Bach probably composed his two extant violin concertos around 1730, not long after he agreed to lead the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. This talented amateur group gave weekly performances, often in the informal atmosphere of a coffeehouse, providing Bach an outlet for secular music that would not have entered his primary duties preparing music for church services. The violin concertos in A minor and E major were among the works that Bach recast in the late-1730s as keyboard concertos, also intended for the Collegium Musicum. The six keyboard concertos provide evidence that there were likely more concertos for violin, but only the two solo concertos and a double violin concerto in D minor have survived.
Bach borrowed his template for the violin concertos from earlier Italian composers, especially Vivaldi. The E-major Concerto begins with three chords and a pause—a stock opening that can be found in some two dozen of Vivaldi’s concertos—but the ensuing treatment is classic Bach. The recognizable figure of a rising triad spread across three steady beats cascades from voice to voice and passes through a range of keys, making its most striking arrival in the ominous key of C-sharp minor. The journey to that contrasting key area proves even more significant when it turns out to be the home key of the Adagio, a poignant lament the concentrates the richest countermelodies in the lower strings. The Allegro assai finale adheres to the classic ritornello format, in which tutti statements return after each exploratory episode from the soloist.
Aaron Grad ©2013
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
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
Bach probably composed the Orchestral Suite No. 1 during his early years in Leipzig, when he first started participating with the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble mainly comprised of university students. With most concerts held at a coffee house, this amateur ensemble provided Bach relief from his rigid church position, letting him experiment with secular music like the four surviving Orchestral Suites inspired by French dance music.
Suites in the French style had become fashionable in Germany, where such a work would have been described as an Ouverture (to use the French spelling), taking the name from the substantial opening movement. The subsequent movements employed dance styles popularized during the reign of Louis XIV, an avid dancer himself. Orchestral suites by Bach and his contemporaries were not intended to accompany actual dancing, but the familiar rhythms and patterns would have contributed to their entertainment value.
Aaron Grad ©2019
About This Program
This unconducted program features four of Bach’s most cherished masterpieces, including two of his beloved Brandenburg Concertos. At the center of the program is the composer’s Second Violin Concerto, featuring SPCO Concertmaster Steven Copes as soloist. Continuing our season-long exploration of Bach’s complete Orchestral Suites, this program closes with the Orchestral Suite No. 1.