Instead of the typical concerto grosso setup of a solo group within the orchestra, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto treats all members of the ensemble as soloists, with independent lines for three violins, three violas and three cellos supported by the basso continuo accompaniment. The equitable distribution of the material is especially clear in the first movement, in which the primary motive — a three-note figure that drops to the lower neighbor note and then returns to the starting pitch — 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 ©2021
Johann Sebastian Bach’s 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 ©2021
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto showcases a violin along with two parts identified as “echo flutes,” a mysterious term that appears nowhere else in Bach’s music. Scholars agree (for the most part) that the intended instruments were treble recorders, and that the “echo” label referred 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 fast first movement, the 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, 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 major, where the concerto started. Their robust entrance marks the start of a virtuosic fugue.
Aaron Grad ©2021
Johann Sebastian Bach’s 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 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 plays its own melodic line that intermingles with the flute and violin. 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 ©2021
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
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.