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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Brandenburg Concertos

Johann Sebastian Bach never did things by halves. Between 1717 and 1723 (when he was in his mid-30s) he was employed as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position which required him to compose a great deal of secular instrumental music. During his tenure, the musical establishment at Cöthen became increasingly run down due to the Prince allocating financial resources elsewhere (and the active opposition of the Prince's second wife, who hated music and resented her husband's musical interests). Not for the last time in his life did Bach start looking around for another job.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen

Bach had made the acquaintance Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg around 1719 and in 1721 he sent to the Margrave the most unusual package. It contained a score titled in French as Concerts avec plusieurs instruments - Concertos with various instruments - along with a rather obsequious letter of dedication, also in French. This seems to have been Bach’s response to a casual request from the Margrave for some compositions, but it was likely that Bach also viewed this music as a job application. Bach was sending a sample of his work - six magnificent instrumental concertos - in the hope that the Margrave would give him a position in his court. A pretty amazing job application when you think about it.

Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg

The evidence suggests much of this music was already in existence in some form before Bach made the set of six to send to the Margrave. This goes some way to explaining the incredible diversity among the six concertos. Most likely much of it was written during his time in Cöthen; some may even date back to an earlier appointment in Weimar. One writer has pointed out that the instruments required to play all six exactly tallies with the instrumental forces Bach had at his disposal in Cöthen.

Bach copied the music out himself, though, and the fawning dedication begins...

As 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.

There is no evidence that the Margrave of Brandenburg ever used the music Bach sent, or that he even replied. These works were in any case outside the instrumental resources of Brandenburg, and Bach certainly didn’t get a post at the Brandenburg court. But the concertos, thankfully, survived, and today they are known as the Brandenburg concertos.

The Brandenburg concertos each use a different combination of instruments. Four of the six (numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5) are set in a concerto grosso format, contrasting a group of solo instruments (called the concertino) against an orchestra of strings (called the ripieno). The other two (numbers 3 and 6) comprise a group of soloists which functions as both concertino and ripieno, of which more later. Bach clearly set himself challenges with each concerto, to use the various instruments (les plusieurs instruments) in new and exciting combinations.

What follows here is a very general introduction to these six superb pieces, not a detailed analysis. The linked video examples for each concerto on YouTube feature marvellous performances by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

Possible portrait of JS Bach (c. 1715)

Concerto No 1

The first concerto [video here] has the largest concertino (or solo) group of the set. Against the ripieno of strings Bach has a concertino of 2 hunting horns, 3 oboes, bassoon and a violino piccolo. The Italian word “piccolo” literally means small, so this is literally a small violin. The violino piccolo - which really is smaller than the normal violin - was used sporadically in Bach’s time, and was tuned four semitones higher than the normal violin. This, in combination with its smaller size, gave it a distinctive tone, and its tuning facilitated higher passages.

In the concerto’s first movement the main solo interest is on the 2 horns and the 3 oboes; the violino piccolo has only two bars of independent material in this movement; it mainly plays with the first ripieno violin. The bassoon functions as the bass instrument for the three oboes, setting them clearly apart as their own instrumental choir from the ripieno strings.

Natural horn (Brad Tatum)

In the second movement the horns are silent and the violino piccolo comes into its own as an equal partner with the first oboe. In fact the main melodic material in this ravishing slow movement is heard in only three parts: the first oboe, the violino piccolo, and the bassline. Initially the oboe and violin are heard in dialogue but Bach soon gives them strict canon: the oboe begins and the violin plays exactly the same music a beat later. Later the roles are reversed. In addition, the bassline frequently has notes which deliberately clash with the parts above it. The chords at the end are amazingly unpredictable, too. All up, this is pretty “out there” for 1721.

This leads directly into the concerto’s third movement, a rollicking movement in which the horns rejoin the proceedings, and in which the violino piccolo has a major solo, full of multiple stops designed especially for the instrument’s peculiar tuning.

The first Brandenburg concerto is the only concerto in the set to have a fourth movement, a complex minuet movement which sees the violino piccolo retreat back into the orchestra, its solo work having come to an end. Here, the solo contrast is between the horns, oboes and bassoon on the one hand and the ripieno strings on the other.

The first statement of the minuet is followed by a trio, which here is a literal trio, comprising the first two oboes and the bassoon completely on their own. After this the minuet is repeated. After the reprise of the minuet we now have Polonaise, which Bach means to be taken literally, a Polish dance. This uses the ripieno strings alone, with no soloists whatsoever. After this the Minuet is heard again.

After this hearing of the Minuet we have a second trio, which like the first is in three parts. The two horns (playing separate parts) are accompanied by the three oboes in unison. The concerto is then wound up by a fourth and final hearing of the minuet.

Concerto No 2

In one respect the second Brandenburg concerto [video here] is on a smaller scale than the first. The sumptuous concertino of the first concerto, comprising seven instruments, is replaced in the second by a smaller group of four, but what a group it is! The soloists in the second concerto are a trumpet, a recorder (sometimes played on the flute in modern-instrument performances), an oboe and a violin; four very different instruments which the composer sets against the usual string ripieno.

The trumpet part is completely unique in the entire repertoire. Calling for a high trumpet in F - an instrument for which Bach wrote on no other known occasion - this part is of immense difficulty. No-one is completely certain what sort of instrument Bach had in mind for this part, but it seems most likely it was intended for Johann Ludwig Schreiber, the Cöthen court trumpeter. If this part is anything to go by, he must have been a top notch virtuoso.

The first movement of the second concerto is one of Bach’s superb conversation pieces, in which the four soloists seem to converse against the backdrop of the ripieno strings.

Baroque oboe (Katharina Spreckelsen)*

The middle movement dispenses not only with the trumpet but also with most of the ripieno strings. The solo recorder, oboe and violin are accompanied by the continuo alone, usually played by a cello and "realised" (that is, filled out with chords) by a harpsichord. The “sighing” phrases in the three solo parts increase in importance as the movement progresses, and Bach manages to get the emotional state just right, with this as a tranquil interlude between the fast and demanding first and last movements.

The final movement of the second Brandenburg concerto re-introduces the trumpet, which sets the ball rolling with a fugue for the four soloists, which enter in the order trumpet, oboe, violin then recorder. Apart from the continuo instruments - the orchestral bassline - the ripieno instruments have very little do in this movement; all the attention is on the four soloists and their virtuosic interplay.

Natural trumpet (David Blackadder)*

Concerto No 3

The third concerto in the Brandenburg set [video here] doesn’t have a concertino/ripieno (that is, soloists vs orchestra) construction. In the first two concertos a group of soloists (the concertino) were contrasted against the backdrop of a string ensemble (the ripieno). Here in the third there are nine solo parts - 3 violins, 3 violas and 3 cellos - supported by a continuo line played by a violone (an early form of the double bass) and harpsichord. These all combine to provide both concertino and ripieno. At times the violins, violas and cellos form separate “choirs” which act in a sort of dialogue, at other times the individual parts act as soloists supported by the others. It’s an ingeniously constructed work, again completely unique in the repertoire. Each player needs to be aware if they’re acting as a soloist, as a member of their “choir”, or as a ripieno instrument, and the roles can change from one bar to the next.

The third concerto’s infectiously joyous first movement is one of Bach’s best known works, and the concerto ends with a rollicking virtuoso showpiece as a final movement. But between these two movements there’s no slow movement in the usual sense; all Bach provided was two chords which lead directly into the last movement. Over the years these two chords have been interpreted in different ways. Some performers just play the chords and go straight on, others omit them entirely. Most performers these days assume that some sort of improvised passage should be heard after the first movement, and that this should be engineered in such a way as to make it end with the two chords. In the video linked above, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra takes the minimalist position and plays just the two chords before progressing to the finale.

Concerto No 4

The fourth concerto [video here] reverts to the concerto grosso format we encountered in the first and second concertos: a group of soloists supported by a body of strings. In this concerto there are three soloists in the concertino group, a violin and two recorders. (The recorder parts are sometimes played on flutes in modern-instrument performances.)

The first movement pushes the solo violin, in particular, to the fore, requiring it to take the dominant role in proceedings. At times, Bach requires the violinist to play cascades of rapid notes, almost as if the composer was challenging the violinist at every turn.

Baroque recorder (Rachel Beckett)*

The second movement of the fourth concerto is the only time in the entire set that all the participants in the first movement are heard in a concerto’s second movement. This movement is of poignant delicacy; along with pairs of “sighing” quavers it utilises a popular effect in music of the period, namely echoes. In the score Bach marks the music’s louds and softs in great detail to make the echoes clear.

The third movement starts as a fugue and continues in boisterous polyphonic display. The solo violinist is again pushed to the limits of violin technique in a notoriously tricky passage of string crossings and double stops.

Concerto No 5

The fifth Brandenburg concerto [video here] is also the longest. It too has a concertino of three soloists but rather unusually the harpsichord is promoted from its role as a continuo instrument to being a full-fledged soloist. Or to be more accurate, it is both continuo instrument and soloist in this glorious work. The other two soloists are a violin and a flute. (The flute part here is for a “transverse flute” this time, and not a recorder. When Bach writes flauto, he means recorder. He uses flauto traverso for the regular flute.)

Baroque flute (Lisa Beznosiuk)*

The extremely virtuosic solo harpsichord part was almost certainly written by Bach for himself to play. Interestingly, the ripieno strings require only one violin instead of two.

Near the end of the first movement, the keyboard writing becomes more and more florid while the other instruments recede into the background. Eventually we are left with an enormous cadenza for the harpsichord alone, completely written out by Bach, on a scale unprecedented in music of the period.

The middle movement of the fifth concerto dispenses with the ripieno entirely, using only the three soloists, who indulge in an intimate trio. Some performers choose to add a cello to double the harpsichord's bass line; Bach's manuscript only refers to the harpsichord.

This delicate music leads straight into the jig-like finale, and the three soloists start off on their own. It’s almost 30 bars before the ripieno instruments are heard in what will eventually be a large-scale ternary form movement. This means the first section is repeated note-for-note after a contrasting middle section.

Concerto No 6

The final Brandenburg concerto [video here] is perhaps the most unusual. Like the third concerto, there is no concertino vs ripieno dynamic. Rather we have, as in No 3, a group of soloists who function in both roles. The music in six parts. Not only are there no wind or brass instruments, there aren’t even any violins. The main material is given to two solo violas, a very rare example of the viola having major solo material before the twentieth century. Beneath them are two violas da gamba, instruments of the viol family which Bach used on occasion but which were even then regarded as old fashioned. Then there is a cello, given a part which straddles both solo and supporting roles, and at the bottom is a continuo line for violone (an early version of the double bass) and harpsichord. The key word in the first movement - and indeed the whole of the sixth concerto - is imitation.

Viola da gamba (Jonathan Manson)*

After a very closely-voiced canon between the two solo violas (they're only half a beat apart!), all the instruments become involved in the most extraordinary tapestry of imitation in which the ear is drawn from one instrument to another in rapid succession. In restricting himself to middle and low-voiced instruments, Bach makes this music the aural equivalent of diving into a vat of chocolate. It’s delicious.

The violas da gamba are silent in the achingly beautiful slow movement. The attention here is squarely on the two violas, supported by the cello and the continuo line. Again, the two violas imitate each other and become enmeshed in a web of amazing counterpoint, almost oblivious to the support of the relentless but vital bassline beneath. The clashes between the cello and the continuo line provide a sort of archaic feeling to this other-worldly music, something we experienced in the slow movement of the first concerto.

This movement leads without a break into the final movement, which like the fifth concerto is a jig. Also like the fifth concerto, the final movement is in ternary form; the first section is repeated note-for-note after a contrasting middle section.

Bach's six Brandenburg concertos are among his best-known and most often performed works, and rightly so. They're miracles of invention and instrumental colour, completely unique in the realms of 18th century music. Most writers consider them to be one of the "win peaks" of the Baroque concerto grosso form, the other "peak" being Handel's twelve concertos of his Opus 6. But this shouldn't obscure the fact that the Baroque is full of brilliant concerti grossi in the works of Telemann, Vivaldi and countless other composers. There's so much to explore.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2005. (Instrument pictures marked with an asterisk were taken from posts made by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.)

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