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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6
The group of six orchestral works known as the Brandenburg Concertos, commissioned by and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, are among the greatest works of Johann Sebastian Bach. These are consummate examples of the art of Baroque composition, frequently using groups of solo instruments in a more complex and virtuoso fashion than ever before. The Concerto No. 5, with its prominent and dazzling harpsichord part, is almost a Harpsichord Concerto in its own right.
By Giv Cornfield, PhD
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By Philip Lidbury
They are well played, with clear and excellent definition of the various soloists and the group as a whole. The two-disc set is good value because as well as the six concertos the Trio Sonata in C minor from the Musical Offering is included as well as a Concerto in G minor for flute and strings….If you like your Bach with a good pace, then this disc is for you.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 at Eisenach, the youngest of six children of a family that was part of an extended musical dynasty. After the death of his parents, he went in 1695 to Ohrdruf, where his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, was organist at the Michaeliskirche. His schooling in Ohrdruf continued until 1700, when he moved to the Michaelisschule at Lüneburg some two hundred miles away. Two years later he began his professional career as a musician at the court in Weimar, followed very shortly by appointment as organist at Arnstadt. In 1707 some dissatisfaction with the conditions and musical possibilities there led him to move to a similar position at Mühlhausen, where he married his first wife, his second cousin Maria Barbara. The following year he was appointed court organist at Weimar, where he also served as a violinist or viola player in the court orchestra. In 1714 he was appointed Konzertmeister, but his relationship with his employer, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, was uneasy, partly through his collaboration in the musical activities of the co-regent of Weimar, Duke Ernst August. In 1716 Bach was passed over for the position of Kapellmeister, which he might have expected on the death of the existing incumbent, and this led him to look elsewhere. His association with Duke Ernst August provided a way out, when employment as Court Kapellmeister to the Duke's new brother-in-law, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, was offered on relatively generous terms. Duke Wilhelm Ernst showed his final displeasure by imprisoning Bach for a month, before dismissing him from his service.
The court at Cöthen offered all that Bach could have wished. Prince Leopold was young and an enthusiastic musical amateur, and the Pietist persuasions of the court meant that there was no call for church music. Instead Bach could devote himself primarily to secular music for the court orchestra and its members in a fruitful series of concertos, sonatas and suites. The period was a happy one for Bach, marred only by the sudden death of his wife in 1720, while he was at Carlsbad in the company of the Prince. The following year he married again. His new wife, Anna Magdalena, was the youngest daughter of the court trumpeter at Weissenfels and employed as a court singer at Cöthen. Prince Leopold's marriage in the same year to a woman whom Bach described as 'amusica', however, made life at court much less satisfactory. In December 1722 he applied for the position of Cantor in Leipzig, where he moved the following spring. He thus exchanged his position at a princely court for the duties of organist and choirmaster, soon to be varied by additional work with another instrumental ensemble, the Collegium Musicum established by Telemann at Leipzig University. Bach remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.
The six Brandenburg Concertos take their popular title from the name of the nobleman to whom they were dedicated, Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, brother of the late King Friedrich I of Prussia and youngest son of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the Great Elector. In 1719 Bach had travelled to Berlin to see to the building of a new harpsichord by Michael Mietke for the court at Cöthen. It is possible that he met the Margrave on this occasion and played for him, as the dedication of the concertos implies. At all events it was in 1721 that he dedicated to the Margrave, who had his own musical establishment in Berlin, the six concertos 'avec plusieurs Instruments'('with several instruments'). In his dedicatory address to the Margrave he wrote: 'Comme j'eus il y a une couple d'années, le bonheur de me faire entendre à Votre Altesse Royalle, en vertu de ses ordres, & que je remarquai alors, qu'Elle prennoit quelque plaisir aux petits talents que le Ciel m'a donnés pour la Musique, & qu'en prennant Conge de Votre Altesse Royalle, Elle voulut bien me faire l'honneur de me commander de Lui envoyer quelques pieces de ma Composition: j'ai donc selon ses très gracieux ordres, pris la liberté de rendre mes très-humbles devoirs à Votre Altesse Royalle, par les presents Concerts, que j'ai accommodés à plusieurs Instruments ……'('As I had, a couple of years ago, the happiness of appearing before Your Royal Highness, on your orders, and that I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents that Heaven has given me for Music, and that in taking leave of Your Royal Highness you were willing to do me the honour of commanding me to send you some pieces of my Composition: I have therefore according to your gracious orders, taken the liberty of offering my very humble duties to Your Royal Highness, with the present Concertos, which I have adapted for several instruments ……'). Bach presumably had other connections with Berlin through musicians in Cöthen who had served until 1713 in the musical establishment of Friedrich I, an ensemble disbanded on the accession of the new soldier monarch. The Margrave's Kapelle is known, at his death in 1734, to have numbered only six players, so that any performance of the new concertos would have needed outside augmentation. More of the solo instruments for which Bach wrote, however, were found in Cöthen. Nevertheless it has been suggested that Bach could not have dedicated new compositions to any other patron but his employer Prince Leopold and that, therefore, these were works composed before 1717. This presupposes, of course, that Prince Leopold would have claimed the work of his Court Kapellmeister as his own property, or objected to a dedication to another patron with important dynastic connections. The concertos, in all their variety, offer models of Bach's achievement as an instrumental composer.
Concerto No. 1 in F major, is scored for two horns, three oboes, bassoon and violino piccolo, making up the solo group, with ripieno strings and continuo. An earlier version exists, probably written in 1713, a Sinfonia, thought to have served as an introduction to a birthday cantata for Duke Christian of Weissenfels. This work consists of the first two movements of the concerto and the minuet, without the Polonaise, and without the violino piccolo, a smaller violin, here tuned a minor third higher. Bach re-used movements from the work on three further occasions during his years in Leipzig. The first movement frames contrasting episodes with a recurrent ritornello, and the relatively large group of solo instruments is deployed together with or in contrast with the strings of the orchestra. The second movement, in which the horns are silent, starts with a solo oboe aria, taken up by the violino piccolo, these two solo instruments then interwoven, sometimes in canon. The Allegro is in the ritornello form of the first movement, with greater prominence first to the violino piccolo and then to a solo horn and to a solo oboe. To this Bach adds a Menuet that serves as a framework for a Trio of two oboes and bassoon, a Polonaise for strings, without the violino piccolo, and a second Trio for two horns and the oboes.
Concerto No. 2 in F major is scored for solo trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin, with strings and continuo. In the first movement the solo instruments, variously combined, provide contrasting episodes, framed by the complete or partial return of the ritornello. The Andante, for solo recorder, oboe and violin, with continuo, opens with the solo instruments in canon, as this D minor movement unwinds. The trumpet returns to start the third movement, followed by the oboe, violin and recorder, in order, while the strings play a largely accompanying rôle.
Concerto No. 3 in G major, the first movement of which Bach later re-used as an introduction to a cantata, is very different in scoring, written for three violins, three violas, three cellos and continuo. These instruments are variously employed as part of a concertino solo group or to form the ripieno ensemble. The Adagio consists simply of two chords, forming a Phrygian dance that would be expected to follow an E minor movement and lead to a final Allegro. Since the two chords appear in this form in the presentation copy, there is no question of a lost movement, and performers have treated this apparent lacuna in various ways, sometimes by substituting movements from other works, sometimes by omitting the chords. The present recording takes the more probable course of offering an improvisation by the harpsichordist. This is followed by a binary movement, with a longer second section.
Concerto No. 4 in G major is scored for a solo violin and two recorders, with strings and continuo. The two recorders open the first movement, one in imitation of the other. The violin is allowed extended solo passages, while the recorders are generally paired. It is generally the solo violin that holds prominence, whether in dazzling virtuosity, or in accompanying double stopping. The E minor slow movement allows the concertino group a rôle that often echoes the ripieno, but in two short passages the recorders are permitted their own individual moments of brief display. The movement ends with a Phrygian cadence leading to a final fugal movement, its subject introduced by the violas, followed by second violins, first violins and solo violin, cello, bass and continuo, before the entry of the recorders.
Concerto No. 5 in D major is of particular historical interest in the prominence given to the harpsichord, which, with a transverse flute and violin, forms the solo group. The continuo harpsichord is normally provided with a figured bass, but the cembalo concertato has its solo parts written out, only using figures in the relatively brief passages where it has only an accompanying rôle. Elaborate harpsichord figuration leads to an extended solo, a dazzling display ended with the entry of the strings with the final ritornello. The harpsichord reverts at first to an accompanying rôle in the B minor slow movement, marked Affettuoso, as violin and flute enter in imitation, before the harpsichord also takes up the melody. The solo violin starts the final Allegro, joined by the flute, then the harpsichord. The ripieno strings, silent during the second movement, return to take part in the dance, a lively gigue. An earlier version of the concerto exists, and it has been suggested that Bach used it in an expected contest in 1717 in Dresden with the French organist and composer Louis Marchand, who is said to have left the city precipitately before the trial of virtuosity could take place.
Concerto No. 6 in B flat major offers still more diversity, scored as it is for pairs of violas, bass viols, cello and continuo. The irrepressible first movement leads to an Adagio for solo violas, cello and continuo, starting in E flat major and ending in G minor. The final Allegro, like the first movement in ritornello form, brings this concerto and the whole set of concertos to a satisfyingly memorable conclusion.
In May 1747 Bach, accompanied by his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, travelled to Potsdam to visit his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, employed at the Prussian court as harpsichordist to King Friedrich II, Frederick the Great. The King, a competent flautist himself, on hearing of Bach's arrival, cancelled that evening's chamber music, received Bach with great honour, and insisted that he try the various keyboard instruments in the palace, in particular the new Silbermann fortepianos, finally providing him with a theme on which Bach improvised a fugue. On his return to Leipzig Bach, as a tribute to the King, set down the fugue on the royal theme, expanding the work into two fugues, one in three parts, the other in six, various canons, and, at the centre of the composition a sonata for flute, violin and continuo, the choice of instruments a compliment to the King's own ability on the flute, and an addition to royal repertoire. It should be added that the order of the pieces has been the subject of dispute.
The Trio Sonata of The Musical Offering starts with a slow movement that allows imitative interplay between the flute and the violin. It is the latter that opens the following Allegro, with the royal theme given particular prominence in the flute part after the brief Adagio that interrupts the flow of the contrapuntal dialogue. In the third movement flute and violin are often paired in thirds or sixths. The sonata ends with a final Allegro in 6/8, the King's theme, with its characteristic descending chromatic intervals, outlined first by the flute.
In Leipzig Bach found occasion to arrange a number of his solo instrumental concertos from his Cöthen years for one or more harpsichords for performance by himself and his sons with the Collegium Musicum that he directed. A number of these harpsichord concertos have been conjecturally restored to what is believed to have been their original form. The Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, has been subject to various attempts at reconstruction and cogent arguments have been advanced for its origin as a Violin Concerto in G minor, while others have preferred to see in it an earlier Oboe Concerto. The transcription in G minor for flute by the flautist Stéphane Réty offers an interesting addition to the repertoire of the flute in its energetic first movement, a Largo B flat major aria accompanied by plucked strings and brilliant final 3/8 Presto.
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BACH, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6