Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Kyu-Young Kim, violin
Jeffrey Grossman, harpsichord
German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 was written for the inauguration of a new and elaborate two-manual (two-keyboard) harpsichord built by Michael Mietke. As part of his job as the music director for the court of Leopold, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach was responsible for negotiating the design of the instrument with Mietke in Berlin. It was on one such trip to Berlin in 1719 that Bach met Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt to whom he would ultimately send the collection of six Brandenburg Concertos. When the new harpsichord arrived in Cöthen, it was only fitting for Bach to write a new work to feature the instrument.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is scored for a solo concertino group of harpsichord, flute, and violin, which is accompanied by a ripieno of strings and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). This was one of the first orchestral pieces to elevate the harpsichord from the basso continuo section to the soloist’s spotlight. Throughout the piece, the harpsichord functions as both a virtuosic member of the concertino as well as an accompanying instrument in the basso continuo section. After this concerto, Bach, his sons, and their contemporaries wrote many solo harpsichord concertos, thus giving birth to a new genre.
The fifth Brandenburg concerto opens with a cheerful movement in the expected ritornello form. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening music in a movement that returns in alternation with a variety of solo passages. While each of the three solo instruments in this concerto has moments of virtuosity, the harpsichord part is especially spectacular. Rapid passagework of scales and arpeggios sparkles against the backdrop of the orchestral accompaniment. Unlike any previous concerto, this movement includes an exceptionally lengthy, written-out harpsichord cadenza, which was an excellent way for Bach to show off the new, state-of-the-art instrument in Cöthen.
Marked as “Affettuoso,” which is rare in Bach’s scores, the second movement is an intimate conversation between the flute, violin, and harpsichord. Sighing motives and minor tonal centers are the defining characteristics of this movement. Like in the fourth concerto, Bach merges fugue and ritornello form into a simultaneously uplifting and contrapuntally complex third movement. Fugue, which means “flight” refers to a compositional process in which one instrument states a melodic subject, which is then repeated and “chased” in different voices throughout the movement. This driving movement is in compound meter, contributing to its sense of forward motion.
Paula Maust ©2022
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
Hyobi Sim, viola
Orchestral pieces featuring the low strings are rare, and a Baroque-era concerto that entirely omits the violin section is even more unusual. It seems fitting, then, that the final piece in the collection of concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721 would defy instrumentation expectations even more than the previous five concertos had. Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is uniquely scored for two violas da braccio (violas held on the shoulder), two violas da gamba (fretted, six-stringed, bowed instruments held between the legs), solo cello, and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). Bach’s choice of instruments in this concerto highlights the changes that were taking place in the early eighteenth century regarding preferences for certain string instruments over others. At the time, the newer violin family, to which the cello and violas da braccio belonged, was coming to the forefront and replacing the older viol family, which included the violas da gamba.
It is likely that Bach also included violas da gamba in this piece because Prince Leopold, Bach’s employer at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, was himself a skilled player. Some have speculated that the Prince played one of the viola da gamba parts for the first performance of the piece. This exciting concerto opens with a movement that features a robust canon between the two violas da braccio. Canon, which means “rule,” is a strict imitation between two or more voices that play the same melody, but do not start at the same time. It is similar to a round, such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The relentless underlying pulse created by the lower instruments in this movement adds to the intensity of the complex counterpoint that is taking place between the two violas da braccio.
Like in the other Brandenburg Concertos, Bach reduces the number of forces used in the second movement. In this case, the two violas da braccio, solo cello, and basso continuo have an intimate conversation featuring a lyrical melody that is treated in fugue-like imitation. One viola begins with the fugue’s subject accompanied by the bass line, and the subject is then picked up by the other viola and “chased” between the parts throughout the rest of the movement. Unlike many other concerto movements of the time, this particular movement begins and ends in completely different tonal centers.
The final movement of this concerto is a bright, spirited and gigue-like. It is in ritornello form, meaning that the opening music returns throughout the movement in alternation with varied solo passages. This movement is especially charming and somewhat easier to comprehend on a first hearing than some of the more dense, complex movements that conclude the other Brandenburg Concertos.
Paula Maust ©2022
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Alicia McQuerrey, flute
Steven Copes, violin
In the first half of the eighteenth century, the concerto was one of the most popular musical genres in Western Europe. Two primary types of concertos dominated the repertoire: the concerto grosso popularized by Arcangelo Corelli and the solo concerto made famous by Antonio Vivaldi. In a concerto grosso, a small group of solo instruments (the concertino) is accompanied by a larger group (the ripieno). The solo concerto was typically a more virtuosic showpiece for a single instrumentalist accompanied by a larger ensemble. German composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos combine the concept of a small group of soloists from the concerto grosso with the virtuosity of the solo concerto. Each piece is scored for a unique combination of solo and accompanying instruments, and often, players have the dual function of being both a soloist and an accompanist within the same piece.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is scored similarly to a concerto grosso, with a concertino of violin and two recorders, which is accompanied by a ripieno of strings and basso continuo (a bass line played by a combination of bowed bass instruments and/or lute, theorbo, and harpsichord). The solo violin part, in particular, is extraordinarily virtuosic, especially in several of the solo passages in the first and third movements. The stately first movement brings to mind courtly dance rhythms and style, especially in the ritornello sections. Ritornello, which means “return,” refers to the opening music in a movement that is played by the full ensemble and repeated in alternation with various solo passages throughout the movement.
While the solo violin dominates the outer movements, it plays a more subservient role in the slower second movement. The two recorders have delicate solos full of dissonance and characteristic ornamentation, alongside which the solo violin provides a pseudo bass-line function. The third movement begins with a fugue, a feat of the composer’s contrapuntal ingenuity. Meaning “flight,” a fugue is a compositional process in which one voice states a melodic subject that is then “chased” around the rest of the ensemble in each voice. This particular movement blends fugue with ritornello form, creating a movement that is both intellectually and technically demanding.
Paula Maust ©2022
About This Program
The SPCO presents Johann Sebastian Bach’s most cherished set of orchestral works, the Brandenburg Concertos. The profound inventiveness and instrumental virtuosity of the enduring baroque masterpieces are on full display as led by our own SPCO musicians and soloists.
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