Bach’s scores elaborated on the template developed a generation earlier by the Italian composer Archangelo Corelli, who pioneered these “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 uses three violins, three violas and three cellos, and 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 ©2018
The 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 ©2018
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 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 ©2018
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
For the 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 melodies with adjacent notes 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 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 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.
Aaron Grad ©2018
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 ©2018
About This Program
Continuing an annual holiday tradition, the SPCO presents Bach’s most treasured set of orchestral works, the resplendent Brandenburg Concertos. These musician-led performances showcase the inventive Baroque masterpieces in intimate concert settings, shining a spotlight on the individual and collective talents of the SPCO musicians.