The Brandenburg Concertos

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born in Eisenach, Germany, March 21, 1685; died in Leipzig, Saxony, Germany, July 28, 1750


Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos might still be languishing in obscurity, known only to Baroque specialists, if it were not for the invention of the long-playing record. They were hardly noticed in his own day, and there is no record that the man for whom they were assembled — the Margrave of Brandenburg, half-brother of the King of Prussia — even had his orchestra in Berlin play them. When Mendelssohn promoted a revival of Bach’s music in the early 19th century, he never got around to the Brandenburgs, and so they slumbered on until the mid-20th century.

Two Baroque works were the special beneficiaries of a number of recordings in the 1950s and immediately vaulted onto the classical hit parade: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the Brandenburg Concertos. And interestingly, there are strong links between these two sets of concertos — aside from the fact that they are both enormously appealing and tuneful works — for the young Bach avidly studied Vivaldi’s latest concertos and adopted their forms and many of their techniques for his own orchestral music.

Unlike The Four Seasons, however, the Brandenburgs were not originally written as a set. Some of them — the First Concerto seems the most likely — may have been created in the early 1710s when the young composer was serving at the court of Weimar. Most of them, though, were likely written for the court of Cöthen, where Bach served as kapellmeister from 1717 to 1722.  These were extraordinarily happy and productive years, for his employer Prince Leopold was a an accomplished musician who sang and played the violin, viola da gamba, and bass viol; as Bach said, he “both loved and understood music.” Prince Leopold maintained an orchestra of 17 players of the highest calibre to whom he added guest artists whenever the music demanded.

In 1719, Bach was sent to the Margrave’s court in Berlin to purchase a fine new harpsichord for the Cöthen Orchestra. There he met the Margrave — who was also known for the excellence of his orchestral ensemble — and undoubtedly demonstrated his virtuosity for him on the new instrument. The Margrave expressed interest in seeing more of Bach’s music, but it took another two years — until 1721 — for the always overworked musician to prepare a suitable sampler in the form of six concertos for varying solo groups of instruments, chosen  and probably extensively polished up for the occasion from his extensive repertoire. There is no record of an acknowledgement from the Margrave for this bountiful musical testament.

Unlike most of Vivaldi’s concertos, these are works of the concerto grosso genre: concertos that feature a group of soloists rather than a single soloist, balanced against a small orchestra of strings and harpsichord. Following Vivaldi’s formula, the two fast outer movements open with the small orchestra playing a refrain or ritornello, which then recurs in whole or in part throughout the movement to bind the music together. In between come episodes for the solo group using mostly different thematic material. The slow-tempo middle movement focuses on more intimate music for the soloists.

What sets the Brandenburgs apart from other concerti grossi of the period is the wide variety of instrumental combinations Bach used to make up his solo groups. Each concerto has its own distinct sound world with music designed to celebrate the different kinds of virtuosity its particular instruments are capable of. In the First Concerto, Bach showcased the warm tones of French horns and the poignant lyricism of three oboes, alongside a violin. In the Second, a high Baroque trumpet sets a brilliant, festive tone along with solo flute, oboe, and violin. The Third Concerto features just string instruments — three violins, three violas, and three cellos — who constantly interchange their roles as soloists and ensemble players. For the Fourth Concerto, Bach chose a violin, to whom he gave a particularly virtuosic part, and two charming flutes or recorders. In the Fifth Concerto, for the first time in musical history he made the harpsichord — usually relegated to the subordinate role of continuo accompanist — his chief soloist and devised for it a spectacular long cadenza surely intended to show off his own virtuoso powers (as well as that new harpsichord from Berlin). Finally, he turned again to the strings for his Sixth Concerto, but used only the violas, cellos, and double basses while surprisingly omitting the violins. This combination was probably designed to show off Prince Leopold on the bass viol and Bach himself on the showy first viola part.

And thus, when all six concertos are played together, as they will be at this concert, we have in effect a giant Baroque concerto for orchestra, with every instrument and every section having its moment in the spotlight.

Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014