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Johann Sebastian Bach

Program Notes by Bruce Lamott

Brandenburg Concertos 1, 3, 5 & 4

J.S. Bach seemed to have a thing about sixes: six suites for solo violin, three sets of six suites for harpsichord, six sonatas for solo cello, and Six Concerts avec plusieurs Instruments [Six Concertos with Diverse Instruments] compiled for the Margrave of Brandenburg, now known as the “Brandenburg Concertos.” Six was the number preferred by music publishers, possibly indicating Bach’s intention to publish these works, though only the keyboard Partitas (Clavierübung Part I) were printed in his lifetime. Unlike the other sets of six–consistent in style and format within the genre–the Brandenburgs are distinguished by their dis-similarity. Their individual differences in instrumentation, length, national styles, number of movements, and compositional techniques even stretch the concept of concerto (or concerto grosso, as works with multiple soloists are known) to its outer limits. These works illustrate the ambiguity inherent in the derivation of the term concerto from the word concertare, for in Latin, the verb concertare means “to dispute or contend,” while its Italian definition is “to agree, arrange, or draw together.”

The backstory of these works is well-known. In 1719, when Bach went to Berlin to pay for a new harpsichord for the court of his patron, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, he played before Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. As Bach relates the story in his dedicatory preface, the Margrave, having heard him play, “deigned to honor me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my composition.” It’s quite unlikely that the Margrave was expecting to receive six concertos that would have challenged the most accomplished of court orchestras, having only heard Bach playing the harpsichord.

Whether Bach was just being obsequious or angling for a new position with a musical resumé (as he did later with the Missa portion of the B Minor Mass), he concludes his dedication, written in his best schoolboy French, with I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly…to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service—I, who without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant –Jean Sebastien Bach.

The manuscript was dated 24 March 1721, just months after Bach had returned home from a trip with his patron Leopold’s court to the spa at Carlsbad, only to find his wife, Maria Barbara, dead and buried. Widowed and left with four children, he may well have set his sights on relocating elsewhere free of such painful memories.

The Brandenburgs were a compilation of works, some of which were written in years at the ducal court in Weimar (1708-17). They can roughly be divided into two types: ensemble concertos, in which various players of the orchestra emerge from the tutti of the whole, and solo concertos, which clearly delineate the solo and tutti parts. Nos. 1 and 3, are ensemble concertos, while Nos. 5 and 4 are of the soloistic type.

Each of the Brandenburgs is introduced with a ritornello (literally, “a returning thing”), a passage which anchors the movement as both the introduction and conclusion. More than providing an “intro” and “outro” (yes, that’s in the OED), the ritornello is the source of melodic modules that, in various configurations and juxtaposition, create the whole of the movement. In general, Bach’s ritornellos are structured in the three-part form he learned from the study of Vivaldi: a thematic statement (Vordersatz, in the terminology of German theorists) in the tonic key, followed by a spinning-out of modulatory sequences (Fortspinnung) in closely-related keys, ending with brief concluding cadential passage that confirms the original key (Epilog). While at first this might seem to be a formulaic recipe, Bach treats it with his characteristic inventiveness. Brandenburg No. 5, for example, opens with the shortest ritornello (8 measures) introducing the longest and most complex movement in the six concertos, while the ritornello of No. 4 is a lengthy 83 measures long.

Brandenburg No. 1 is clearly an “outdoor” concerto, possibly originally written as the sinfonia (overture) to the “Hunting Cantata,” (BWV 208), a secular work written for the birthday of hunting enthusiast, Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels in 1713. Hunting was a popular pastime of the nobility, making this piece as suitable for a Margrave in Brandenburg as it was for a Duke in Saxony. The orchestra is divided into three “choirs,” suggesting the social hierarchy of musicians: the courtly Kapelle of strings, led by a soloist on the violino piccolo (as the name implies, a smaller violin tuned a minor third higher than the regular violin), the woodwind choir of three oboes and bassoon, played by the elite city band (Stadt-Pfeifer), and two French horns borrowed from the stables of the nobility. Rather than blending with the other instruments, however, the two horns brashly gallop through the opening ritornello playing hunting-calls in rhythmically incompatible triplets, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the band.

If the complex rhythms and competing choirs of the first movement exemplify the Latin meaning of concertare, “to contend,” the florid dialogue of oboe and violin in the plaintive Adagio suits the Italian definition, “to agree, to draw together,” as well. The melancholy of the movement is further enhanced by momentarily excruciating dissonances, especially created by the “blue note” in the opening of the theme. The ending is similarly disconcerting, as the final cadence is mysteriously interrupted by seemingly unrelated chords, a figure called abruptio.

The rollicking hunt motif of the first movement returns in the third, a “gigue/passepied” according to Bach scholar John Butt. There is more consistency in the tutti parts than before, and the solo violino piccolo comes to the fore with an animated interchange with the principal horn and oboe. Once again an abrupt passage, this time a two-measure Adagio, interrupts the momentum before the rollicking ritornello resumes.

Brandenburg No. 1 ends with a suite of international dances: a French minuet with trio for two oboes and bassoon in the style of Lully, a placid Polish “polacca” over a pastoral bass drone with a surprising forte disruption, and a comparatively raucous German hunting trio for the horns accompanied by unison oboes.

While No. 1 has the greatest variety of instrumental color and diversity of movements, No. 3 has the greatest homogeneity: only strings and continuo, with two Italianate movements connected by an Adagio progression of two chords. Within that consistency, however, Bach demonstrates his facility with “invention,” deriving an entire movement from a single melodic figure. Called a corta, this figure of da-da-dum with dum twice as long as da– is passed between nine parts: trios of violins, violas, and cellos in an animated exchange from high to low. Beginning as an upbeat or anapestic pattern like a bourée, it becomes a downbeat or dactylic pattern (da-da-dum) when accompanying a virtuosic solo line which is passed between the six upper parts and climaxing with all three cellos in unison.

The final movement is the only concerto movement by Bach in a binary dance form: AA BB. Written in the rhythm of an Italian gigue (giga), it undulates in scale passages until reaching a harmonic plateau which accumulates the individual parts in a crescendo of vigorous arpeggios. The B section is more concerto-like, as the scalar undulations alternate with harmonically static freeze-frames of sustained chords accompanying brief solo episodes for the first violin and viola.

Brandenburg No. 5 is a historic landmark, the first concerto in which the harpsichord, previously the “utility harmonizer” of the basso continuo section, is elevated to the rank of soloist. Moreover, it begins as a first among equals, sharing the solo passages with solo violin and flute, shifting into rhythmic passing-gear midway through the first movement and leaving the other two soloists in the dust of swirling 32nd-notes. The wholly disproportionate solo senza stromenti (sometimes called a “cadenza”) concluding the first movement gives us a glimpse of Bach the virtuoso improviser. It has been suggested that this was a test-drive of the new harpsichord he purchased in Berlin; it may also have reminded the Margrave of Bach’s previous performance that fostered his request for additional compositions. Not only is this solo unusual for its 65-measure length but also for the framework of thematic material that bookends an extraordinary improvisatory passage of accumulating intensity. Bach dramatically de-escalates the tension in a rhythmic deceleration just as it reaches the breaking point; 32nd notes lengthen into triplets, which in turn lengthen to become the thematic conclusion of the solo, a decorous recovery after a flight of madness.

The second movement, a trio sonata, restores parity with the flute and violin soloists, with the right hand of the harpsichord contributing a third treble melody while the bass line returns to its continuo duties. The third movement is also more equitable in the distribution of solo material, a hybrid of a gigue-fugue and a ritornello form. The harpsichord has a brief solo episode in the manner of a two-part invention, and running passagework in double-time under the other instruments, though more in an effort to remain audible than for overt virtuosic display. The concerto ends as it began, with the harpsichord returning to its continuo accompanist duties, sweeping out the fireplace after the ball.

Brandenburg No. 4, like No. 5, begins with apparent equality between the soloists, in this case, two recorders and solo violin. There is a charming delicacy to the sparsely punctuating accompaniment, allowing the recorder duet to carry on an Alphonse-and-Gaston exchange of lines until locking into parallel harmonies of thirds and sixths. Until the opening ritornello concludes in the 84th bar, the solo violin is relatively subdued, at times indistinguishable from the tutti violins and subordinate to the recorders. However, once in the clear, the violin demonstrates its superiority of compass, with wide-striding leaps arching from the bottom to the top of its range. After another ritornello, the recorders resume their dialogue without the violin. When they return to the ritornello, however, the violin enters with a flurry of dazzling 32nd-note passagework, not unlike the downshifting of the harpsichord in the first movement of No. 5. The recorders once again begin the charming ritornello, this time interrupted by triple- and double-stops in the violin. The movement ends with a literal repeat (a written-out da capo) of the opening 83-bar ritornello.

No. 4 is the only one of the six Brandenburgs in which all instruments play all three movements. The second movement , a brief Andante, restores balance between the solo parts with only brief echo passages for the soloists. It is based on the repetition of a two-note sighing figure over striding bass leaps. The final Presto is another hybrid of fugue-with-concerto, but unlike No. 5, it is written in the “learned style” of counterpoint with an alla breve time signature, not in a dance-rhythm. The severity of the fugue is relieved by the solo violin emerging from the texture, first with the continuous motion of the countersubject, then bursting into an unbridled flight of virtuosity, first with accelerated passagework , then with vigorous bariolage (which a violinist friend calls “the electric toothbrush”). Similar to the deceleration of the harpsichord cadenza in No. 5, the violin then eases back into the fugal texture by returning to the slower countersubject, and the fugue resumes in all parts.