Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born in Eisenach to a respected family of musicians. He was well-educated in performance and composition, first by his father and, after his father’s death, by his elder brother, who was a student of Pachelbel. Part of his education was copying the scores of other composers, which exposed him to a wide range of styles and developed his encyclopedic interest in all types of music. Over his life, Bach served as organist at Arnstadt (1703-1707) and Mühlhausen (1707-1708), court organist and Concertmaster in Weimar (1708-1717), Music Director in Köthen (1717-1723), Cantor of the Thomas-Schule, and Music Director in Leipzig (1723-1750). During his lifetime he was recognized as an organ virtuoso and master of complex counterpoint, but he never traveled outside Germany and consequently was not especially widely known in an age dominated by international music celebrities. His music fell out of favor after his death but was studied and promoted in the 19th century by Felix Mendelssohn and others, leading to a permanent revival. With the exception of opera, which was not called for by his employers, Bach composed in all forms and styles of Baroque music—secular, sacred, solo, ensemble, vocal, and instrumental—achieving comprehensive perfection. After Bach, music developed in another direction, moving into the Classical Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Scholars conventionally use the death of Bach to mark the end of the Baroque era and consider him one of the greatest composers of all time.
Bach likely wrote and performed each of the orchestral works that later became known as the Brandenburg Concerti, BWV 1046-1051, during his time in Köthen when he had a professional orchestra at his disposal. [Philipp Spitta (d. 1894) referred to the works as The Brandenburg Concerti in his biography of Bach published in 1873. The popular name replaced the original title and remains the moniker by which the pieces are known today. ] The original compositional circumstances are unclear, but in 1721 he personally copied the scores and presented them as a set to the Margrave of Brandenburg in Berlin to satisfy a commission from 1718. The difference in capability between the orchestras in Köthen and Berlin makes it almost certain that the six concerti were never performed by the Margrave’s musicians, and the manuscripts sat in the Brandenburg library until their re-discovery in 1849. They were nearly destroyed during World War II, when their evacuation train came under aerial bombardment, and the librarian carrying the scores escaped with them hidden under his coat. As a group the works are now among the most iconic pieces of the Baroque era and perhaps the best-loved of all of Bach’s orchestral compositions.
The Brandenburgs are also among the most analyzed and discussed of all Baroque works, with scholars from the 19th to the 21st centuries weighing in on everything from musical structure to instrumentation, authenticity to performance practice. In a 2018 New York Times article, for example, Michael Marissen suggested that the Brandenburgs are infused with religious meaning, that they explore issues of hierarchy and order, and that Bach wrote them essentially as church cantatas with implicit, non-verbal “texts.” He suggests that Bach, always the devout Lutheran, deliberately invoked images through his instrumentation and musical material that to 18th-century ears were fairly radical, portraying the struggle of the sinful world and the comfort of the divine. Bach’s intentions along these lines are not known, and in the absence of any direct evidence, remain unknowable. Such interpretations, while intriguing, remain subordinate to the persuasiveness of the music itself. Köthen was Calvinist and used fairly simple music in its church services, freeing Bach to compose primarily secular music during his time there, including many of the great instrumental works such as the suites for solo cello, sonatas and partitas for solo violin, orchestral suites, and others.
Bach modelled his concerti on the Italian concerto grosso, an important Baroque musical form written to showcase a small group of solo instruments (concertino or principale) vs orchestral accompaniment (tutti or concerto). Given that the works were written at different times, they show Bach’s individual experiments with a relatively new musical form rather than a deliberate, through-conceived set of compositions. That said, he revised the works—and established the present order—when he prepared the manuscript for delivery to the Margrave of Brandenburg.
The essence of the concerto grosso form is the interaction between the concertino and concerto groups of instruments. Bach presents different variations on this idea by contrasting sonorities and changing the relative importance of the solo and ensemble groups in each of the six works. He scored the pieces for an unusually wide variety of instruments, probably to showcase the individual musicians with whom he worked in Köthen. Often played on period instruments with mellower sonorities than modern counterparts, the Concerti provide interesting insight into performance practice of the time. They include one of the last appearances of the recorder in Bach’s works and in the period. Although Vivaldi, Telemann, and even C.P.E. Bach wrote concerti for recorder, the transverse flute had become standard by the end of the century. Similarly, the clarino, the natural trumpet that is virtually synonymous with Baroque music, was waning because of its limited harmonic capabilities. These instruments and others were eclipsed by technologically more advanced types: The addition of valves expanded the harmonic range, enabling more instruments to play more evenly and easily in all or nearly all keys as composers exploited the harmonic system established during Bach’s time. The Berkshire Bach Society has a tradition of performing all six Brandenburg Concerti on modern instruments that capture the thrilling quality of the originals but that are suited to the size and acoustics of today’s concert halls.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046 is scored for a concertino of two corni di caccia (natural horns), three oboes, bassoon, and violino
piccolo (high violin), with ripieno (ensemble) strings and
continuo. The work is the only Brandenburg with four movements, and exists in a shorter version, the Sinfonia,
BWV 1046a, that dates from Bach’s time in Weimar. He re-used the first movement as the Sinfonia
in Cantata 52, Falsche Welt, dir
trau ich nicht (False World, I trust you not), BWV 52, scored without the violino piccolo, and the third movement as
the opening chorus in the secular Cantata 207, Vereinigte
Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten (The United Dischord of the Quivering
Strings), BWV207, changing the horns for trumpets. The large number of instruments in the solo
group of Brandenburg No. 1 sets the standard for the unusual scoring that Bach uses in the
other Concerti, and creates a substantial orchestral texture for one of the
longest works of the set.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047, is scored for a concertino of clarino, recorder, oboe, and violin, with ripieno strings and continuo. It is thought to have been written as a tribute to Köthen trumpet virtuoso J.L. Schreiber when Bach arrived in court in December 1717 or early the following year, but it may have originated earlier. In 1713 Bach visited Weissenfels to perform the Hunting Cantata, BWV 208, in the birthday celebrations for Duke Christian (d. 1736). At the time, Weissenfels was home to the clarino specialist Johann Altenburg, who led the Duke’s trumpet corps and who likely made a big impression on the composer. Regardless of its genesis, however, the work is probably the best-known of the Brandenburg Concerti, and is a perpetual challenge to modern-day trumpeters. Though Bach contrasts the different sonorities of winds and strings throughout the piece, the signature sound is the clarino that plays in the first and third movements, sitting out the D minor Andante because it cannot play the accidentals required. Clarino playing as a skill was lost in the 19th century, and with it the ability to perform much of Baroque literature for the trumpet. In the 20th century, the historically-informed performance movement revived the style, but the virtuosic clarino part in Brandenburg No. 2—one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire—is still often played on a modern valve trumpet.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048, is scored for a concertino of three violins, three violas, three cellos and basso continuo. The all-string ensemble acts as both concertino and concerto, handing off thematic material among the different registers and groups, and emerging and receding as soloist and accompaniment. Some writers have commented that Bach was making a not-so-veiled reference to the Trinity by structuring the third Concerto around the number three and that the ternary form was reinforced by using ritornello (a recurring refrain) in the first and third movements. The second movement is a curious departure from established models, and comprises a half-cadence (partial conclusion) in E minor with a fermata (hold). Exactly what Bach intended is not clear—an opportunity for virtuosic improvisation, a short pause in the texture, a place for a favorite movement from another work, or something else entirely. Conventional performance practice suggests that such chords should be followed immediately by a movement in the same key and a fast tempo. Bach provides the final Allegro in G Major, the correct tempo but not the expected key. Whatever he intended, he eventually reworked the first movement in 1729 for the Sinfonia of Cantata 174, Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte (I love the highest with my entire being), BWV 174. This year the Berkshire Bach Society plays the Largo from the Sonata No. 6 in G Major for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1019, following the fermata in the second movement of Brandenburg No. 3. The Sonata was written between 1720 and 1723 in Köthen and was revised at least twice after Bach moved to Leipzig. The Largo is short, written in triple meter, and in the key of E minor.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049, is scored for a concertino of violin and two recorders, or fiauto d’echo, with ripieno strings and continuo. Similar to the enigma of the middle movement in the second Brandenburg, what Bach meant by fiauto d’echo has been the subject of much debate—it was possibly a specific instrument such as the flageolet or the English “echo flute” that exists in historical references, (proposed by Thurston Dart and others); recorders in G vs F (advocated by recorderist and former Berkshire Bach Society Chair, Bernard Krainis); or a musical performance practice (followed by Nicholas Harnoncourt, who creates an echo effect by positioning the recorders off-stage). Today the wind parts are typically performed by alto recorder or transverse flute. The violin part is virtuosic in the first and third movements, and generally background support in the second. Bach also arranged the work as the Concerto for Harpsichord in F Major, BWV 1057.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050, is scored for a concertino of harpsichord, transverse flute, and violin,
with ripieno strings and continuo. The harpsichord is part of both groups—obbligato (required)
among the soloists, and continuo (accompanying) in the tutti. Bach may have written the piece in 1719
in connection with his acquisition of a fine Mietke harpsichord for the Köthen
court, or even two years earlier for the aborted musical duel with French
harpsichordist Louis Marchand. With fine irony, he used a Marchand theme in the
second movement of the work, but the Frenchman never heard it, proving a
no-show on the day of the duel and leaving Bach the winner by default. The scoring
is for a popular chamber music combination of the time—violin, flute, and
harpsichord—and the work has been described as the first true concerto for solo
harpsichord because of the extended solo keyboard passage in the first
movement. The virtuosity required suggests
that Bach himself was the soloist in early performances, showcasing his
legendary keyboard skill.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051, is scored for a concertino of two viole da braccio (viola), two viole da gamba (cello), cello, violone (double bass), with harpsichord continuo. The omission of violins is unusual, and the work is self-consciously archaic in its choice of scoring and style–the viole da braccio and viole da gamba were old-fashioned instruments by 1720; stylistically, the first movement opens with canonic polyphony. Some writers believe Bach’s choices were designed to disrupt the musical status quo and signal his impending resignation from his post as Kapellmeister. A simpler explanation is that Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, an enthusiastic amateur gamba player, asked Bach to provide a work in which he could perform as a member of the orchestra. Regardless of intent, the concerto stands as another example of Bach’s creative scoring decisions, diverse inventiveness, and superb orchestral writing that distinguish all of the Brandenburg Concerti.