Johann Sebastian Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto features the largest ensemble, including a pair of corni da caccia, or “hunting horns,” in the group of soloists. Three oboes, a bassoon and a violino piccolo — a slightly smaller cousin of the violin tuned a minor third higher — round out the solo group, while a full complement of strings and basso continuo contribute supporting music.
Bach adapted this concerto from the opening Sinfonia of a secular cantata from 1713, Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (“The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire”). The first movement retains the jovial, outdoor ambience of music inspired by the hunt, with the horns issuing calls to action, sometimes in triplets that contradict the orchestra’s pulse, as if they have already moved ahead in the hunt at their own pace. After this spirited opening, the Adagio movement is a poignant departure, with the oboe, solo violin and bass group elaborating a plaintive melody. An oboe cadenza and a series of mysterious chords lead into the third movement, a sprightly romp that shows off the solo violin’s bright figurations.
The First Brandenburg Concerto is the only one with a fourth movement, in this case a regal Minuet that pauses for two contrasting trio sections as well as a Polacca, a dance with Polish origins. The alternate sections each feature subsets of the ensemble, including the novel sound in the final trio section of three unison oboes honking a breathless accompaniment under hunting calls from the horns.
Aaron Grad ©2021
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 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 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
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
Continuing our annual holiday tradition, the SPCO presents Bach’s most cherished set of orchestral works, the Brandenburg Concertos. These cornerstones of the Baroque literature have been praised by generations of music lovers for their profound inventiveness and dazzling instrumental virtuosity. Join us for these musician-led concerts that showcase the individual and collective talents of the SPCO musicians on core works of the chamber music repertoire.
Please note: The Saturday, December 14 performance at Saint Paul's UCC and the Sunday, December 15 performance at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are now SOLD OUT. Please select a different performance from the list above.
These concerts are not part of our regular subscription series and are not eligible for voucher redemption, season ticket exchanges, or concert membership redemption and cannot be included as part of a Create-Your-Own Series.