Program Notes: Classical II – Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti

This concert celebrates the 300th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Originally given as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg, these works are considered some of the best compositions in this era with their innovative blending of instruments. This performance features soloists from the YSO.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(March 31, 1685-July 28, 1750)
Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051

“Concertos” of the 17th and 18th centuries were considerably different from later works by the same name. Some of the earliest from around 1600, by Italian composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli, pitted equal ensembles of instruments and voices against each other antiphonally. Later, it became fashionable to feature soloists or small groups against large groups, primarily to exploit timbre contrasts. By the time the genre reached J.S. Bach, just about anything was fair game, and he wrote “concertos” in all possible types.

Presented as a gift to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in northeastern Germany, on March 21, 1721, the six “Brandenburg” concertos represent a remarkable compendium of applications of the term “concerto.” They have been studied individually and as a group, and it is possible they were composed at different times for different original purposes. There are three general types of concertos. Numbers 1 and 3 are “orchestral” concertos, with no individually featured soloists—different orchestral sections take turns in featured roles and then come together to explore the musical ideas. Numbers 2, 4, and 5 are “concerto grossi,” with small groups of soloists pitted against the larger orchestra. Number 6 is a “chamber” concerto, a unique combination of two small groups playing together and in contrast to each other.

The term “Brandenburg” was not applied to these pieces, however, until the 1800s after the collection was re-discovered. Scholars have shown that the orchestration did not fit the musicians of the Brandenburg court; the works were much better suited for the court orchestra maintained at Cöthen, Bach’s previous employer.

Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

The first Brandenburg concerto is Bach’s most stylish and forward-looking in orchestral terms. Horns, oboes and strings (with basso continuo) play together from the start, but then take turns with the melodic materials, sometimes with solo “representatives,” other times as sections, echoing each other or extending an idea, but always returning to the larger group effort. All three sections participate equally; while this seems normal to us today, in Bach’s day the instrument technologies did not lend themselves to equal participation. Oboes could generally keep up with the strings, but the horns (valveless in those days) had to play in the extreme high register in order to participate as melodic equals. The second movement is an exception—a lovely pairing of solo oboe and piccolo violin (a smaller sized instrument built to play higher notes), with some nice contrast from the continuo. The pacing of this concerto is quite appealing: fast and virtuosic in the first and third movements; a tender, expressive second movement; and a stately, elegant minuet as a finale. Everyone gets a chance to shine, and the result is very satisfying.

Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

The combination of flute, violin and continuo (keyboard plus bass reinforcement) was a very popular chamber music setting, and Concerto No. 5 uses this combination as the solo concertino. The harpsichord does double duty, however, playing throughout either as a soloist or as part of the orchestra in the ritornellos. The piece itself went through a few different versions, all involving the harpsichord as the primary feature, and as a result it is considered to be one of the earliest concertos to feature the harpsichord, if not the very first, by any composer. Scholars have agreed that part of the inspiration for the piece was the acquisition of a new harpsichord for the Cöthen court, and Bach wanted to show off its capabilities. This explains the longer solo harpsichord passages. The middle movement features only the trio of soloists, creating an intimate respite from the energetic outer movements. The finale is a sprightly gigue featuring all three soloists individually and together, once again demonstrating Bach’s mastery of counterpoint, even in a dance style.

 Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

 The Third Brandenburg concerto is likely one of the earliest to be composed, probably from Bach’s Weimar period (1708-1717). The work is another “ensemble” concerto, organized to highlight three groups of three instruments—three violins, three violas, and three cellos—reinforced by a basso continuo of violone (early string bass) and harpsichord. It is most frequently performed with one performer on each part to provide clarity in the separation of the groups, and to emphasize the equality of all parts. The most surprising aspect of the piece is the middle “movement” which consists of just two chords. Sometimes this is treated as a cadenza by any one or more of the performers (most often the harpsichordist), and sometimes it is simply performed as a two-chord liaison to the third movement. The outer movements are spirited and uplifting, and seeing the work in concert adds much to its enjoyment, not just hearing but actually watching the musical motives pass from one individual or group to the next.

Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047

The Second Brandenburg concerto is a concerto grosso, with a “concertino” of four soloists. In this type of concerto, the orchestra and soloists usually play in unison in sections called “ritornellos” followed by passages for the soloists individually and in various combinations. Listeners can follow their favorite instrument or just enjoy the changing colors. In the first movement, each soloist steps out of the orchestral texture to receive an introductory “bow,” and then they play in a variety of combinations that resembles a dialogue; occasionally several conversations seem to be going on simultaneously. The slow movement is a lovely melancholy contrast in mood that features three of the soloists (the trumpet gets a brief rest). The uplifting third movement is famous for being used in several television shows and movies, most noteworthy for William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. The first movement of this concerto was chosen as the first musical piece to be played on the Voyager Golden Record, and it also served as a theme for PBS’s Great Performances in the 1980s. It should be noted that in Bach’s day the trumpet part would have been played on an instrument without valves, essentially a long bugle, and the player would navigate all the high notes with only the lips. The part was originally written for a specialist, Bach’s court trumpeter in Cöthen, Johann Ludwig Schreiber. Modern improvements have made the part only nominally less precarious, but the interweaving of the high trumpet part with the other solo instruments (violin, flute/recorder, oboe) makes this concerto a truly unique piece in Baroque music.

Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051

Concerto No. 6 features two groups of soloists pitted against each other. In one group, two solo violas are accompanied by a continuo (though the cello in this group likes to wander off occasionally). The second group involves four other players: two solo violas da gamba (an older type of bowed string instrument; modern performances often replace them with cellos), harpsichord, and violone. One interesting allegory offered about this concerto is the meeting of youth and old age; new and old fashions are reflected in the instrumentation and the interaction of the two groups of instruments. The warmth and transparency of the key and instrumentation make this concerto a favorite of performers and audiences alike. The solo violas play alone in the intimate second movement, a remarkable contrast to the charm and positive energy of the outer movements. The last movement is known to many because of its use in films, commercials, and as theme music for radio and television programs, most recently as the jingle music for American Public Media.

Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

Concerto No. 4 is another concerto grosso. This time the concertino includes one violin and two “fiauti d’echo,” translated literally as “echo flutes.” There is some confusion as to what Bach actually meant by this designation, but scholars have generally agreed that he meant alto recorders pitched an octave higher than the notated parts, though flutes are often substituted for recorders. Some conductors also have embraced the “echo” by using offstage effects. The recorders generally play together as a duo, serving as an interesting color contrast to the virtuosic solo violin part—it is in the outer movements, in particular, that the technical demands for the violin soloist are quite amazing. The fugal texture in the third movement treats the orchestra and soloists as equals, reminding us of Bach’s contrapuntal genius, and the episodes for the soloists demonstrate again the high quality of performers he had around him in Cöthen.