Discovering The Six Brandenburg Concerti by J.S. Bach

The six Brandenburg Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are one of the most important collections masterworks by one of the most recognised composers of the Baroque (or even the entire history of Western Art Music) period. Due to the wide variety of required solo instruments (of which, some don’t exist any more in a modern symphonic orchestra), it is often a huge financial and organisational undertaking for even a period instrument orchestra to consider performing all the concerti in a single concert programme.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be on tour with an orchestra that was able to schedule a series of concerts with the entire set of concerti and it was an incredible experience to be able to play the complete set in one sitting (with an interval of course!). Who knows when that will happen for me again?


Johann Sebastian Bach

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For most lovers of Classical Music, JS Bach needs little introduction, in that he was perhaps the central pillar of the German High Baroque, which led further to the complete evolution of the German Historical Music tradition which formed the basis for pretty much most of the musical tradition that we have today. Okay, that might be a touch on the hyperbolic side of things, but it is no understatement that his contributions to the development of music in the Baroque era (which moulded the music that arrived later) were so important that for most music historians, his death marks the end of the Baroque era (c.1600-1750) and the beginning of a new era.

JS Bach was a German (although, technically Germany didn’t exist at the time) composer and musician who was born into an existing large family of musicians, being born as the last child of a musical family in Eisenach. He was employed as a church and court musician in a variety of cities, most notably in Weimar and then from 1723 until the end of his life as the kantor at the highly prestigious [Thomaskirche]( in Leipzig.

During his life, he was a prolific composer of cantatas and other religious works, including epic works such as the B minor Mass and the Matthew and John Passions. Given that he needed to compose a new cantata for every Sunday service (following the theme of the sermon) and every feast day, it is no surprise that he is thought to have composed over 300 cantatas (of which roughly 200 survive through to this day). In addition to these sacred cantatas, he is known to have composed about 50 more cantatas on secular topics, including one memorably famous cantata that was devoted to the topic of Coffee, which was a newly discovered and imported fashion at the time!

As a complement to these vocal and choral works, he had an equally large and important contribution to the field of instrumental music, with works such as the “The Well Tempered Klavier”, the “Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin”, several orchestral suites and various instrumental concerti being some of the better known highlights.


Brief overview of the concerti

Front (dedication) page from the autograph manuscript of the Brandenburg Concerti, by JS Bach

The Six Brandenburg concerti were a sort of “job application” for JS Bach to the court of Christian Ludwig (the Margrave of Brandenburg). As a sign of how important Bach considered the pieces, he wrote the music out in his own hand, rather than entrusting the transcription work to a copyist, as was the tradition at the time.

The dedication to the Margave from Bach (translated from French) is as follows:

> As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

The Concerti follow an older style of Concerto Grossi composition. The Concertino (soloists) were a smaller group within the larger tutti group (Ripieno) who would play various interludes within the larger orchestral structure. This is in stark contrast to later forms of the Concerto, which pitted a single soloist contrasted by a larger orchestra.

These Concerti are also unusual in their combinations of solo instruments, with many unusual instruments making appearances as soloists, and also with various settings of the soloist groups being incredibly exotic for the time (and since!).

All of them, without exception are a joyous celebration of music as it was known at the time. Which makes sense, if you are writing a job application to a Margrave, you want to make it upbeat!


Brandenburg Concerto #1 (BWV 1046)

The first concerto is set for two corni da caccia (natural horns), three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo, two violins, viola, cello, basso continuo. It is the largest instrumentation of the set, and features the horns, oboes and the [Violino Piccolo]( in the solo roles.

I had written before about the [Piccolo Violin](, as it is an instrument that fell out of favour with the development of the violin family away from the earlier consort style of instrumentation.

This concerto is a huge opening to the set of concerti, and is quite an exhausting play for the wind soloists! It is really an expression of joy to hear this, with the horns having unusually prominent parts throughout the concerto, in stark contrast to their normally humble uses as a practical outdoor instrument.


Brandenburg Concerto #2 (BWV 1047)

The second Brandenburg Concerto is scored for: Clarino (Natural Trumpet), recorder, oboe and violin as the solo group and the ripieno consists of 2 violins, viola and continuo.

This concerto and the last movement in particular is considered THE most difficult piece in a baroque trumpeter’s repertoire. The high tessitura (pitch) and the fast moving notes being close together in the harmonic series makes this a real test of the player’s skill and stamina. Most modern players use valved trumpets, which makes this a complete breeze (comparitvely) to play. However, in Bach’s time, this was all done with a vavleless trumpet, which meant that the trumpeter had to do all the switching of different resonant modes (to get the different notes) only with his mouth and air speeds! It is hard to convey with words exactly how fiendishly difficult this is (and to stay in tune and in time and everything else musical!).

Another interesting thing about the instrumentation is the pairing of two “soft” indoor instruments (the recorder and violin) with two “loud” outdoor instruments (the clarino and oboe).

The piece itself is of a much grander character than the first concerto, with the trumpet lending a more noble sound to the ensemble than the hunting horns of the first!


Brandenburg Concerto #3 (BWV 1048)

The third Brandenburg concerto is the most beloved of the set for all string players. Featuring no real soloists, it is set for 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 celli and continuo.

There is not so much to write, except that the symmetry of the group leads to many interesting matches of 3, either similar instruments or completely different instruments. Both the first and last movement are just joyous throwing of theme from group to group, with the last being one of my favourite pieces of all time!

The second movement is usually a completely improvised movement from the harpsichordist or the lead violin, and it will be completely different from group to group (and ideally, from performance to performance!).


Brandenburg Concerto #4 (BWV 1049)

The fourth Brandenburg concerto features 2 recorders and a violin as the solo group. It is a piece that appears quite often on stage, as it is one of the few pieces where a recorder can take centre stage. In both outside movements, the violinist is the real star though (absolutely no bias!), with passagework that is absolutely fireworks and champagne!

I love telling the recorders that in the third movement, there is a spot where they sound like toy trains! Usually I find that the best time to point this out is right before the concert…


Brandenburg Concerto #5 (BWV 1050)

This brings us to the favourite concerto of all the harpsichordists. The fifth Brandenburg features a solo violin, traverso (flute) and harpsichord. However, it is clear that this is a giant celebration of the harpsichord, with a huge solo passage in the middle of the first movement! However, it does have one of the most beautiful slow movements in the second movement with heartbreaking dialogue between the violin and traverso.

One point of interest is that the ripieno consists of only a single violin part instead of the more usual two violin parts of the previous four concerti.


Brandenburg Concerto #6 (BWV 1051)

As a violist as well as a violinist, this last Brandenburg concerto is the absolute jewel in the crown of the Brandenburg set. Featuring a completely left field combination of 2 solo violas and cello, with a ripieno of 2 viola d’gambas and continuo, it is a tenor and bass heaven. No squeaky treble sounds here at all!

This allows for a sound world that is completely unlike anything else in the concerto set. Normally the bastard child of the orchestra, the violas shine here without the need to smash through the wall of violin sound.

The first movement and last movements are playful romps, with the two solo instruments chasing each other’s tails round and round at speed. The middle movement, is just the single most beautiful lament between a pair of the most neglected instruments in the Baroque music world.

Hearing the last movement never fails to bring a smile of joy to my eyes and heart, it really turns me to a child again!


Wrapping Up

Many people consider these Brandenburg concerti to be absolute peak of Baroque instrumental writing. I would have to agree, the stunning choices of instrumentation and the distances that Bach pushes the instruments to their limits was just unheard of at the time.

If I had to list my favourites, it would be in the order: Six, Three, Four, One, Two and then Five. Sorry harpsichordists!

… and in case any one was wondering… Bach did NOT get the job!

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