Holiday Concerts: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
- December 13-16, 2018
For Johann Sebastian Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, the distinctive solo group consists of trumpet, flute (substituting for the original recorder), oboe and violin. The trumpet Bach wrote for was a natural instrument without valves, meaning that the range was confined to the notes of the overtone series extending up from the instrument’s fundamental pitch. The low overtones are spaced widely, as in the typical intervals of bugle calls, so to play smooth melodies requires accessing the higher harmonics. Playing in this clarino range of the natural trumpet requires extreme control and strength, and it produces one of the brightest and most penetrating of all musical colors, lending the sonic palette of the Second Brandenburg Concerto its particular brilliance.
The jubilant opening movement makes up for the mismatched strength of the solo instruments by separating the voices out for individual statements and contrapuntal sparring. The more delicate aspects of the flute, oboe and violin emerge in the middle Andante movement, in which a walking bass line supports polyphonic weavings. A heralding call from the trumpet announces the Allegro assai third movement, initiating a rowdy finale that serves as a bookend to the unbridled joy of the opening movement.
Incidentally, the Second Brandenburg Concerto holds the unique distinction of being the work of human creation intended to demonstrate to anyone listening in deep space the presence of intelligent life on Earth. It is the first selection of music broadcasting from the Voyager Spacecraft, a vessel launched in 1977 that has since traveled beyond our solar system.
Aaron Grad ©2021
Orchestral pieces featuring the low strings are rare, and a Baroque-era concerto that entirely omits the violin section is even more unusual. It seems fitting, then, that the final piece in the collection of concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721 would defy instrumentation expectations even more than the previous five concertos had. Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is uniquely scored for two violas da braccio (violas held on the shoulder), two violas da gamba (fretted, six-stringed, bowed instruments held between the legs), solo cello, and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). Bach’s choice of instruments in this concerto highlights the changes that were taking place in the early eighteenth century regarding preferences for certain string instruments over others. At the time, the newer violin family, to which the cello and violas da braccio belonged, was coming to the forefront and replacing the older viol family, which included the violas da gamba.
It is likely that Bach also included violas da gamba in this piece because Prince Leopold, Bach’s employer at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, was himself a skilled player. Some have speculated that the Prince played one of the viola da gamba parts for the first performance of the piece. This exciting concerto opens with a movement that features a robust canon between the two violas da braccio. Canon, which means “rule,” is a strict imitation between two or more voices that play the same melody, but do not start at the same time. It is similar to a round, such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The relentless underlying pulse created by the lower instruments in this movement adds to the intensity of the complex counterpoint that is taking place between the two violas da braccio.
Like in the other Brandenburg Concertos, Bach reduces the number of forces used in the second movement. In this case, the two violas da braccio, solo cello, and basso continuo have an intimate conversation featuring a lyrical melody that is treated in fugue-like imitation. One viola begins with the fugue’s subject accompanied by the bass line, and the subject is then picked up by the other viola and “chased” between the parts throughout the rest of the movement. Unlike many other concerto movements of the time, this particular movement begins and ends in completely different tonal centers.
The final movement of this concerto is a bright, spirited and gigue-like. It is in ritornello form, meaning that the opening music returns throughout the movement in alternation with varied solo passages. This movement is especially charming and somewhat easier to comprehend on a first hearing than some of the more dense, complex movements that conclude the other Brandenburg Concertos.
Paula Maust ©2022
In the first half of the eighteenth century, the concerto was one of the most popular musical genres in Western Europe. Two primary types of concertos dominated the repertoire: the concerto grosso popularized by Arcangelo Corelli and the solo concerto made famous by Antonio Vivaldi. In a concerto grosso, a small group of solo instruments (the concertino) is accompanied by a larger group (the ripieno). The solo concerto was typically a more virtuosic showpiece for a single instrumentalist accompanied by a larger ensemble. German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos combine the concept of a small group of soloists from the concerto grosso with the virtuosity of the solo concerto. Each piece is scored for a unique combination of solo and accompanying instruments, and often, players have the dual function of being both a soloist and an accompanist within the same piece.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is scored similarly to a concerto grosso, with a concertino of violin and two recorders, which is accompanied by a ripieno of strings and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). The solo violin part, in particular, is extraordinarily virtuosic, especially in several of the solo passages in the first and third movements. The stately first movement brings to mind courtly dance rhythms and style, especially in the ritornello sections. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening music in a movement that is played by the full ensemble and repeated in alternation with various solo passages throughout the movement.
While the solo violin dominates the outer movements, it plays a more subservient role in the slower second movement. The two recorders have delicate solos full of dissonance and characteristic ornamentation, alongside which the solo violin provides a pseudo bass-line function. The third movement begins with a fugue, a feat of the composer’s contrapuntal ingenuity. Meaning “flight,” a fugue is a compositional process in which one voice states a melodic subject that is then “chased” around the rest of the ensemble in each voice. This particular movement blends fugue with ritornello form, creating a movement that is both intellectually and technically demanding.
Paula Maust ©2022
German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos were likely not originally conceived of as a whole set, but rather were individual pieces and movements Bach composed during the first two decades of the eighteenth century. He then edited and compiled them into a collection to send to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721. Some have speculated that since there is no surviving documentation of the Margrave expressing his gratitude for the score, nor any evidence that he held a performance of the pieces, that the Margrave was displeased with Bach’s gift. However, there is also no evidence to support such a claim, so the reception of the Brandenburg Concertos by the Margrave will likely remain a mystery. In contemporary times, the pieces are tremendously popular.
Each Brandenburg Concerto is scored for a unique combination of instruments, and the third concerto is no exception. The dense orchestration is written for three violins, three violas, three cellos, and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). Opening with an intense movement in ritornello form, the first movement begins with the full ensemble stating the melodic theme that will return in each ritornello section. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening music that is alternated with a variety of solo passages. Each instrumental section takes turns trading short melodic fragments back and forth in the solo sections of this movement, creating a lively conversation between each part.
The second “movement” of this concerto is composed of just two slow chords that form a common, open-ended harmonic progression referred to as a Phrygian half cadence. This leads immediately into the joyous third movement, which is also in ritornello form. Each part trades rapid passages of sixteenth notes back and forth, weaving together a thick texture of constantly-running notes. This brings a work that has been marked by intensity to a dramatic close.
Paula Maust ©2022
German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was written for the inauguration of a new and elaborate two-manual (two-keyboard) harpsichord built by Michael Mietke. As part of his job as the music director for the court of Leopold, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach was responsible for negotiating the design of the instrument with Mietke in Berlin. It was on one such trip to Berlin in 1719 that Bach met Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt to whom he would ultimately send the collection of six Brandenburg Concertos. When the new harpsichord arrived in Cöthen, it was only fitting for Bach to write a new work to feature the instrument.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is scored for a solo concertino group of harpsichord, flute, and violin, which is accompanied by a ripieno of strings and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). This was one of the first orchestral pieces to elevate the harpsichord from the basso continuo section to the soloist’s spotlight. Throughout the piece, the harpsichord functions as both a virtuosic member of the concertino as well as an accompanying instrument in the basso continuo section. After this concerto, Bach, his sons, and their contemporaries wrote many solo harpsichord concertos, thus giving birth to a new genre.
The fifth Brandenburg concerto opens with a cheerful movement in the expected ritornello form. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening music in a movement that returns in alternation with a variety of solo passages. While each of the three solo instruments in this concerto has moments of virtuosity, the harpsichord part is especially spectacular. Rapid passagework of scales and arpeggios sparkles against the backdrop of the orchestral accompaniment. Unlike any previous concerto, this movement includes an exceptionally lengthy, written-out harpsichord cadenza, which was an excellent way for Bach to show off the new, state-of-the-art instrument in Cöthen.
Marked as “Affettuoso,” which is rare in Bach’s scores, the second movement is an intimate conversation between the flute, violin, and harpsichord. Sighing motives and minor tonal centers are the defining characteristics of this movement. Like in the fourth concerto, Bach merges fugue and ritornello form into a simultaneously uplifting and contrapuntally complex third movement. Fugue, which means “flight” refers to a compositional process in which one instrument states a melodic subject, which is then repeated and “chased” in different voices throughout the movement. This driving movement is in compound meter, contributing to its sense of forward motion.
Paula Maust ©2022
In 1719, the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach traveled to Berlin to purchase a new harpsichord for his employer. Regarded today as one of the most significant composers and musicians of his era, Bach was then working as the director of music for the court of Leopold, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen. Prince Leopold was an ardent supporter of Bach’s music, and Bach wrote many of his most famous instrumental works during his tenure in Cöthen, including the orchestral suites, cello suites, violin sonatas and partitas, and the Brandenburg Concertos. When he visited Berlin in 1719, Bach met and performed for Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. The Margrave was quite impressed and asked Bach to send him a book of his music. Two years later, Bach presented the Margrave with six pieces that would become known as the Brandenburg Concertos.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is the only one of the six concertos written in four movements, several of which come from Bach’s earlier secular cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208. The piece is scored for two horns, three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo, strings, and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). It is particularly interesting that Bach chose to write for two solo horns in this piece, since the horn was not at all a standard solo instrument at the time. The violino piccolo is also not a common instrument in this context, although the part is written in such a way that it can be played on a standard violin.
The piece opens with an exuberant movement in the standard ritornello form. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening section of music that is played by the full ensemble. This music is then repeated throughout the movement in alternation between contrasting sections that feature the soloists. From the onset of the movement, the horn parts evoke the hunting calls the instrument was associated with at the time. Each solo section features a different combination of the solo wind instruments and strings. This movement is followed by an Adagio that is full of exquisite ornamentation and pathos. The first oboe and violino piccolo engage in an ongoing dialogue throughout the movement, first individually stating a melody and then coming together in counterpoint that is marked by poignant dissonances.
Cheerful, uplifting horn calls permeate the ritornello of the third movement. The violino piccolo has a much more prominent role in the solo sections of this movement, and there is an intricate interplay between that part and the winds in each of the solo sections. After a movement of sprightly perpetual motion, the entire concerto concludes with a pair of lighter dances. A minuet, which is a courtly dance in triple meter, alternates with a Polonaise, a stately processional dance with Polish origins.
Paula Maust ©2022