Baroque Inside-Out: The Brandenburgs
Friday August 18 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed the six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 during his tenure in Köthen, the Calvinist court where secular instrumental music took precedence over sacred music. Each concerto explores a different combination of solo instruments and varying degrees of coordination between the soloists and the full orchestra (the latter group also known as the ripieno or ritornello). Bach didn’t have many musicians at his disposal in Köthen. A further reduction in numbers after the arrival of Prince Leopold’s unmusical new bride was certainly a factor in Bach’s decision to leave his post. But during better times, those few musicians - whose ability clearly compensated for their scant numbers - helped inspire Bach’s fabulous and diverse concerto scorings.
Bach made no secret of attempting to showcase a wide variety of instrumental timbres in these works. In fact, it is one of the specific points he makes in the dedication to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom the works were offered. The Margrave had heard Bach several years earlier and requested the composer send him “some pieces” showing his art:
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.
As listeners can experience four concertos tonight in a single sitting, framed by one earlier today and the sixth tomorrow afternoon, the extent and variety of Bach’s scoring stand forth in clear relief. Even within the Baroque era that appreciated the ensemble concerto (or concerto grosso), the Brandenburgs gather together almost every conceivable combination of instrumental timbres. Thus, as we see in his other collections of six works, Bach reveals an encyclopedic turn of mind, synthesizing a wealth of colors, influences, and forms to create a well-rounded whole.
Parts of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 exist in other works, suggesting it probably dates from a time before Köthen. Indeed, its remarkable four-movement structure only exists because Bach appended a dance finale to the basic fast–slow–fast format. Apart from that novelty, Brandenburg No. 1’s robust scoring typifies the Baroque concerto grosso in which a small group of solo instruments emerge from and recede back into the full orchestral texture. It features an intriguing solo ensemble: three oboes, two horns, bassoon, and a violino piccolo. That last item is simply a smaller version of the standard four-string violin. Its higher timbre may have been favored here by Bach because it could hold its own against the powerful winds.
His inclusion of horns also merits comment. Horns were not typical instruments in concert settings at this time. They were heard almost exclusively during the hunt, and it is not surprising that this concerto once functioned as the opening to Bach’s “Hunt” Cantata 208 (1713). We note the horns most clearly during the opening Allegro where they unexpectedly perform numerous triplet rhythms against the prevailing duple meter. Their other moment to shine comes in the Polacca Trio of the fourth movement. The horn’s distinctive sound gives an autumnal quality to the work. During the second and third movements, Bach favors the pairing of violino piccolo and oboe; the Adagio in particular features the lyrical, affecting quality of those two soloists.
The Minuet in Brandenburg No. 1 is played by the full ensemble, whereas the delightful Trio is scored for just two oboes and bassoon. Similarly in the Polish dance with Trio that follows, Bach writes the one for strings alone and the other for two horns and oboes. The Polacca enjoys a pastoral feel in F major with drone pitches in the bass. But listen for the briefest of foot-stomping intrusions during the Polacca’s middle section. Bach uses the Minuet as a refrain against these other dances, creating an overall ABACADA structure.
Focusing now on the final dance movement, we are reminded just how fluid these compositions were in the early 18th century. It is not unlikely that the dances were added to satisfy a specific performance situation; perhaps a festive banquet, in the spirit of Telemann’s popular Tafelmusik? That these dances remained as part of the received (and now definitive) Brandenburg No. 1 text may be just a happy coincidence. They could easily have been lost or removed at some point prior to the moment in which the received version was put together, and thus would not have been included with the materials passed down to us.
Before proceeding with another concerto, we freshen the ear with a short organ prelude and one of Bach’s delightful motets. The motet, as a musical genre, had a long history prior to the Baroque. Dating back as far as the 13th century, motets are a highly diverse body of texted sacred compositions, written in numerous languages and countries. Reaching their pinnacle during the Renaissance, the motets of masters like Byrd, Palestrina, and Ockeghem transformed the genre to become as elaborate and expressive as madrigals, their secular brethren. Bach wrote six motets in German (BWV 225-230), all for choir with continuo accompaniment. Most of the six are scored for double choir; that is, two four-part choirs. Bach revels in the possibilities of this antiphonal texture.
In addition to all of his other duties in Leipzig, Bach had been hired originally to help teach the boys at the St. Thomas School. He deputized the Latin instruction, but undertook - with some frustration - the teaching of singing and basic music education to hundreds of students during his tenure. His relations with school officials gradually soured to the point where music was clearly marginalized in favor of the “regular” curriculum. Bach dealt with two men named Ernesti, apparently unrelated. The later official, J. A. Ernesti seems an outright opponent to Bach’s efforts. The earlier rector, J. H. Ernesti, was much more supportive, and Bach would remember him fondly in subsequent years.
J. H. Ernesti was a prominent classicist, poet, and rector of the Thomasschule when Bach submitted his application for the post. About six years later, for Ernesti’s funeral service, Bach composed a motet for two choirs on a text drawn from Martin Luther and the Epistle to the Romans. Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (1729) is cast in three movements, starting with a classic antiphonal exchange between the two choirs. For the second movement, beginning at “Der aber die Herzen”, Bach recombines the choirs for a brilliant four-voice fugue. These two movements show Bach writing an extroverted, concert-style music filled with melismas and acrobatic leaps. Only in the finale, a traditional chorale for four voices, are we called back to the sacred setting for which Der Geist was written.
Among the most popular of Bach’s Brandenburgs is the spectacular Concerto No. 5, a draft of which dates to 1719. Several aspects of this concerto deserve comment. First, Bach achieves a dovetailing of thematic heads and tails in the first movement that strongly influenced the “classical” concerto strategies of Mozart and Haydn. The slow movement’s trio texture and the finale’s soloistic opening are both noteworthy. Second, this work probably offers Bach’s earliest use of transverse flute in an ensemble setting. However, nothing grabs our attention like the unaccompanied keyboard cadenza in the first movement. Indeed, some listeners regard Brandenburg No. 5 as a keyboard concerto in all but name. For ears accustomed to Mozartian cadenzas, Bach’s achievement will hardly sound new. But such a structural interruption was unprecedented in ensemble concertos of the early 18th century. It is not the music per se that is remarkable, but the bold assertion of one voice above the many-voiced texture of the concerto grosso. Bach makes the keyboard part far more active rhythmically than the others throughout the first movement. Thus, from the start he plants a seed for the keyboard’s eventual liberation from the other players. Imagine Bach himself directing a performance from the keyboard, simply indulging his improvisatory fancy at this point. Imagine, as well, the chagrin of flute and violin soloists during this display, awaiting a chance to somehow get back in, rolling their eyes as the “old man” goes off on another tangent.
The second movement offers a broad meditation in B minor. Many phrases begin with imitation between flute and violin, whereas the keyboard now stays modestly in the background. After cadences in a series of closely-related keys, Bach returns to the main theme in B minor for the final phrase. It is not a full-scale recapitulation, as will become de rigueur in the later 18th century. Still, the rounded return of the main theme/key gives a satisfying degree of polish.
The finale opens with counterpoint between flute and violin, joined after eight measures by the keyboard. The ripieno does not even come in until the first strong cadence in a secondary key. Even though the full ensemble plays a majority of the time thereafter, Bach’s opening paragraph for the soloists gives them a marked prominence. At one point he flirts with another keyboard cadenza, but the other players, by now, are wise to his tricks. They seize the first possible moment to jump back into the action and carry the movement through to a strident, ensemble finish.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is scored for just eleven instruments: ten strings and a keyboard. Building from the bottom of the ensemble, we have the continuo helping to support the harmony and comprised of double bass and harpsichord; above there are three cellos, three violas, and three violins. (Is it mere coincidence that the number “3” figures so prominently in this particular concerto?) Other Brandenburgs may utilize more striking combinations of timbres. What the work lacks in variety of instrumental color must be made up in more nuanced ways.
Brandenburg No. 3 works instead as an early string symphony. The term “concerto” still applies since that word often meant a “coming together” of different musical forces - as when different people work together in a “concerted effort” to achieve some goal. The solo instruments are the three violins, though this will often be easier to see than hear given the sonic uniformity of this all-string work. The first allegro carries a buoyant confidence in its steady rhythm. Most of the material is constructed out of nothing more than a three-note neighbor pattern (e.g., G-F#-G or D-C-D). At key moments, such as the beginning of different episodes, Bach scatters the motive quickly across the members of the string family, from violins to violas to cellos. The entire ensemble plays together most of the time. When they don’t, it is because the three solo violins are enjoying a few moments of contrapuntal dialogue. That strategy becomes more noticeable toward the close of movement, where Bach largely silences the lowest strings and our ears can better track the interplay happening above.
The surviving copies do not transmit an actual slow movement, only a two-bar half cadence known as a “Phrygian cadence.” Many works from the Baroque, including some by Bach himself, do not include written-out slow movements; or when they do notate something, it is often not fully realized. It may be just a few chords that end with this same Phrygian cadence. Modern performers can thus look to other concertos for suggestions about what to do at this moment in Brandenburg No. 3: Insert additional chords? Improvise something in the nature of a solo cadenza? Play it as written? Tonight’s performance, at the suggestion of violinist Chloe Fedor, will utilize the Largo movement from Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major, BWV 1019. Is it nearly as brief as a simple ornamented cadence, but it offers more musical interest.
The finale presents a canon in G major that thrills and soars in a jubilant 12/8 meter. It is one of the few movements in Bach’s concertos in which he composes a simple binary A-B structure with both parts repeated. It bears a close resemblance to the many gigues that Bach used as concluding movements in his instrumental suites. Bach does a masterful job of dispersing the energetic figures across the texture, particularly in the B section. Certainly the first violin takes on a soloist’s role. However, the entire ensemble shares in the enthusiasm of this brilliant finale.
Bach’s legacy to all genres of musical composition, excepting opera, are profound. And depending on who you ask, opinions differ about whether the 224 extant cantatas or 48 Preludes and Fugues or the numerous suites for solo violin and cello might not be his greatest gift to posterity. Did I forget to mention the B-minor Mass and the Passions? Well, you can see how difficult it would be to find a consensus. One thing that is certain is that Bach was known during his lifetime primarily for his church music, both organ and vocal, and that he spent more waking hours writing cantatas than anything else. He was charged to write cantatas weekly during his period in Leipzig, but examples also exist from as far back as his time in Arnstadt two decades earlier.
At the start of his second musical season in Leipzig, Bach composed the cantata O Ewigkeit, Du Donnerwort (Oh Eternity, Word of Thunder, BWV 20). First performed in June 1724, the cantata draws upon a sacred hymn of the same name by Johann Rist. Bach created a substantial 30-minute work in multiple movements, bringing in recitative textures to cover certain phrases of the original text. From this larger work we hear the lively duet “O Menschenkind” for alto and tenor voices, which appears just before the cantata’s final chorus. The entire sense of relentless movement, perhaps as mirror for the urgent nature of the text (“O humanity, stop at once loving sin and this world…”), comes from the almost ceaseless eighth-notes in the bass. Above a simple harmonic foundation, Bach weaves an impassioned duet filled with astounding rhythmic inventiveness. He uses complementary rhythms throughout: when one voice is active, the other is generally holding sustained tones. Despite alto and tenor voices crossing into each other’s ranges, their rhythmic profiles maintain a sense of integrity for each voice part as they weave their way through the hymn’s all-important message.
In the story of the Brandenurg Concertos and their innovations in instrumentation, a further step is taken by the Fourth Concerto in G Major, which showcases two solo recorders and solo violin. It is perhaps worth mentioning some uncertainty surrounding instrumentation in this concerto. Bach’s autograph score indicates Concerto 4to à Violino Principale, due Fiauti d'Echo…. (Fourth Concerto for solo violin, two “echo flutes”....). As we are not entirely sure what Bach means by “flauti d’echo,” one can hear different instruments used in performance. Some will employ transverse flutes, others - for instance, those directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt - have placed recorders off-stage to create the echo effect. A few scholars suggest Bach had a particular recorder in mind called a flageolet. The fact is that we really have nothing firm to build upon except for Bach’s title and his use of wind instruments in similar contexts. In this case we have the guidance of his Keyboard Concerto in F, BWV 1057, completed in 1738. Scored for clavecí i dues flautes (keyboard and two flutes/recorders), it is a near-exact copy of Brandenburg No. 4. Most importantly, Bach did not alter the wind parts; these remain intact. Instead, he transfers the original solo violin to the keyboard and adds further embellishments. Clearly, when offered a chance to “revise” his approach in Brandenburg No. 4, he felt the wind scoring was in no need of tinkering.
Throughout this concerto, the solo violin receives numerous moments to shine and plenty of shimmering passagework, particularly in the outer movements. But its true role is to support Bach’s brilliant wind writing. Their close counterpoint draws the ear, and the first movement’s most appealing moments come when Bach pares the texture down to just recorders. The slow movement offers a study in chromatic writing and emotional gravitas. Bach maintains the full ensemble texture, even though this would provide a conventional time during which the wind players could catch their breath. Instead, all instruments dwell on a theme built of two-note slurs, enveloping the movement in countless “sigh” gestures. A final flourish and a Phrygian half cadence complete the impression of an antique-sounding Adagio. This mood is cast off by the lively, skipwise motion of the ensuing finale. At first, the recorders remain silent until all fugal entrances have occurred. The winds do eventually enter and create the finale’s finest moments in episodes based on canon and free counterpoint. Bach’s ability to sustain harmonic tension through suspension chains ensures that the dynamism continues up to the final cadence.
© Jason Stell, 2023