|Rehearsal for Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 (photo by Kyle Fink)|
Join us at 8pm on Tuesday, October 9th, at Market Square Church. Jeff Woodruff, executive director of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be giving the pre-concert talk starting at 7:15, joined by harpsichordist Arthur Haas and trumpeter Scott Sabo. Other members of the ensemble, in addition to concertmaster Peter Sirotin, will include principal flutist David DiGiacobbe and principal oboist Andreas Oeste.
|J.S. Bach (?) (see below)|
“Other than being simply very challenging technically and musically,” he told me, “playing these pieces in one evening reminds me just how illusionary the idea of 'historical development' in music is when you think in terms of quality. Music really hasn’t gotten any better than this in the last three hundred years, it just grew in variety exponentially.
“Bach is complete in his command of musical language as means of communicating nuanced human emotions. There is a magnificent range of atmospheres in these pieces, from hunting scenes and royal military displays to youthful boisterousness of a country fair and deep reminiscing of old age. The combination of elegance, eloquence and depth this program offers can only be found in a handful composers to the same degree.”
In addition to this, if one needs an occasion, it's the 300th Anniversary of the music you'll be hearing, give or take a few years (I'll get into that, later) – it is difficult to be very precise with a lot of Baroque music, anyway – and it's all the more amazing, I think, when we realize that in 1718, Bach was 33 years old.
There are many recordings and performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos available and while not all of them may be to everybody's liking, depending on your "musical politics" regarding period instruments or historically informed performance practice (gone, I hope, are the days where it was okay for 100-piece orchestras to play them), this one, I think, works musically. And of course the usual caveat applies, trying to find "live performance" videos with decent sound, those with synchronized scores (even those who don't read music find these informative, just to imagine how all that gets from the composer's imagination to the listeners' ears), as opposed to photo overlays or, who knows, adorable cat videos to occupy the eye.
There are individual videos of each of the six concertos in the set interspersed throughout the text, but this one of all six in one video is with Claudio Abbado more or less conducting the "Orchestra Mozart" in a performance recorded at the Teatro Municipale Valli in Italy's Reggio Emilia. (The theater, btw, was built in 1741 and rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1851.)
(And, as usual, this is as large as I can get them in order to fit the screen within blogger's space limitations. If you want a larger view, click on "YouTube" icon in the lower right part of the screen under the time-bar. There is also that broken square in the very corner which should give you a "full-screen" view.)
If you want to listen to all six, just “let it roll.” If you're interested or have only a little time for one or two right now, the 1st concerto begins at 0:50; the 3rd (since they're not performing them in numerical order), at 0:18:51; the 5th, at 29:14; the 6th, at 48:11; the 4th, at 1:04:30; and the 2nd, at 1:20:29. (And what do you do for an encore? Play the last movement of the 2nd again, at 1:33:45, but this time just a little bit faster and with a few small changes along the way.)
And yes, what about the order they're performed in? Bach numbered them specifically #1 through #6, but did that mean he expected them to be performed in numerical order? No. Did he expect them to be performed as a complete set? Unlikely. So what to do?
Peter told me they're going with this order: the 3rd, 4th, and 1st on the first half, and the 5th, 6th, and 2nd on the second.
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So, what are “The Brandenburg Concertos”?
This is a collection of six works, each one different from the other, and scored for (as Bach wrote himself on the dedication page) “diverse instruments.” They're not all Violin Concertos, say, the way Vivaldi wrote “The Four Seasons,” and they're not like those sets of six or a dozen concertos for the same instrumental soloist as most composers did at the time.
Each one seems to examine the question “what is a concerto?” or more specifically “what can a concerto be?” This is not a concerto as we tend to think of it in the modern concert-hall sense like those by Beethoven or Brahms or Chopin or Rachmaninoff, where the composer places one soloist in front of an orchestra. The standard idea of “concerto” since, say, the early-1800s is a chance for the soloist to display his or her virtuosity in “competition” with the orchestra (hence, one critic's complaint that Brahms wrote concertos “for piano versus orchestra” rather than “and”...).
In fact, the word “concertare” means “to compete,” but not in the sense we often think of it as “a struggle to win over other competitors.” There's a qualifying subtlety lost in translation that needs to be clarified: “to compete as brothers” (one's concept of sibling rivalry aside). More often, as the idea evolved in the late-1600s, it was a contrast in sounds: it could be winds and strings, it could be two groups of strings playing contrasting music, and it could be a small group as distinguished from a larger group. The idea of an out-and-out solo concerto as we know it was only just becoming popular in the 1720s – Vivaldi's “Four Seasons,” incidentally, was published in 1725 – and it was Vivaldi's music that struck Bach as something new and refreshingly innovative at the time.
But none of the Six Brandenburg Concertos are “solo” concertos: they are examples of what in the Late-Baroque Period was called a concerto grosso, or a “concertate” with a group of instruments called the concertino contrasting with a larger group called the ripieno which later came to be “the orchestra.”
So, the 4th and 5th Concertos are closer to what we think of as “concertos” – in the 4th, a violin with two flutes; in the 5th, the most famous of them, a violin, a flute and the harpsichord.
In the 2nd, perhaps the most popular of the six, the “group of soloists” consists of a violin, a flute, an oboe and a trumpet – quite a diverse and seemingly unbalanced quartet but where their individual lines weave in and out of the texture like a brilliant fabric. Sometimes it breaks into two duos – the brighter sounds of the oboe and trumpet compared with the more gentle sounds of the violin and recorder.
The 1st, the largest of the set, pits a large “small group” against the strings but sometimes members of the soloist group blend in to form part of the “orchestra.” By the nature of the instrument, the two horns tend to stand out, often playing roisterous hunting calls. There are three oboes, two of which appear to be “more soloist” than the third (or is it the first two are concertino and the third is ripieno?). There is a bassoon that chugs along playing the bass-line but sometimes has its own moments in the spotlight. And there is also something curiously labeled violino piccolo, a smaller than usual violin pitched a third higher than the standard violin, but which these days is usually played on a regular violin regardless.
Incidentally, the 1st is the only one in four movements. The usual pattern in the other five is “fast – slow – fast” but Bach adds a stately minuet (with three decidedly un-stately contrasting bits with strings only in the middle and winds alone on either side) for its conclusion.
(You could argue that the 3rd Concerto is really only in two movements, separated by two chords with a fermata or pause; but that was also a way of marking a possible cadenza which could be improvised by the first violinist or harpsichordist, and not always taken. Even so, it would only feel like a prolonged cadence, not a complete movement. But musicians love to argue about the least little thing...)
Well, then, the remaining two concertos don't appear to be “concertos” at all. There are no solo instruments “in a group” or otherwise, but it harks back to the “older” concertate idea, a contrast of sonorities rather than the display of a soloist's skills.
The 3rd, the shortest of the set, specifies the largest string group: three violins, three violas, three cellos and the ever-present basso continuo (I'll explain that in a moment...). But yet, each of the three violins have separate parts and occasionally trade back and forth between being a soloist and part of the ensemble or ripieno.
(With any luck, you won't get one of YouTube's ubiquitous ads interrupting the flow from the end of the first movement into that cadence or possible middle movement...)
The 6th contrasts the past and the future of music, it would seem, by placing two “modern” violas and a cello against two violas da gamba and a violone, instruments that had been a musical mainstay for centuries and were on the way out-of-fashion. The modern viola was initially referred to as a viola da braccia ("to be held with the arm") as opposed to the older viola da gamba ("to be held between the legs"). The butt of viola jokes even back in the 1700s, violists were often violinists who couldn't play the violin well enough to be in the ensemble. Perhaps Bach was making a socio-political statement in this concerto about artistic equality by including no violins in this one? Or maybe he just like the sound of it... (I suspect the latter.)
Without the range of flutes much less the brilliance of the horns and trumpet and, of course, the solo violin, this concerto comes off a bit “darker” sounding for its lower register. Again, a contrast of its own given the variety we've heard in the other concertos.
Keep in mind what we think of as stringed instruments were fairly recent developments, in Bach's day: though violins existed in the 1550s, it wasn't until the late-1600s they become more widely played, and the most famous violin-maker, Antonio Stradivari, created most of his violins after 1700. Before that, the most frequent stringed instruments were viols, with a different number of strings and tunings, with frets on the fingerboard like a guitar, and with an entirely different kind of bow. In fact, the new violin bow gave a better, more precise attack and was considered better for dance music. The viols were more often used by amateurs but also were considered better suited for sacred music. “Modern” violins worked better to express the clarity of the more complex textures of the music from Bach's end of the Baroque Era, from the early-1700s to his death in 1750.
(Considering the rise of the violin family, let's say if this were happening today and Bach's concertos were hot-off-the-press, the violin would still have been considered a new-fangled instrument for classical musicians in, say, the Reagan Era and it was only during the Clinton Administration it began to replace the viol as the instrument of choice. Yes – that long ago!)
Unfortunately, today, with the lack of viol players, most performances use modern cellos instead of the gambas, losing the contrast between old-fashioned viols and the modern strings. But that was one idea of “contrast” in this concerto.
Here's an “authentic” performance of the 6th Concerto using the viols and setting them up as opposing sound-worlds: the new violas on one side, the old gambas on the other. Even the cello and the old violone sit on opposite sides of the keyboard!
(I'm reminded of a violist friend who got to play the 6th Concerto with real gamba players back in the mid-1970s and was so excited to be playing it the way Bach intended it. "Yes," I said, recalling his big round sound full of vibrato and heavy on the dynamics, "but not if you're still playing your part as if it's Brahms...")
By the way, while I'm very fond of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra's performances of the Brandenburgs, I love their videos, here, because they were recorded in the Mirror Hall at Castle Köthen. Not only is this a nice Baroque location for the backdrop, Bach was the kapellmeister at Köthen between 1717 and 1723 and whether these works were ever performed in this room or not – it's possible some of them were written earlier than 1717 – it was from Köthen that Bach sent his six concertos out into the world in 1721, mailing them off to the Margrave of Brandenburg – hence the name, “Brandenburg Concertos,” by the way – in hopes of perhaps finding a job in his court.
It didn't happen – in 1723, he moved to Leipzig where he would spend the rest of his life once he was finally was offered the job at the St. Thomas Church. But that's another story...
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Oh, and what about the harpsichord? I'd mentioned the basso continuo which was a common feature of almost all Baroque music. Basically, music then consisted of a “melodic” layer and a “harmonic” layer which meant the all-important bass-line of a chord progression. And since a violin and a cello could not easily fill in the missing notes of any given chord, enter a chord-playing instrument. In the early-Baroque days of Monteverdi, this could be any kind of lute or keyboard that could play chords: that was the purpose. You reinforced the “bass line” of the harmony by doubling that with whatever “single-line bass instrument” was handy or appropriate.
Now, in a church for sacred music, the organ was the obvious choice for the keyboard (there was already one there); in the court, where the music was secular, you would have a harpsichord. As the “single-line bass instrument,” if your ensemble was primarily wind instruments, you'd double it with a bassoon; for stringed instruments, a cello or bass (Bach specifies a “violone” or old-fashioned bass viol not to be confused with the modern “double” bass in the 6th Concerto). In a really large space, maybe a cello and a bass – or maybe using the cello in the concertino passages and the bass in the ripieno (orchestral) passages. It was all about sound and balance: nothing was set in stone.
One thing was certain: the basso continuo part was at least two players. This makes for the rather odd idea that a Trio Sonata for two violins and continuo actually required four performers...
Think of it also like a jazz band: the piano may be the key instrument but there's always a bass and a drum set (because you need rhythm as well as harmony). Even in a rock group, there's still the standard idea of lead guitar, bass guitar, maybe an organ or synthesizer, and a drum set. They basically all function in a way similar to the old basso continuo.
Now, in each of Bach's concertos, he requires the standard continuo part with a harpsichord or cembalo which is a more generic name for a keyboard instrument. Except in the 5th Concerto, he calls it a cembalo concertante with the understanding it's one of the soloists – it even gets the big cadenza near the end of the 1st movement (and yowza! at that...) – and then, when it plays in the ripieno bits, it sits back as the continuo part. Given the prominence of its solo bits, the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is often considered the first keyboard concerto.
Here's the cadenza by itself (recorded with just the harpsichordist on stage) creating a world of harmonic tension that drives you from beginning to end until – aaaaah! – you arrive at the harmonic resolution of all that activity (and, in the full context, when the rest of the instruments would come back in to play the final phrase at 3:25.) Who says Baroque Music lacks drama?!
Here's the complete 1st Movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra:
or if you'd prefer a different performance, you can also check out Sigiswald Kuijken's “La Petite Band” here.
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So I mentioned this performance with Market Square Concerts celebrates the 300th Anniversary of the Brandenburg Concertos.
While it's not possible to say exactly when these were composed, we know two things: the date on the letter that accompanied the manuscript to the Margrave was dated March 24th, 1721, three days after Bach's 36th birthday. We also can assume he did not compose these in 1721. Being a typical recycler, it's more likely he compiled them in 1721, but from historical evidence and internal stylistic evidence - how Bach would handle particular phrases here or this bit of counterpoint there - it's probable several if not all of them predate his years at Köthen. While we'd hardly need an excuse, let's say of the years he might have composed them in, 1718 makes a convincing mid-point to use for a tricentennial celebration.
Bach himself copied all of them out in his own hand – no copyists, here – and it's very likely they were all written out with this distinct project in mind: supplying the Margrave with some examples of his art which he had promised to do after having met (and presumably performed for) him when he'd visited Berlin two years earlier when he'd gone there to buy a brand new harpsichord for his employer's court in Köthen, most likely the one he intended to feature in the 5th Concerto.
|Margrave of Brandenburg|
Why he didn't get the job is another matter. As they say, stay tuned...
The other thing we know is that Bach didn't sit down and write these concertos specifically for the Margrave and then sent them off with his resumé. They all existed in one form or another before that. Since there was a kind of unspoken agreement – call it “protocol” or “court etiquette” – Bach would not have written something for his employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, and then dedicated it to some other nobleman. It just “wasn't done.” So, having written a number of instrumental works as well as cantatas and the like at his previous job in Weimar, he probably went through those and either salvaged them verbatim or, more likely, reworked them into something more suitable.
For instance, we know the 1st Concerto is cobbled together from different cantata movements – and from different cantatas – including the secular “Hunting Cantata” which was first performed in 1713 at Weimar. The slow movement would later be used as the opening chorus of another secular cantata which he first performed in 1726 in Leipzig (replacing the horn parts with easier-to-find trumpets).
The style of the 3rd Concerto also reflects what Bach was writing at Weimar before 1717. Speaking of recycling, Bach would use the 1st movement for a 1729 cantata in Leipzig, adding oboes and horns.
Again, in Leipzig, when Bach was running the “Collegium Musicum” between 1729 and 1739, he performed instrumental concerts at Zimmermann's Coffee House – in lieu of any public concert hall in the city – and occasionally performed some keyboard concertos, all of which were probably originally something else, whether violin or oboe concertos previously written and performed in Köthen or Weimar. The earlier versions have been lost but we know the F Major Keyboard Concerto (BWV.1057) with its two obbligato recorder (or flute) parts is an adaptation of the G Major Concerto (BWV.1049), a.k.a. Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.
Once again, back to the Hall of Mirrors at Köthen with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for the 1st Movement of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto:
(Incidentally, Bach calls for two “flauto d'echo” which would imply recorders; when he wanted what we think of as a flute, he referred to it as a transverso, the modern “transverse flute.”)
The 5th Concerto seems to figure in a famous “musical duel” scheduled in Dresden in 1717 between Bach and the great (though now forgotten) Louis Marchand, though Marchand, after realizing who he was up against, skipped town. If not associated with the Dresden concerts – and probably not written specifically for that occasion, either – if the 5th Brandenburg Concerto didn't exist in some form or other then, it very well might have been written for the glorious new harpsichord Bach purchased in Berlin in 1719, when he officially met the Margrave of Brandenburg and who asked him to send him a few things...
While there's nothing duel-like (nor grand) about the slow movement of the 5th Concerto, let's hear another performance with Freiburg: the unusual tempo indication is Affetuoso, less of a tempo than a mood, certainly – though it very likely has nothing to do with this music, it reminds me that Bach's wife Maria Barbara died in 1720 – and Bach writes for just the three soloists, no “orchestra,” a moment of texture as another form of contrast in Bach's sound-world.
Keep in mind a great deal of Bach's works have been lost for one reason or another. Not the least lamentable is the fact that, upon his death, Bach's library was divided between three of his sons and the oldest, Wilhelm Friedemann, was an unsuccessful musician with a severe drinking problem and always in need of money who ended up selling a large portion of his inheritance – after all, the Old Pigtail was definitely old fashioned, so who'd really care, right? And then, a good chunk of No. 2 Son's legacy, inherited by Carl Philip Emanuel who was a court composer, himself considered old-fashioned, for King Frederick the Great in Berlin, was stolen during the final days of World War II, presumably carted off by the Soviet Army and hidden in a cave in Kiev, so the story goes – but that is another tale for another time...
So if there were other copies of the Brandenburg Concertos or their originals sources, we have no idea. We're talking long before the days of photocopies and backing things up to The Cloud, here...
Yet if they did exist during the remaining 29 years of his life, there is no record that Bach himself ever performed them again.
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And the kicker is, neither did anyone at the Court of the Margrave of Brandenburg, a man who is remembered today solely because Bach dedicated these concertos to him!
Well, no matter how much the Margrave loved music, his older brother the King did not and so there weren't the resources or quality of performers even in Berlin, then, to perform works as difficult and brilliant as Bach's concertos. Presumably, he also didn't have the resources at his home in Brandenburg (which, after all, was not where he spent most of his time, anyway, just as the Prince of Wales doesn't live in Wales). So, whatever he may have thought of the works, since he could make no use of them, they merely gathered dust on some library shelf until he died in 1734 – Bach was still alive, by the way; would it have hurt the man to pay the postage and “return to sender”??? – and they were sold to someone for the equivalent of $24. They were not discovered until 1849 when a theorist and teacher named Siegfried Dehn found them in the Brandenburg Archives! Can you imagine opening up a dusty pile of papers and finding this??! Anyway, he managed to publish them the following year, a hundred years after Bach's death.
Could you imagine if Dehn never rummaged around that dusty old library, never found these sad looking papers, and we would have lost this music, never had a chance to hear any of it? Much less all six of them in one evening?
So with that, let's conclude with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Köthen and the 2nd Concerto with its “concertino” of violin, recorder, oboe, and trumpet. Again, in the slow movement, it's scored for just the solo violin, recorder, and oboe with the continuo – the trumpet-player gets a well-deserved rest.
If you listen to this trumpet part – and it's hard to miss it – you might wonder whatever happened to the art of trumpet playing when you hear what orchestral trumpet players have to do in most of the repertoire from Mozart and Haydn up to the late-19th Century. Why this skill of handling the old Baroque trumpets – especially the variety called clarino which we hear here – died out, no one seems able to explain; much less how anyone learned to play these instruments again in the 20th. And the performer in this ensemble uses “emboucher trills” (or “lip trills”) rather than relying on keys or valves which makes it even more fascinating as an element of control, especially for one who barely moves at all when he's playing.
The manuscript was very nearly lost again toward the end of World War II when a librarian was transporting them out of Berlin for safe-keeping and the train came under bombardment. The story goes the librarian stuffed them under his coat and made a dash for the woods... talk about a war-time thriller (if you're a music-lover).
So, as you're listening to this music – which has become so ubiquitous its familiarity has sometimes worked against it (“oh, the Brandenburgs again – those old things...”) – remember it's not only old, it's been through a lot!
– Dick Strawser
P.S. The Portrait of Bach included early in the post is traditionally regarded as a portrait painted when Bach was the concertmaster of the Court of the Duke of Weimar (or at least one of them; to go into why there were two ducal courts in one city would be just too confusing, here). Anyway, after one period of employment there before leaving for two other short-term positions, he returned in 1708 and in 1714 was appointed to the title "concertmaster" (not just a performer but an organizer of concerts rather than the court composer who was an old man too ill and feeble, apparently, to maintain many of his duties). However, things deteriorated quickly after Bach returned from Dresden and that "duel-business" with Marchand: he was fired weeks later, imprisoned (!) for challenging his termination, and shortly after his release was hired by Prince Leopold at Köthen.
Unfortunately, while things seemed to go well for Bach there, the prince was forced to economize which may have been the reason Bach went to Hamburg in 1720 specifically to audition for an organist post there and then eventually to Leipzig where he moved in 1723. Small wonder the concertos he sent to Brandenburg in 1721 were more than just a courtesy.
Regardless of all that, back to this portrait: there are few authenticated portraits of Bach and this one had long been touted as Bach-in-Weimar, presumably between 1708-1717, though if he were specifically designated as "Konzertmeister" Bach, that would narrow it down to 1714-1717, a period of three years when Bach was between 29 and 32. However, scholars studying a photograph of the original portrait rather than the restored version came to realize that the restorer actually made adjustments to the portrait-subject's face to make it conform to the later, authenticated portraits of Bach painted in the late-1740s. So the jury is still out, officially, whether this portrait is Bach or Not Bach or maybe Johann Somebody-Else Bach (since it was a very large family of musicians, then).
If you care to read more about these portraits, this site will offer as concise an account as possible, possibly.