Bach probably composed his two extant violin concertos around 1730, not long after he agreed to lead the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. This talented amateur group gave weekly performances, often in the informal atmosphere of a coffeehouse, providing Bach an outlet for secular music that would not have entered his primary duties preparing music for church services. The violin concertos in A minor and E major were among the works that Bach recast in the late-1730s as keyboard concertos, also intended for the Collegium Musicum. The six keyboard concertos provide evidence that there were likely more concertos for violin, but only the two solo concertos and a double violin concerto in D minor have survived.
Bach borrowed his template for the violin concertos from earlier Italian composers, especially Vivaldi. The E-major Concerto begins with three chords and a pause—a stock opening that can be found in some two dozen of Vivaldi’s concertos—but the ensuing treatment is classic Bach. The recognizable figure of a rising triad spread across three steady beats cascades from voice to voice and passes through a range of keys, making its most striking arrival in the ominous key of C-sharp minor. The journey to that contrasting key area proves even more significant when it turns out to be the home key of the Adagio, a poignant lament the concentrates the richest countermelodies in the lower strings. The Allegro assai finale adheres to the classic ritornello format, in which tutti statements return after each exploratory episode from the soloist.
Aaron Grad ©2013
Bach traveled to Berlin in 1718 to purchase a new harpsichord for his employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen. During this trip Bach had an opportunity to perform for Margrave Christian Ludwig, the Duke of Brandenburg, and their encounter stuck with Bach as a possible avenue for future employment. Following up on the lead more than two years later, at a time when the Cöthen position was threatened by Prince Leopold’s recent marriage to a woman uninterested in music, Bach assembled six concerti grossi and sent them off to the Duke of Brandenburg with a most obsequious dedication:
A few years ago I had the good fortune to perform before Your Royal Highness at Your command, and I noticed then that you showed some pleasure at the small talent for music which Heaven has given me. When I took my leave Your Royal Highness did me the great honor of ordering me to send Him some pieces of my own composition: therefore, and in accordance with His gracious order, I have taken the liberty of fulfilling my very humble duty to Your Royal Highness with these concerti which I have scored for several instruments.
Humbly I pray You not to judge their imperfections by the fine and delicate taste for music which everyone knows You possess, but rather to take into Your benign consideration the deep respect and very humble obedience which I have endeavored to show You by them.
Further, Sir, I beg very humbly that Your Royal Highness will continue to have the goodness to hold me in His good favor and be convinced that I have nothing nearer to my heart than to be employed on occasions more worthy of You and Your service.
I am, Sir,<br> With unparalleled zeal,<br> Your Royal Highness’s<br> Very humble and very obedient servant<br> Johann Sebastian Bach<br> Cöthen, 24 Ma(r)<br> 1721.
The Duke never responded, and upon his death the Duke’s heirs did not consider Bach’s manuscript important enough to be catalogued individually. It was instead thrown into a bargain bin of miscellaneous works. Bach did manage to mount performances using the court musicians in Cöthen, and the concertos lived on with no help from their namesake.
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto features a trio of solo instruments consisting of flute, violin, and harsichord. At the time, such a trio was a common chamber music ensemble, playing works for two melody lines and basso continuo known as trio sonatas. What is remarkable about this concerto is that the harpsichord functions not just as a supporting accompanist; it contributes whirlwind figurations during solo passages, and issues a monster of a cadenza at the end of the first movement. (This appearance of a harpsichord as a solo instrument foreshadows the seminal keyboard concertos Bach later assembled in Leipzig.)
The middle movement, labeled Affettuoso (“with feeling”), presents the soloists without the accompanying strings. Unlike a trio sonata, in which the harpsichord would typically have just a bass line with the right-hand harmonies filled in ad libitum, the harpsichordist’s right hand has its own melodic line that intermingles with the flute and violin. In the finale, a fugal structure reinforces the equal footing of the voices. The violin and flute take the first two entrances, and the harpsichord jumps in with the third and fourth voices of the fugue.
Aaron Grad ©2013
The Third Brandenburg Concerto (see the above note for the origin of Bach’s six “Brandenburg” works) departs from the usual concerto grosso construct of a solo group set apart from the orchestra, and instead treats all members of the ensemble as independent solo voices: three violins, three violas and three cellos, supported by a continuo group of bass and harpsichord. The central theme of the opening movement revolves around a three-note figure that drops to the lower neighbor note and then returns to the starting pitch. This musical cell cascades through the string parts, highlighting the inherent equality among the voices in Bach’s scoring. The central Adagio movement consists simply of two linking chords, sometimes elaborated by an improvised cadenza, or even the insertion of another slow movement, an accepted practice in Bach’s time. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale in 12/8 meter, its character not unlike the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.
Aaron Grad ©2013
The origins of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 are uncertain, but musicologists now suspect that the work dates from Bach’s early years in Leipzig. The score appeared no later than 1725, by which time Bach had already begun his association with the Collegium Musicum, the amateur group he went on to direct starting in 1729. Suites in the French style were fashionable among German composers in Bach’s day; such a work would have been known as an Ouverture (to use the French spelling), taking the name from the substantial opening movement. The subsequent movements employed dance styles popularized during the seventeenth century in the French royal court, especially during the reign of Louis XIV, an avid dancer himself. Orchestral suites by Bach and his contemporaries were not intended to accompany dancing, but the familiar rhythms and patterns would have contributed to their entertainment value.
True to form, the first Orchestral Suite opens with a grand overture in the French style. The structure employs the expected slow introduction, complete with dotted rhythms to invoke a majestic mood, which then connects to a fast fugal section. The ensemble’s small woodwind section, just two oboes and a bassoon, emerges for several exposed contributions before the slow tempo returns for a stately recapitulation.
The dances that constitute the remainder of the suite each adopt the usual binary structure, consisting of two repeated sections. All but the Courante and Forlane come in sets of linked pairs organized in a da capo format, meaning that the first dance returns for a final pass after the second concludes. The suite’s Forlane is the only movement with that title in Bach’s surviving output; the pastoral oboe melody, droning bass, and slurred accompaniment make for a memorable effect. Instead of ending with a typical gigue, the suite closes with a pair of Passepieds, another rare form found only four times in Bach’s music. This fast spin on a minuet reuses the same melody for the second part, dropping the tune to a lower octave and adding a dizzying counterline from the oboes.
Aaron Grad ©2013