`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 […] taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duly to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which l have adapted to several instruments” (Bach to Christian Ludwig Margrave of Brandenburg)
The Brandenburg Concertos
When Bach arrived at C6 then he assumed Kapellmeister responsibilities which, for the first and only time in his life, required nothing from him in the way of church music. His new employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Coethen, was a keen amateur musician and was a capable bass singer as well as able to play the violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. By the time of Bach’s arrival in December 1717 the court orchestra could boast some eighteen players, not forgetting either the musical prince or of course, Bach himself.
The orchestral cornerstone of Bach’s Coethen years is a collection of six concertos assembled, as the result of a “command” from Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. The “Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments”, as Bach described the Brandenburg Concertos in the dedication of his autograph score to the Margrave (24 March 1721), make demands far in excess of the modest musical resources of the Margrave’s own musical establishment in Berlin. It would therefore seem likely that the composer intended his brilliantly diverse anthology to be played by the excellent band at Coethen, of which he himself was director.
The composition of individual movements, if not of entire concertos, extended over a longer period embracing, at least, the years at Weimar immediately preceding his employment by Prince Leopold. Furthermore, the several surviving variant versions throw fascinating light on Bach’s methods of adaptation, expansion and revision. For, in each of these pieces, we witness a musician absorbed in, and inspired by, the almost infinitely varied possibilities afforded by concerto principles laid down by Italian composers, developed thereafter in Italy, and quickly disseminated throughout Europe.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F is rich in tonal colour and the most elaborate of the six concertos in respect of layout. Its juxtaposed elements of concerto and dance suite suggest that it may have been one of the earliest to have been composed. Certainly its first two movements, the Menuet “altemativement” and the two wind Trios belong to Bach’s Weimar period when they were probably performed as part of a birthday celebration for the neighbouring Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels in 1713. When preparing his fair copy for the Margrave of Brandenburg, however; Bach made some important changes. He rescored existing material to accommodate a violino piccolo (a small violin tuned, in this work, a minor third above standard violin tuning), added a second Allegro and inserted a Polacca, or polonaise, within the alternating Menuet and Trio pattern. If Italian techniques hold sway in the first three movements then a French bias gains the upper hand in the Menuet, a French courtly dance par excellence, and in the Trios. In the first of the Trios Bach brings together two oboes and a bassoon, a combination of instruments standardized by Lully in his operas. The second Trio is instrumentally bolder, calling for an unusual combination of two horns (which are called for only in this one of the six concertos) and an oboe.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major
The four solo protagonists in the two outer movements of Concerto No. 2 are trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. Such disparate groupings as this, for which Vivaldi had provided examples in a handful of his concertos, enjoyed popularity among several north and central German composers of Bach’s time, though none could match the intricate construction of Bach’s musical argument evidenced, above all, in the first movement of the Concerto. The lyrically conceived, centrally placed slow movement, an Andante in D minor, is of a very different character and hue from the outer movements. In this chamber piece the principal melodic idea is introduced by the solo violin, taken up by the oboe and lastly the recorder over a continuo bass of gently moving quavers. The fugally treated finale is dominated by the trumpet that introduces a lively melody, brilliantly declaimed, which is developed concisely and contrapuntally by the, remaining solo instruments and the ripieno strings.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major
In this concerto Bach’s consummate craftsmanship and creative inspiration opens up a whole new world of sound in which he exploits the sound of pure string texture in a dazzling, virtuosic manner. The scoring comprises three violins, three violas and three cellos underpinned by a basso continuo consisting of a violone and harpsichord. The nine parts have a dual function to perform, providing not only the ripieno or tutti but also the concertino sections. Sometimes the episodes are short solos, sometimes ideas thrust, antiphonally, between different instrumental groups, somewhat in the manner of the older Italian cori spezzati, or sometimes more densely argued passages of dialogue. A distinctive and unusual feature of this concerto is the absence of a slow middle movement. Instead, Bach provided only two minim chords forming a Phrygian cadence and a tempo marking “Adagio”.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major
In Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 Bach skilfully unites elements of the solo concerto with those of a typical concerto grosso. The solo, or concertino group in this work consists of a violin and two flauti d’echo while that of the ripieno comprises strings and continuo. Bach’s flauti d’echo have long puzzled scholars and interpreters alike; the consensus of opinion, nowadays, favours treble recorders as the most likely and effective instruments. The division of labour among the three concertino instruments is far from even in this concerto. In the opening Allegro, a movement of expansive dimension and structural complexity the violin reigns supreme with extensive solos and athletic figures, which allow us to think of the piece almost as a violin concerto. The movement’s structure, too, is unusual in that, although cast in a ritornello pattern, it also follows a da capo principle, with the opening 83 bars repeated at the close. In the centrally placed Andante it is the two recorders that take pride of place. Unlike the middle movements of Concertos Nos. 2 and 5 this one is not a chamber piece but requires the participation of the full string complement. A Phrygian cadence leads to the finale, a five-part fugue of enormous vitality, whose extensive but engagingly melodious subject is introduced by the violas. Bach, with all the flair of genius, unites his supreme contrapuntal mastery with that developing taste for virtuosity characteristic of the late Baroque. Here, as in the opening movement, the violin assumes a place of primary importance.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major
Both on stylistic and instrumental grounds Concerto No. 5 is the most forward-looking of the six. Not only does it embrace aspects of the developing solo concerto more wholeheartedly than the remaining works in the set, but Bach also writes here for the newly fashionable transverse flute as opposed to the recorders of Concertos Nos. 2 and 4. In his promotion of the harpsichord to a position of soloist, alongside the flute and violin, Bach was indeed an innovator. Although, essentially, the work remains a concerto grosso, the harpsichord solo in the first movement, together with its many other exposed passages, entitle it to an important place in the subsequent development of the keyboard concerto. The slow movement is pure chamber music – a piece in the manner of a trio sonata for the three solo instruments without ripieno support. It adheres to ritornello structure, however, though, in contrast with the outer movements, the flute, violin and harpsichord fulfil both solo and ripieno functions. In the evenly balanced part-writing of this movement we can sense, above all, Bach’s rapport with the wider expressive potential inherent in the traverso flute. The dance-like concluding Allegro draws some of its inspiration, in equal measure, from Italy and France. The rhythm is that of a gigue but, while the structure is Italianate, the character, emphasized at one point in the score by elegant grace notes in the violin ripieno and viola lines, is predominantly French.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major
What a world of difference lies between the occasional splendour of the first Brandenburg, with its hunting horns and courtly dances, and the soft-spoken, chamber music intimacy of Concerto No. 6. This concerto differs from the other five in that Bach, exceptionally, excluded violins entirely from the instrumental texture. Like Concerto No. 3 of the set, this one is for strings only; and like No. 3, the strings are grouped in accordance with their range. Bach’s choice of instruments is fascinating since he has assembled, in two groups, representatives of the newer violin family and members of the older, obsolescent viol family. Thus, in the lively outer movements— the first of them a restless piece where agitated canonic entries assist in creating an exhilarating rhythmic tension, the second a spirited dance with playful syncopation — the dialogue is sustained on the one hand by two violas and a cello, on the other by two viole da gamba and violone. The absence of violins gives a subdued colour to the music as well as an intimate warmth and, in these respects, this concerto calls to mind the darker hues of the seventeenth century English viol consorts.