is difficult to describe the appeal and popularity which surrounds
the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian
Bach. Of the six works which comprise the entire set, no two
are alike in their instrumentation, and in two of them (the Third
and Sixth), there aren't even any "soloists", but only a band of
stringed instruments in complex musical intercourse. When we talk
about the Brandenburg Concertos, we are actually talking
of six uniquely diverse concertos, each a masterpiece in its own
the Baroque context, a concerto did not always necessarily describe
a work which contrasted one soloist or more against a supporting
ensemble; it was also often used simply to indicate a work of several
movements for any combination of instruments, such as Bach's Italian
Concerto, for solo harpsichord, or Handel's Concerti Grosso.
What is the Concerto Grosso ?
Literally, Italian for "great concerto". The concerto grosso
was an early form of composition popular in the baroque period
(c.1650-1750). The structure of the music was antiphonal,
that is, the orchestra was divided into two parts playing
alternately, with one part answering the other. Usually this
was a smaller group of soloists, the concertino, playing in
contrast and combination with a larger group, the ripieno.
The concerto grosso could comprise three or more movements,
sometimes including dances from the French and Italian courts,
like the allemande, sarabande, minuet, bourrée and gavotte.
most celebrated set of orchestral works was not always so well-received
as they are today. For, in March 1721, when Bach sent a carefully
copied set of the six concertos to the Margrave Christian Ludwig
of Brandenburg, he was in fact seeking alternative employment from
his present position at the court of Cöthen. He had arrived in Cöthen
only four years previously from Weimar - where Bach had in fact
spent four weeks in prison, after he incurred the displeasure of
Duke Wilhelm Ernst, who later dismissed him in disgrace.
Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen was a better employer, for the prince loved
music and actively participated in some of the music-making himself.
By all accounts, Bach and his family were happy at Cöthen. Even
so, when Bach met the Margrave of Brandenburg whilst on a shopping
trip to Berlin to buy a new harpsichord, the composer promised to
send the nobleman 'some pieces of my compositions'.
year after his meeting with the Margrave, he and a few musicians
accompanied Prince Leopold to Carlsbad. In his absence, Bach's wife
Maria Barbara passed away, and upon being told of the bad news upon
his return, took it somewhat badly. He remarried quickly, to Anna
Magdalena Wilcken, the twenty-year-old daughter of the court trumpeter,
but the biggest factor in Bach's decision to leave Cöthen was ironically
Prince Leopold's marriage, just a few months later. The new princess
was uninterested in music, and indeed, managed to destroy the rapport
between Bach and Prince Leopold.
It was in these circumstances that Bach decided to go job hunting,
and finally got around to sending the set of six Concerts avec
plusieurs instruments - Bach's original title for these works
- to the Margrave of Brandenburg as a form of glorified job application.
These were not new compositions. The First, Third and Sixth concertos
are thought to have dated from his employment with the Duke of Weimar
between 1708 to 1717, and the other three from Cöthen. Their diverse
nature abundantly shows that they were never intended to be a unified
is not surprising, however, that the Margrave neither acknowledged
their receipt, nor had them performed. The works had been written
and scored for a somewhat larger orchestra, as might be found at
Cöthen, then the smaller forces of the Brandenburg house ensemble,
which averaged six players. The simplest of the series, the Sixth,
would have required at least the engagement of one additional musician,
and the other five considerably much more. It has also been suggested
that the Margrave's provincial troupe were technically not up to
the task of Bach's complex music.
Not to Send Cards
fulsome flattery of Baroque dedications will be familiar to
many, but Bach seems to have surpassed himself in his inscription
that accompanied the Brandenburgs. Take a deep breath:
I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your
Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed
then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents
which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave
of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me
with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition:
I have in accordance with Your Highness's most gracious orders
taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your
Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted
to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly
not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating
and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for
musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration
the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I
thus attempt to show Him.
this is only just the first sentence.
the next thirteen years, the concertos lay unused in the Margrave's
library until his death, whereupon at the inventory-taking of His
Royal Highness' music, these works were not even included among
the compositions important enough to be listed by their composers'
names. They were lumped instead into a miscellany of musical works
and valued at four groschen apiece, for the purpose of evaluating
and dividing the Margrave's estate among his five heirs. The nickname
"Brandenburg" itself was only applied much later in the nineteenth
century when the manuscript was rediscovered in the Brandenburg
No.1 in F, BWV 1046
The First Concerto is unique among the six in that it exists in
two versions. The original version was actually called a 'Sinfonia',
containing only three movements instead of the more familiar four
- the third movement was added when Bach was rescoring and preparing
the fair copy for the Margrave of Brandenburg. Other additions included
a polonaise for strings in the last movement, as well as a new embroidered
part for solo piccolo violin.
work has been thought to have been written as part of the "Hunt
Cantata" (BWV 208) in its original form ('Sinfonia'), giving it
characteristics of both the baroque suite and the concerto. As with
the common baroque practice of recycling music, the first movement
also reappears in the cantata "Falsche Welt" (BWV 52), while
the third movement and second trio were rescored with trumpets and
voices in another cantata "Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern
Trompeten" (BWV 207a).
presence of the stylistic court dances in the last movement lends
a French flavour to this concerto. There is also an imaginative
use of woodwind colours in the trios: the first trio uses a conventional
grouping of two oboes and a bassoon, in the fashion of a Lully opera,
with a distinctive contrast provided by two horns and oboe soli
in the second trio. The horn hunting calls in the opening movement,
reflecting the rustic nature of the countryside, is also not uncommon
in Baroque music.
No.2 in F, BWV 1047
The Second Concerto contains a very interesting quartet of solo
instruments - the trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin - which is
strongly representative of the style of composition of the Germanic
composers, where concertante instruments of highly varied and disparate
tonal timbres were cleverly juxtaposed. We can find parallel examples
in the works of Telemann, Graupner and Stölzel, and even Alessandro
Scarlatti (notwithstanding that he was Italian), who combined a
trumpet with a recorder in his Second Sinfonie in D.
this would not have been an easy work to perform, and well out of
the capabilites of the Margrave of Brandenburg's modest ensemble.
The interplay of the four instruments stating the main theme against
the strings and continuo displays a very strong style of concerto
grosso. However, to this must be credited Bach's masterful juggling
of each of the concertante instruments against the others, making
the harmonious and exuberant music sound much less difficult than
it really is.
No.3 in G, BWV 1048
The Third Concerto is thought to be one of the earliest of the entire
set, in view of its somewhat more conservative musical design. It
is a pure ensemble concerto piece, for three violins, three violas
and three cellos, with harpsichord and bass continuo.
is also no central movement, given that the musical architecture
of the instrumental concerto, even as late as the Romantic period,
followed a three-part, fast-slow-fast structure. Instead, there
are only two slow chords - a Phrygian cadence, for those who know
what it means - providing for a cadenza, where Bach could have expected
one or more of the musicians to improvise.
But what makes the Third interesting is the absolutely equal division
of parts between the three groups of strings, sometimes combining
to play the ripieno in unison and at other times, holding a varied
and musical dialogue among themselves. Very rarely does one of the
individual parts actually play solo. On the other hand, at the conclusion
of a major division, the entire ensemble is massed in octaves on
a single phrase - a device which Bach borrowed from Vivaldi, sort
of a musical equivalent of the Shakespearean rhyming couplet marking
the end of a scene or act.
No.4 in G, BWV 1049
The Fourth Concerto presents to modern performers a small mystery,
in Bach's notation of two flauti d'echo ("echo flutes") in the scoring
of the work. There is no specific instrument by this name that we
know today, although it has been suggested that Bach might have
been referring to the sopranino recorder. Indeed, in modern performance,
the recorder has become the accepted instrument in this part.
slightly more unusual interpretation of the flauti d'echo pertains
to the second movement, in that Bach actually intended the recorders
to be played in the distance as the part suggests, for a physical
aural effect. In any case, Bach opens the concerto with the central
melody played both recorders, over a string accompaniment of arpeggios
and falling thirds. The solo violin follows, albeit in a varied
role: sometimes playing in unison with the recorders, and other
times weaving its own athletic figure.
the Brandenburgs, this concerto can be said to be the lightest and
wittiest, bringing to one's mind the urbane, wordly court of the
Parisian salon. It also displays a mix of both the traditional grosso
and solo elements of the evolving concerto - the violin and two
recorders used together in concertino fashion, as well as each instrument
individually. It also exists in an alternate version for two recorders
and harpsichord, BWV 1057.
No.5 in D, BWV 1050
If the Fourth can be described one of the steps in Bach's evolution
of the concerto, then the Fifth Concerto and the place it holds
in the history and literature of the keyboard concerto represents
a fairly advanced stage of development. This concerto is thought
to be the last of the six in order of composition.
such characteristic, for example, is Bach's decision to call for
a flute traversière (transverse flute) - i.e. the modern flute as
we know it today - as opposed to the flauto dolce (soft flute),
or recorder. Also, even in the work's concerto grosso form, the
harpsichord part has such prominence, eclipsing the solo flute and
violin, that the work can almost be regarded as the earliest instance
of a concerto for harpsichord, which itself, of course, is the immediate
ancestor of the modern-day piano.
Left: J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann.
indication of the concerto's evolved nature was Bach's curious move
of dispensing with the second violin in the ripieno. This can perhaps
be explained when we understand that Bach, who normally played the
viola in the chamber music sessions at Cöthen, made an exception
for this concerto and took for himself the principal harpsichord
part. Therefore, someone else would have had to take over his viola
part, and by omitting the second violin, he could allow a violinist
to do this.
No.6 in B flat, BWV 1051
The Sixth Concerto is a work with a peculiarity seldom found elsewhere
in classical music: it has no violin parts. The scoring is for seven
instrments, two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, and violone
(double bass) and harpsichord continuo.
work may have been composed with the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen
and Bach themselves as performers in mind. The good prince played
not only the violin and the harpsichord, but also the viola da gamba.
The gamba is approximately the size of a cello, but is thinner in
the body and fretted across the fingerboard, like a guitar. It was
already falling into obsolescence, even by then, although it had
typically been an aristocratic instrument. Shakespeare, for example,
makes a mention of this, when writing of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in
Twelfth Night: "he plays o' th' viol-de-gamboys and speaks three
or four languages word for word without book, and hath all the good
gifts of nature."
Sixth Concerto is similar to the Third in that both were written
for stringed instruments only, but their different is in the way
these parts are used. The melodic and contrapunal material of the
Sixth seems to have been designed as an early form of a sextet for
strings (less the keyboard continuo). This middle-to-low-pitched
strings-only combination would have given this concerto a distinctive
Brandenburgs at a Glance
2 hn, ob, vn
2ob, bn, str,
tp, rec, ob,
3 vn, 3va,
vn, 2 rec (flauti
fl, vn, hpd
2 gam, vc,
vn - violin
va - viola
gam - viola da gamba
vc - cello
vne - violone
str - strings
cont - continuo
fl - flute
pic - piccolo
rec - recorder
rd - rubber ducky
ob - oboe
tp - trumpet
hn - horn
earliest Brandenburg Concertos in the DG Walkman Classics series
was eaten up by the cassette player. Today, he has six versions
on CD, so that it won't happen again.
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