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, 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
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 origins of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 are uncertain, but musicologists now suspect that the work dates from Bach’s early years in Leipzig. The score appeared no later than 1725, by which time Bach had already begun his association with the Collegium Musicum, the amateur group he went on to direct starting in 1729. Suites in the French style were fashionable among German composers in Bach’s day; such a work would have been known 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 seventeenth century in the French royal court, especially during the reign of Louis XIV, an avid dancer himself. Orchestral suites by Bach and his contemporaries were not intended to accompany dancing, but the familiar rhythms and patterns would have contributed to their entertainment value.
True to form, the first Orchestral Suite opens with a grand overture in the French style. The structure employs the expected slow introduction, complete with dotted rhythms to invoke a majestic mood, which then connects to a fast fugal section. The ensemble’s small woodwind section, just two oboes and a bassoon, emerges for several exposed contributions before the slow tempo returns for a stately recapitulation.
The dances that constitute the remainder of the suite each adopt the usual binary structure, consisting of two repeated sections. All but the Courante and Forlane come in sets of linked pairs organized in a da capo format, meaning that the first dance returns for a final pass after the second concludes. The suite’s Forlane is the only movement with that title in Bach’s surviving output; the pastoral oboe melody, droning bass, and slurred accompaniment make for a memorable effect. Instead of ending with a typical gigue, the suite closes with a pair of Passepieds, another rare form found only four times in Bach’s music. This fast spin on a minuet reuses the same melody for the second part, dropping the tune to a lower octave and adding a dizzying counterline from the oboes.
Aaron Grad ©2013