Each Brandenburg Concerto takes a different approach to the concerto grosso genre. The usual template, established a generation earlier by Corelli, was to combine a group of soloists—two violins and cello, for example—with an accompanying ensemble of strings and basso continuo (the shared bass line fleshed out ad libitum by harpsichord and other low instruments). The most unconventional of the set is the Third Brandenburg Concerto, which instead treats all members of the ensemble as independent solo voices: three violins, three violas and three cellos, supported by the basso continuo.
The equitable distribution of the material is especially clear in the first movement, in which a three-note figure cascades through the different voices. The central Adagio movement consists simply of two linking chords, sometimes elaborated by an improvised cadenza. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale, its tempo and character matching the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.
Aaron Grad ©2017
The Sixth Brandenburg Concerto limits its palette to the lower strings, including instruments from the viol family that have 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 that 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 distinguishing aspect of the first movement is its very slow harmonic motion in the tutti sections, with persistent pulses holding steady while the violas add decorative filigree. If this was one way to avoid straining a less confident viol player such as the prince, the middle movement solves the problem by eliminating the viols entirely. The violas spin out long lines that rise into the violin’s usual register, supported by walking cello lines and spacious accompaniment from the basso continuo. The finale is another festive dance in the style of a gigue, in which the soloists elaborate the main theme with passages of flowing sixteenth-notes.
Aaron Grad ©2017
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 echoes 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 wants to settle on 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 passages of formal counterpoint.
Aaron Grad ©2017
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto features flute, violin and harpsichord as soloists. Such a trio was a common chamber music ensemble at the time, playing works 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 lines, 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 that Bach 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 ©2017
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