The Third Brandenburg Concerto 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 ©2015
The Sixth Brandenburg Concerto limits its palette to the lower strings, including instruments from the viol family that have since fallen out of fashion. With the violins absent, the two top lines go to instruments labeled viola da braccio, or viola “on the arm”— meaning violas in the modern sense, held like violins. Joining as a third solo voice is a cello, also from the violin family. The accompanying lines, marked “viola da gamba” and “violone,” indicate bowed instruments that have frets tied to the fingerboard, and are held upright (“da gamba” means “on the leg”). The inclusion of relatively simple viola da gamba parts may have been an attempt on Bach’s part to include his employer, Prince Leopold, who played the instrument reasonably well. In modern practice, two cellos and a contrabass substitute for the viols.
A distingishing aspect of the first movement is its very slow harmonic motion in the tutti sections, with persistent pulses holding each chord steady, while the violas add decorative filligree. If this was one way to avoid straining a less confident player such as the prince, the middle movement solves the problem by eliminating the viols entirely. The violas, over a sturdy stream of quarter-notes from the cello, spin out long lines that rise into the violin’s usual register, all supported by spacious accompaniment from the basso continuo of bass and harpsichord. The finale is another festive dance in the style of a gigue in which the soloists elaborate the main theme with episodes of flowing sixteenth notes.
Aaron Grad ©2015
Along with a solo violin in the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, Bach wrote two solo parts that he identified as “echo flutes,” a mysterious term that appears nowhere else in his music. Scholars agree (for the most part) that the intended instruments were treble recorders, and that “echo” may be a reference to the loud and soft alternations in the middle movement, creating an echo-like sound. In performances on modern instruments, flutes typically substitute for the recorders.
In the Allegro first movement, the solo violin takes the flashiest material, including long strings of arpeggios, a series of double-stops (the technique of playing two notes at once) and a wickedly fast passage of slurred 32nd-notes. The characteristic tone of the flutes becomes more prominent in the middle movement, when the soloists contribute airy echos to the ensemble’s phrases, with the violin dropping into the role of the bass instrument to support the higher voices. The movement ends on an unresolved chord that should proceed to E minor, the slow movement’s home key, but instead the violas launch the Presto finale in G, where the concerto started. Their robust phrase marks the start of a fugue, which intersperses virtuosic solo episodes among the formal counterpoint.
Aaron Grad ©2015
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto features flute, violin and harsichord as soloists. Such a trio was a common chamber music ensemble at the time, playing works for two melody lines and basso continuo known as trio sonatas. What is remarkable about this concerto is that the harpsichord functions as more than a supporting accompanist; it contributes whirlwind solo passages, and it issues a monster of a cadenza at the end of the first movement. This use of the 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 ©2015
For the Second Brandenburg Concerto, the distinctive solo group consists of a trumpet, recorder (commonly replaced with a flute in modern practice), 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—and only in the upper partials can the instrument play adjacent notes. Playing in this “clarino” range of the natural trumpet requires extreme control and strength, and it produces one of the most bright and 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 their polyphonic weavings are supported only by a walking bass line. A heralding call from the trumpet announces the Allegro 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 ©2015