BACH The Brandenburg Concerti – An Inktroduction

The Brandenburg Concertos
BWV 1046-51
An Inktroduction by Benjamin Chee
from Inkpot Issue 95
It is difficult to describe the appeal and popularity which surrounds the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. Of the six works which comprise the entire set, no two are alike in their instrumentation, and in two of them (the Third and Sixth), there aren’t even any “soloists”, but only a band of stringed instruments in complex musical intercourse. When we talk about the Brandenburg Concertos, we are actually talking of six uniquely diverse concertos, each a masterpiece in its own right.

In the Baroque context, a concerto did not always necessarily describe a work which contrasted one soloist or more against a supporting ensemble; it was also often used simply to indicate a work of several movements for any combination of instruments, such as Bach’s Italian Concerto, for solo harpsichord, or Handel’s Concerti Grosso.

Gross! What is the Concerto Grosso ? Literally, Italian for “great concerto”. The concerto grosso was an early form of composition popular in the baroque period (c.1650-1750). The structure of the music was antiphonal, that is, the orchestra was divided into two parts playing alternately, with one part answering the other. Usually this was a smaller group of soloists, the concertino, playing in contrast and combination with a larger group, the ripieno. The concerto grosso could comprise three or more movements, sometimes including dances from the French and Italian courts, like the allemande, sarabande, minuet, bourre and gavotte.

Bach’s most celebrated set of orchestral works was not always so well-received as they are today. For, in March 1721, when Bach sent a carefully copied set of the six concertos to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, he was in fact seeking alternative employment from his present position at the court of Cthen. He had arrived in Cthen only four years previously from Weimar – where Bach had in fact spent four weeks in prison, after he incurred the displeasure of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, who later dismissed him in disgrace.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cthen was a better employer, for the prince loved music and actively participated in some of the music-making himself. By all accounts, Bach and his family were happy at Cthen. Even so, when Bach met the Margrave of Brandenburg whilst on a shopping trip to Berlin to buy a new harpsichord, the composer promised to send the nobleman ‘some pieces of my compositions’.

A year after his meeting with the Margrave, he and a few musicians accompanied Prince Leopold to Carlsbad. In his absence, Bach’s wife Maria Barbara passed away, and upon being told of the bad news upon his return, took it somewhat badly. He remarried quickly, to Anna Magdalena Wilcken, the twenty-year-old daughter of the court trumpeter, but the biggest factor in Bach’s decision to leave Cthen was ironically Prince Leopold’s marriage, just a few months later. The new princess was uninterested in music, and indeed, managed to destroy the rapport between Bach and Prince Leopold.

The Margrave of BrandenburgIt was in these circumstances that Bach decided to go job hunting, and finally got around to sending the set of six Concerts avec plusieurs instruments – Bach’s original title for these works – to the Margrave of Brandenburg as a form of glorified job application. These were not new compositions. The First, Third and Sixth concertos are thought to have dated from his employment with the Duke of Weimar between 1708 to 1717, and the other three from Cthen. Their diverse nature abundantly shows that they were never intended to be a unified set.

It is not surprising, however, that the Margrave neither acknowledged their receipt, nor had them performed. The works had been written and scored for a somewhat larger orchestra, as might be found at Cthen, then the smaller forces of the Brandenburg house ensemble, which averaged six players. The simplest of the series, the Sixth, would have required at least the engagement of one additional musician, and the other five considerably much more. It has also been suggested that the Margrave’s provincial troupe were technically not up to the task of Bach’s complex music.

branletter.jpg 250x143

How Not to Send Cards The fulsome flattery of Baroque dedications will be familiar to many, but Bach seems to have surpassed himself in his inscription that accompanied the Brandenburgs. Take a deep breath:

My Lord,

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.

And this is only just the first sentence.

For the next thirteen years, the concertos lay unused in the Margrave’s library until his death, whereupon at the inventory-taking of His Royal Highness’ music, these works were not even included among the compositions important enough to be listed by their composers’ names. They were lumped instead into a miscellany of musical works and valued at four groschen apiece, for the purpose of evaluating and dividing the Margrave’s estate among his five heirs. The nickname “Brandenburg” itself was only applied much later in the nineteenth century when the manuscript was rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives.

Concerto No.1 in F, BWV 1046
The First Concerto is unique among the six in that it exists in two versions. The original version was actually called a ‘Sinfonia’, containing only three movements instead of the more familiar four – the third movement was added when Bach was rescoring and preparing the fair copy for the Margrave of Brandenburg. Other additions included a polonaise for strings in the last movement, as well as a new embroidered part for solo piccolo violin.

This work has been thought to have been written as part of the “Hunt Cantata” (BWV 208) in its original form (‘Sinfonia’), giving it characteristics of both the baroque suite and the concerto. As with the common baroque practice of recycling music, the first movement also reappears in the cantata “Falsche Welt” (BWV 52), while the third movement and second trio were rescored with trumpets and voices in another cantata “Auf, schmetternde Tne der muntern Trompeten” (BWV 207a).

The presence of the stylistic court dances in the last movement lends a French flavour to this concerto. There is also an imaginative use of woodwind colours in the trios: the first trio uses a conventional grouping of two oboes and a bassoon, in the fashion of a Lully opera, with a distinctive contrast provided by two horns and oboe soli in the second trio. The horn hunting calls in the opening movement, reflecting the rustic nature of the countryside, is also not uncommon in Baroque music.

Concerto No.2 in F, BWV 1047
The Second Concerto contains a very interesting quartet of solo instruments – the trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin – which is strongly representative of the style of composition of the Germanic composers, where concertante instruments of highly varied and disparate tonal timbres were cleverly juxtaposed. We can find parallel examples in the works of Telemann, Graupner and Stlzel, and even Alessandro Scarlatti (notwithstanding that he was Italian), who combined a trumpet with a recorder in his Second Sinfonie in D.

Certainly, this would not have been an easy work to perform, and well out of the capabilites of the Margrave of Brandenburg’s modest ensemble. The interplay of the four instruments stating the main theme against the strings and continuo displays a very strong style of concerto grosso. However, to this must be credited Bach’s masterful juggling of each of the concertante instruments against the others, making the harmonious and exuberant music sound much less difficult than it really is.

Concerto No.3 in G, BWV 1048
The Third Concerto is thought to be one of the earliest of the entire set, in view of its somewhat more conservative musical design. It is a pure ensemble concerto piece, for three violins, three violas and three cellos, with harpsichord and bass continuo.

There is also no central movement, given that the musical architecture of the instrumental concerto, even as late as the Romantic period, followed a three-part, fast-slow-fast structure. Instead, there are only two slow chords – a Phrygian cadence, for those who know what it means – providing for a cadenza, where Bach could have expected one or more of the musicians to improvise.

brancon.jpg 225x180But what makes the Third interesting is the absolutely equal division of parts between the three groups of strings, sometimes combining to play the ripieno in unison and at other times, holding a varied and musical dialogue among themselves. Very rarely does one of the individual parts actually play solo. On the other hand, at the conclusion of a major division, the entire ensemble is massed in octaves on a single phrase – a device which Bach borrowed from Vivaldi, sort of a musical equivalent of the Shakespearean rhyming couplet marking the end of a scene or act.

Concerto No.4 in G, BWV 1049
The Fourth Concerto presents to modern performers a small mystery, in Bach’s notation of two flauti d’echo (“echo flutes”) in the scoring of the work. There is no specific instrument by this name that we know today, although it has been suggested that Bach might have been referring to the sopranino recorder. Indeed, in modern performance, the recorder has become the accepted instrument in this part.

A slightly more unusual interpretation of the flauti d’echo pertains to the second movement, in that Bach actually intended the recorders to be played in the distance as the part suggests, for a physical aural effect. In any case, Bach opens the concerto with the central melody played both recorders, over a string accompaniment of arpeggios and falling thirds. The solo violin follows, albeit in a varied role: sometimes playing in unison with the recorders, and other times weaving its own athletic figure.

Among the Brandenburgs, this concerto can be said to be the lightest and wittiest, bringing to one’s mind the urbane, wordly court of the Parisian salon. It also displays a mix of both the traditional grosso and solo elements of the evolving concerto – the violin and two recorders used together in concertino fashion, as well as each instrument individually. It also exists in an alternate version for two recorders and harpsichord, BWV 1057.

Concerto No.5 in D, BWV 1050
If the Fourth can be described one of the steps in Bach’s evolution of the concerto, then the Fifth Concerto and the place it holds in the history and literature of the keyboard concerto represents a fairly advanced stage of development. This concerto is thought to be the last of the six in order of composition.

One such characteristic, for example, is Bach’s decision to call for a flute traversire (transverse flute) – i.e. the modern flute as we know it today – as opposed to the flauto dolce (soft flute), or recorder. Also, even in the work’s concerto grosso form, the harpsichord part has such prominence, eclipsing the solo flute and violin, that the work can almost be regarded as the earliest instance of a concerto for harpsichord, which itself, of course, is the immediate ancestor of the modern-day piano.

J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.HaussmannLeft: J.S. Bach – 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann.
nother indication of the concerto’s evolved nature was Bach’s curious move of dispensing with the second violin in the ripieno. This can perhaps be explained when we understand that Bach, who normally played the viola in the chamber music sessions at Cthen, made an exception for this concerto and took for himself the principal harpsichord part. Therefore, someone else would have had to take over his viola part, and by omitting the second violin, he could allow a violinist to do this.

Concerto No.6 in B flat, BWV 1051
The Sixth Concerto is a work with a peculiarity seldom found elsewhere in classical music: it has no violin parts. The scoring is for seven instrments, two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, and violone (double bass) and harpsichord continuo.

The work may have been composed with the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cthen and Bach themselves as performers in mind. The good prince played not only the violin and the harpsichord, but also the viola da gamba. The gamba is approximately the size of a cello, but is thinner in the body and fretted across the fingerboard, like a guitar. It was already falling into obsolescence, even by then, although it had typically been an aristocratic instrument. Shakespeare, for example, makes a mention of this, when writing of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night: “he plays o’ th’ viol-de-gamboys and speaks three or four languages word for word without book, and hath all the good gifts of nature.”

The Sixth Concerto is similar to the Third in that both were written for stringed instruments only, but their different is in the way these parts are used. The melodic and contrapunal material of the Sixth seems to have been designed as an early form of a sextet for strings (less the keyboard continuo). This middle-to-low-pitched strings-only combination would have given this concerto a distinctive sonority.

The Brandenburgs at a Glance

No. Key Composed Concertino Ripieno Duration (mins)
1 F 1717 ? 2 hn, ob, vn ,picc 2ob, bn, str, cont 21-23
2 F 1718 ? tp, rec, ob, vn str, cont 13
3 G 1713 3 vn, 3va, 3vc cont 10-13
4 G 1720 vn, 2 rec (flauti d’echo) str, cont 15
5 D 1720 fl, vn, hpd str, cont 21-23
6 B-flat 1708-10 2 va 2 gam, vc, vne, cont 19


  • vn – violin
  • va – viola
  • gam – viola da gamba
  • vc – cello
  • vne – violone
  • str – strings
  • cont – continuo
  • fl – flute
  • pic – piccolo
  • rec – recorder
  • rd – rubber ducky
  • ob – oboe
  • tp – trumpet
  • hn – horn

BENJAMIN CHEE‘s earliest Brandenburg Concertos in the DG Walkman Classics series was eaten up by the cassette player. Today, he has six versions on CD, so that it won’t happen again.

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