When Johann Sebastian Bach worked as a church organist in Weimar from 1708 to 1717, he had few opportunities to write or perform secular music with ensembles, even as his library overflowed with inspiration from abroad. The innovative sonatas and concertos being produced by Italian composers were just starting to arrive in trading hubs like Amsterdam and Utrecht, and the well-traveled members of Weimar’s royal court eagerly stocked up on the latest published scores and bootleg copies to expand their court musicians’ repertoire. Those foreign sources had an immediate impact on Bach’s style, even if his main outlet at the time was transcribing larger works for harpsichord.
Bach took a new job in 1717 as the music director for a young prince in Cöthen, and for the next six years his primary duty was to provide the court’s secular entertainment. With the support of a music-loving patron, and with top-notch professional musicians at his disposal, Bach finally put those Italian influences to use and produced many of his surviving concertos and sonatas, along with many more works that have disappeared.
When that prince married a woman uninterested in music, Bach began scouting other job opportunities. Back when he had traveled to Berlin in 1718 to buy a new harpsichord, he had met and performed for Margrave Christian Ludwig, Duke of Brandenburg; renewing that connection three years later, Bach sent what amounted to an unsolicited job application, in the form of six concerti grossi. To this day, those works are known as the Brandenburg Concertos, even though their noble namesake never so much as replied.
Bach’s scores elaborated on the template developed a generation earlier by the Italian composer Archangelo Corelli, who pioneered “grand concertos” for groups of soloists (usually two violins and cello) working within an accompanying ensemble of strings and basso continuo. Each of Bach’s examples tests a different configuration of soloists, including the radical example of the third Brandenburg concerto, in which every instrumental part functions as an independent solo voice apart from the shared basso continuo foundation.
The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 includes three violins, three violas and three cellos; the first movement sends a three-note motive cascading through all the voices. (The spiritual significance of the number three in Christian theology was surely not lost on Bach, a devout Lutheran.) Instead of a full slow movement, Bach only notated two linking chords, leaving the performers the option of inserting 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 ©2020
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 ©2018
Along with a solo violin in the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, Bach wrote two solo parts that he identified as “echo flutes.” 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 major, where the concerto began. Their robust phrase marks the start of a fugue, which intersperses virtuosic solo episodes among the passages of formal counterpoint.
Aaron Grad ©2019
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto features flute, violin and harpsichord as soloists. Such a trio was a common chamber music ensemble at the time, but usually the harpsichord would only have been an accompanist. Here it is a co-equal soloist, with the added responsibility of playing a monster of a cadenza at the end of the first movement.
The middle movement, labeled Affettuoso (“with feeling”), presents the soloists without the accompanying strings. In the finale, a fugue 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 ©2019
For the Second Brandenburg Concerto, the distinctive solo group consists of trumpet, flute, oboe and violin. 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 trumpet sits out the central Andante movement to clear space for polyphonic weavings of flute, oboe and violin, supported by a walking bass line. 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.
Aaron Grad ©2018
About This Program
The profound inventiveness and instrumental virtuosity of the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach's enduring Baroque masterpieces, are on full display as led by our own musicians and soloists.