No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049
No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051
J. S. Bach
Born in Eisenach, Germany, March 21, 1685; died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Like Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, J. S. Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos did not win widespread fame until the age of the phonograph. Even the Margrave of Brandenburg, a Prussian principality near Berlin, to whom Bach sent these works in March 1721 with a dedication written in the florid courtly language of the day, seems never to have had them played by his court orchestra, nor did he send Bach any acknowledgement or payment. But, fortunately, he did preserve them in his court library; otherwise these masterpieces of Bach's secular instrumental art might have been lost to us as were many of the works he wrote for the court of Cöthen between 1717 and 1722. That would have been a terrible loss indeed, for as Bach scholar Malcolm Boyd writes, "the Brandenburg Concertos show us the composer at his most cheerful and invigorating, and they are blessed with a tunefulness and rhythmic vitality which he rarely surpassed."
Bach's Cöthen period embraced years of great productivity. His employer, Prince Leopold, was an enthusiastic and accomplished musician who sang and played the violin, viola da gamba, and cello, and his court boasted an orchestra of approximately 18 very able musicians. Bach thus turned his talents to secular instrumental music and produced a prodigious number of works in this category, including the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the English and French suites for harpsichord, the six suites for solo cello, at least two of his four orchestral suites, and the six Brandenburgs.
But by 1721, Bach was beginning to grow restless, and the sudden death of the Prince's first wife followed by his re-marriage to a woman with no interest in music led the composer to look around for other opportunities. He had met the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1719 when he traveled to that court to purchase a new harpsichord for Cöthen, and the nobleman had expressed an interest in seeing more of his music. Now he gathered together six of his best concertos, each scored for a different ensemble of instruments, to send to the Margrave as an advertisement of his artistry. Not written as a cohesive set, they were Bach's selections from many such works written for the Cöthen orchestra. We do not even know when they were composed, although many scholars have speculated that the third and sixth concertos may have been the first.
Bach adopted the ritornello concerto form he used in the fast outer movements of the Brandenburgs from Antonio Vivaldi. In this form, the full ensemble opens with a ritornello or refrain that keeps returning in part or in whole throughout the movement. In between come contrasting episodes for the soloists that spotlight their virtuosity and move the music through different keys.
Concerto No. 3 in G Major
The Third Concerto stands apart from its five siblings in not having a solo group set against the orchestra. Instead, it has nine string players over a continuo bass — three violins, three violas, and three cellos — all of whom become soloists in their turn in a remarkably rich and complex string texture. It is also unusual in having only two fast movements, the customary slow movement being omitted. In its place are simply two slow-tempo cadential chords. Since the original score does not suggest a missing movement, these chords may have signaled an improvised cadenza by one or more of the instruments.
In the first movement, Bach derives all his material from the bold opening orchestral ritornello and particularly its curling three-note motive, which pervades the entire piece. His contrapuntal genius spins off every conceivable combination of calls, responses, and imitations among the instruments. The final movement is a buoyant dance in gigue rhythm with two repeated sections, the second being three times as long as the first. Tossing motives from one instrumental group to another, the music maintains a non-stop, breathless flow.
Instrumentation: 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 celli, 1 double bass, and harpsichord.
Concerto No. 4 in G Major
The Fourth Concerto is one of the most substantial and intricately crafted of the set. Three soloists are featured: a violinist and two recorder players (today, flutes are often substituted). Though they are all high instruments, the recorders provide a wonderful color contrast to the violin and the accompanying string ensemble. The solo violin part is of exceptional virtuosity and brilliance.
The opening Allegro movement manages to create a mood of charming simplicity in a dancing three-beat meter, while at the same time pursuing an elaborate harmonic and formal agenda. There is an especially smooth flow between the ritornello passages and the solo episodes, with each sharing elements of the other’s music. Bach artfully uses sustained notes or “pedals” to provide tension behind the rapid passagework of the various soloists. Listen for the moment when the violin suddenly breaks out in a passage of whirling 32nd notes.
Bach keeps the full ensemble for the E-minor slow movement, rather than reducing the number as was customary. Here, the two recorders are the featured soloists, lending their cool, plaintive timbers to this dignified sarabande dance. The opening rocking idea permeates the entire movement.
In a snappy Presto tempo, the finale is an extraordinary contrapuntal tour-de-force: a combination of the ritornello form with a full-out fugue. Thus, in the ritornello sections, all the players — the three soloists and each of the members of the ensemble — are on an equal footing as they present in turn the various entries of the fugue theme. The solo episodes take up elements of the fugue and set them spinning in cunning new counterpoint. In one of the central episodes, the solo violin soars off on an impressive virtuoso flight, including a demanding passage of bariolage (very rapid alternation of the same note on different strings). This Fourth Concerto is considered by scholars to be one of the last of the Brandenburgs to be composed, and it is indeed a brilliant summation of Bach’s art in courtly music.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and 1 violin soli, strings, and harpsichord.
Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major
Believed to be the first-composed of the Brandenburgs, Concerto No. 6 resembles the Third Concerto somewhat in that it is scored solely for strings, with a less clear demarcation between the soloists and the ensemble. The ensemble is an austere, rather monochromatic-sounding group of low strings, drawn from the ancient gamba family (two bass violas da gamba and the double-bass-like violone) as well as more modern string instruments (two violas and a cello). It is the modern instruments — the two violas and the cello — that Bach chose to feature as his solo group. The two bass viola da gamba parts are technically quite simple, and it is likely Bach intended one of them to be played by his patron, Prince Leopold of Cöthen. Many scholars believe the composer himself played the showy first viola part.
Movement one derives its propulsive energy from the two viola parts chasing each other in a very close canon throughout the ritornello refrains. Even the solo episodes emphasize imitative counterpoint.
Only the two violas and cello, supported by continuo, play the gravely beautiful slow movement. This takes the form of a fugal dialogue between the two violas on a deeply poignant theme over a walking bass in the cello. This movement is harmonically unusual in that while most of the movement is in E-flat major, the music ultimately closes in G minor.
One of the most appealing movements in all the Brandenburgs, the finale is a merry but dignified jig, spiced with syncopations. The solo episodes feature virtuosically florid writing for the three soloists.
Instrumentation: 2 violas, 2 viola de gambas played on celli, 1 celli, 1 double bass, and harpsichord.
Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043
Johann Sebastian Bach
In an era when musicians were mere servants either of the church or a princely court, Bach was an early example of a successful musical entrepreneur whose ambition and talent allowed him to jump rapidly from one post to another in the pursuit of higher earnings and greater artistic challenges. After brief stints as organist at the churches of Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, in 1708 he moved on to the ducal court of Weimar where he quickly won fame as one of Germany's greatest virtuoso organists as well as a masterful composer of organ works and church cantatas. Yet ever restless for new opportunities, in 1717 he abandoned this secure niche to become composer at the much smaller princely court of Cöthen. The move seemed doubly odd since the Cöthen court followed the Reformed or Calvinist faith, which permitted only unaccompanied hymns in its church services; thus Bach would virtually have to abandon the organ. But there were positive inducements. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen was a highly cultivated musician who maintained a fine orchestra and a rich program of secular music at his court. And he offered higher wages, an important concern considering Bach's rapidly expanding family (he was eventually to sire 20 children!).
At Cöthen, Bach created much of his finest secular instrumental music, including concertos for solo instruments in the manner of Vivaldi. Since these were intended as ephemeral pieces to be quickly replaced by newer concertos, only a few survive today. In fact, we would not have the superb concerto in D minor for two violins, if Bach had not later arranged it for two harpsichords in Leipzig in the early 1730s; fortunately, the original violin parts were found as well.
At Weimar, Bach had studied Vivaldi's concertos as well as the works of such Italian violin masters as Corelli and Torelli. At Cöthen, he put what he had learned to work, using Vivaldi's concerto form of three movements in fast-slow-fast tempos and enriching it with his own stronger contrapuntal and architectural gifts. The Baroque concerto placed far less emphasis on virtuoso solo display than would the concertos of the Classical and Romantic periods. Instead the listener's ear is stimulated by the contrast between the orchestral passages (known as the "tutti," meaning "all") and the solo sections. In this concerto, the two violin parts are equal in importance and difficulty.
Movement one opens with a big and elaborate tutti, with rich contrapuntal play between the orchestral string parts. Thus, the soloists present the illusion of less complexity, as well as needed airiness, when they finally enter. The tutti and the soloists each have distinct themes: the orchestra's beginning with a rising four-note scale, the soloists' with descending scales and angular upward leaps.
Focusing on the soloists, the slow movement is one of the most beloved and sublime movements Bach ever wrote: a love duet in which the two violins curve around each other in dance-like imitative phrases. Notice the tender simplicity of the four-note descending phrases when the two come together in euphonious sixths. The poignant expressiveness of this music derives from the many stings of dissonance between the instruments resolving into sweet consonance.
The lively third movement is one of Bach's most ingenious. Here the roles of soloists and orchestra are intermingled so that the soloists lead the opening tutti and then later imitate an orchestral accompaniment with energetic chords. The opening three-note motive that launches the theme is constantly repeated by the orchestra or echoed by the second soloist. And in his 3/4 meter, Bach happily accents any beat, or portion thereof, in an infectious display of rhythmic vivacity.
Instrumentation: Strings and harpsichord.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008