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Bach's Brandenburg Concerti I, II and III, BWV 1046-1048

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach


Musicologists have borrowed the word "Baroque" from art historians in order to give a special name to music written from about 1600 to 1750. A larger view, however, shows that all modern music begins at that significant time around 1600 when composers began to grapple with, and then succeed in, the task of using music to touch, move, and even stun their listners. Bach's works were conceived to elevate the soul by expressing the feelings which he himself felt radiating from the Divine. The Brandenburgs are the apex of concerto grosso writing and each one throbs with the pulse of genius.

The Brandenburg Concerti were written during a period in Bach's life when the struggle for recognition and security reduced him to soliciting aristocratic patronage for his work. In his prefatory dedication to a prospective patron, we can sense a proud sense of desperation glowing between the lines. This dedication accompanied a humble sample of Bach's work, which we know today as the Brandenburg Concerti. To the Margrave of Brandenburg, Bach writes:

I noticed that Your Highness took some pleasure in the small talents which Heaven has given me for Music...I have taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concerti which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfections with the rigor of the fine and delicate taste which the whole world knows Your Highness possesses for musical works...

The margrave, as one may expect, had no idea of the treasures that Bach had sent him. I created this hub to introduce or remind, as the case may be, my readers of the beautiful intricacy of Bach's far from "imperfect" works. Below I have embedded clips of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra's performance of the Brandenburg Concerti.

18th Century German Military Dress

18th Century German Military Dress

Concerto I

Allegro--joy, radiance and splendor are the affects which touch us when the opening movement of the first concerto bursts upon our ears. No wonder Bach chose this work for the first page of his dedicatory copy. Of all the concerti, this one is the most complex and impressionistic, and it is worthwhile considering in detail how this powerful sense of joy and splendor is derived.

In the dedication, Bach described his concerti as being written for several instruments with an overall diversity being implied. He made sure that those familiar with the string-oriented Italian style would be startled and impressed by his unique combination of instrumental colors, diving right into the musical situation to come up with an array of instruments that is one of the glories of the Brandenburgs. Horns appear to top off the whole structure with their startling presence and powerful imagery. This presence conveyed to the 18th century listener a direct and forceful image of royalty and outdoor life of the nobility. Bach's use of horns immediately conjures up vivd scene of the hunt, the epitome of elegant society; above all the tumult of the hunting party, we must imagine the directive signals of the horns.


 The second movement is structurally a trio, the first melody line taken by the oboe, then joined in imitative musical conversation by the second melody of the violino piccolo; the horns hold silent here.  The other oboes and strings accompany the conversation of the soloists;  their comment serve as an orchestrated figure bass realization. 

The final cadence of this movement summarizes in many ways the concept of the Baroque in music.  The usual four-chord transition has been expanded here by means of unexpected harmonic alterations.  The familiar progression is harmonically ornamented and laid out in each measure in three vertical slices:  first in the continuo, then in the sharp color of the oboes, and the last in the moaning sounds of the strings.  The resultant changes of register, instruments, color, and harmony combine to effect a rhetorical device of great inventiveness.

The third movement, in the meter of the gigue, calls for a tempo which encourages this liveliest of 18th century dance steps. Played in this way, it becomes highly dynamic and persuasive: Wondrous solo turns of the violin and oboe offer momentary, intimate exchanges like the brief variations of a magnetic ballet star in the classic Russian style.

The intrusion into the Italian concerto of so many French elements (oboes, horns, the violino picccolo, and the gigue) is one of the traits of genius unique to Bach. The expanded and extended Menuet sequence which forms the fourth movement amplifies all the French elegance of this dance. Here, Bach's instrumental color changes lend a charming contour to each repetition of the Menuet. The ballroom imagery moves through the aristocratic oboe trio, the witty and proud Polonaise, and the out-of-doors atmosphere of the trio for horns and oboes, and a return of the formal feeling of the Menuet. This sophisticated close is most proper for the sequence of social images which this concerto presents like an unwinding royal tapestry.

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The second concerto, written probably in 1719, follows the typical three movement plan of the concerto grosso ideal. It is in the concertino that Bach defines the special and unique character of this work: three winds, disparate in their colors and affects, combined with a single violin.

This concerto is known especially for the difficulty of the trumpet part; indeed it has often been thought of as a trumpet concerto, though, in fact, a performance on original instruments brings out the importance of the trumpet's interplay with the recorder. The 18th century trumpet was regarded as the "queen of instruments," and appeared when exultant or heroic affects were called for in the composers scheme.

The special choice of instruments ensure the expression of a rare quality of joy in the first movement. The different color and ranges of the soloists, each using similar motives, create intricate and fascinating musical arabesques, each seeming to exist on different plans of perception. Thus, after the violin solo of the first movement, there appear intervals of chattering conversation. The intimate and focused expression of the smallest duos are joined by increasingly intriguing transitions to the larger feeling of conversations in a crowd.

 In the second movement, without trumpet, the three solo instruments seem to stroll (andante = going, walking) in contemplative conversation over a cello ostinato, trading back and forth a small number of similar thoughts.  The final cadence moves through a startingly painful harmonic progression to arrive at the calm of the D major final chord.  This is the only example in all the concerti  where the final cadence of a slow movement finishes with an altered third of the major mode, providing a direct transition from the harshness of the preceding harmonies to the joyful dancing figures of the third movement.

 The youthfully vivacious effect of the third movement is created by the musical dancing of the four soloists.  Like the four members of a juggling troupe, they always dominate our attention.  Nevertheless, we are fully aware of, and occasionally focus on, the accompanying role of the strings; they provide a texture of great transparency, permitting the soloists to weave their intricacies without ocmpetition.

The third concerto and those that follow are not granted the special imagery of the first two; the unusual use of wind instruments there provides opportunity for social comment not present here. Still, Concerto III benefits from Bach's penchant for innovation, most notably in the arrangement of its forces. Instead of the two groups of the normal Italian conceto, here we find three: one of three high instruments, one of three middle instruments, and one of three low instruments.

Bach almost certainly intended each of the parts to be played by a single instrument. The choirs of three instruments are contrasted by the juxtaposition of passages arranged in chords, often moving quite rpaidly, with others where the insturments play in strong unison--expanding like flames leaping up from embers, into individual and soloistic expression and then falling back to unified, glowing lines.

Brandenburg Concertos No.3 - ii: Adagio

Bach has left no second movement to this concerto. In its place is a bar in common time, marked Adagio; its two chords represents the kind of transition found at the very end of the slow movemens of Concerti I, IV, and VI. This one measure adagio is separated from the preceding and following movements by simple, lightly-lined double bars. Therefore, in the midst of such exhilarating contrasts, the musicians here added only a short violin flourish, just as an elaborate gesture of the hand might accompany an invitation to a gigue.

The second allegro is laid out regularly into twelve bars in the first part and thirty-six in the second part--a shape deriving from the symmmetrical arrangement of the steps of a gigue. This movement demands high virtuosity from each of the players, and is the most strenuous part of any of the Concerti. Yet the incisive sound produced by the Baroque instruments and bows, lend this movement the distinction of being among the greatest bravura works ever written for strings. The movement of each individual part is extravagant, while there are many unison passages to offet and clarifty the otherwise dazzling, whirling texture. This is a sterling example of the textual play which lies at the heart of the concerto style.


John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on May 15, 2011:

Nice hub

lemarquis72 on March 15, 2009:

What a wonderful hub! I thought I was the only one around here with a passion for great music. It's nice to find good company on hubpages.

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