exile.
Though it makes a colorful story, this link between the Capriccio and Jacobs’s departure has been met with doubt by modern scholars. Christoph Wolff, Bach’s leading biographer, points out that the term “brother” (il fratro, not suo fratello in the original Italian title) could just as easily denote a close friend or classmate, and suggests the Capriccio was more likely written to commemorate Bach’s graduation from school in Lüneburg in 1703 and the parting of the friends he made there.
Whatever the source, the movements tell a clear, if rather generic, story. The Arioso, “A plea from his friends to discourage his journey,” is marked by a falling motive that quite literally pleads. The slow movement shivers, considering the traveler’s possible misfortunes in strange lands. The “General lament by his friends” is built on a descending passacaglia, the so-called “lament bass” of the Baroque. Here the harmonies are marked only in figured bass— essentially the chord symbols of the time—encouraging the performer to improvise or elaborate. Finally, the friends see that their brother must leave, and they fortify him with a warm farewell.
There the story ends, but two more movements offer a thematically appropriate conclusion: first, an aria on the call of a post horn (which would signal the arrival or departure of the mail coach), and then Bach wrings a fugue out of the stark call. The original manuscript to the Capriccio is lost, but a few musical clues suggest it might have first been written in organ tablature—an alternative form of notation that Bach sometimes used in his youth.