“The Brandenburg Concertos “add up the most complex and artistically successful failed job application in recorded history” (Keillor 1). “Between 1719 and 1721, Bach assembled six concertos” (Reel), “although work may have begun on some of them at Weimar after 1708” (Dettmer). They were written “for Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg” (Reel) and dedicated to him in March 1721.
“Bach’s position at Cöthen was becoming less desirable to him; his wife had died in 1720 while Bach accompanied his employer, Prince Leopold of Anthalt-Cöthen, to Carlsbad. The prince was also reallocating funds from music to his palace guard, no doubt because the prince’s new wife was not a music lover” (Keillor 1).
Bach probably met Ludwig “on his 1719 trip to Berlin to select a new harpsichord” (Dettmer). However, Ludwig may have first heard Bach “at the spas in Carlsbad, where Prince Leopold would have Bach accompany him” (Keillor 1).
“Bach sent a beautifully rendered score of the concertos to the Margrave in 1721, suspecting that the royal might be interested in giving him a job, but there is no known response to Bach’s political overture” (Keillor 1). “The composer’s meticulously hand-copied score…eventually came into the possession of Frederick the Great’s sister, Princess Amalie, who bequeathed it to a school library in Berlin” (Dettmer).
“These pieces display a variety of styles, influences, and musical preoccupations and were probably not conceived of as a set. However, all of them share in Bach’s great talent for absorbing new styles (among them the Italian concerto grosso) and then expanding and improving upon them. At any rate, the Margrave never thanked Bach, paid him a fee, staged a performance of the works, or offered him a position. Such was life, even for Bach” (Schrott).
Concerto No. 1:
“The first concerto is, like all of Bach’s concertos, indebted to the methods of the Italians. Vivaldi was particularly attractive to the German composer, who eagerly copied out Vivaldi’s scores in order to understand his use of contrast, rhythmic propulsion, and orchestration. The Brandenburg Concertos were not as unusual as was once thought; Italian composers created concertos for widely varying combinations of instruments, and Bach’s shifting textures have their parallels in works by other composers. But the handling of the Italian concerto material went unmatched throughout the Baroque era. One unique, perhaps non-Italian idea in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is Bach’s use of hunting horns. The concerto also calls for three oboes and a bassoon, as well as continuo strings and the violino piccolo. The sound of the horns stands out, but the composer manages to make them blend into the ensemble through the use of multiple winds” (Keillor 1).
“Though the first movement does not have a tempo marking, performances of the four-movement work are about 20 minutes in duration. Each movement has a brisk pace and extraordinary counterpoint that inventively shades and blurs the contrast between the small concertino group and the tutti ensemble. Along with the horn, the violino piccolo seems to have been included in order to draw more attention to the innovative qualities of the music. The Brandenburg Concertos contain some of Bach’s most brilliant counterpoint, and the attention-grabbing orchestration of the first concerto has not diminished the work's value at all. It is among Bach's best works” (Keillor 1).
Concerto No. 2:
“The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 may have been one of the last to be written, and it certainly seems like a special-occasion piece. It’s a concerto featuring four prominent instruments – trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin – against a foundation of strings and continuo. The writing is virtuosic and brilliant; the high trumpet part, in particular, brings many fine players to grief” (Reel).
“The work basically follows the Italian concerto grosso pattern, punctuating the solo group’s music with tutti outbursts for the strings, although here the soloists are often more integrated into the musical fabric than in the Italian model” (Reel).
“The strongly rhythmic first movement, lacking a tempo indication, deploys the soloists both as members of the overall ensemble and as out-front players, in varying combinations. The orchestra introduces an energetic eight-bar theme, then, two at a time and separated by restatements of the opening melody, the soloists jump in with their own two-bar motif. From this point on, the soloists rarely recede completely, constantly toying with their short motif and picking up fragments of the initial theme as well. The trumpet retires from the plaintive Andante, leaving the other three soloists, with bare continuo accompaniment, to focus on a sighing phrase. One instrument’s entrance overlaps another’s last notes in a sort of counterpoint that, despite several efforts, never gets off the ground. Revamping a theme from the first movement, the Allegro assai takes counterpoint more seriously” (Reel).
“In the earlier movements, Bach had passed a melody from one instrument to another, fully exploiting their contrasting colors. Now, in this final movement, the soloists each provide different voices in a full-fledged fugue, with the string orchestra merely reinforcing key moments. This fugue is no academic exercise; the music is bright and festive, clearly intended to show how a learned structure could be incorporated into popular entertainment at the margrave’s court” (Reel).
Concerto No. 3:
“The Concerto No. 3 in G major may have been written while Bach was at Weimar, given that it (along with Nos. 1 and 6) is reminiscent of the Italian concerto, a genre with which Bach was fascinated at the time. The motoric rhythm, clear melodic outline, and motivic construction owe a lot to the comparable works of Vivaldi, but the clarified harmony and more interesting counterpoint are unmistakably Bach’s. The work’s two main sections, both in G major (one alla breve, the other in 12/8 time), are separated by a brief Adagio which may be realized as a short violin cadenza. The concerto is written for three violins, three violas, and three cellos, with bass and continuo. The relationship between the instruments is subjective to the listener; as the positioning of the parts fluctuates, it may appear that there are no soloists, that the players are all soloists, or that the violins, violas, and cellos occupy their own solo groups. The Italian concerto grosso’s distinction between concertino (a small group of soloists) and ripieno (the full ensemble) becomes in Bach’s hands, and especially distinctively in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, a kaleidoscopic range of colors and shades” (Schrott).
Concerto No. 4:
“No. 4 is scored for a concertino of solo violin and two flûtes à bec (i.e. recorders) and a ripieno of violins, violas, cellos, and continuo” (Dettmer).
“The diversified character of these six concertos implies random composition. It was common practice in the Baroque era to use whatever instruments were available at any given time. Only the third and sixth concertos have no wind instruments (No. 6, indeed, has no violins, only lower strings). Bach carefully listed the "beak flute," or recorder, as a concertino instrument in concertos two and four; only in the Concerto No. 5 did he specify a flute. But flutists have appropriated both works since their rediscovery. Indeed, the emergence of the recorder from obscurity is so recent that few anywhere have been trained to perform Bach's demanding solo parts” (Dettmer).
“Like its companion works, No. 4 is contrapuntally intricate and tightly argued; what sets it apart is a lightness of scoring that produces transparent textures. There is a prevailing gentleness, too – even in the swift fugal finale – that befits flutes (or recorders), although the solo violin part is ornately difficult” (Dettmer).
“Indeed, the first movement’s challenging violin part embodies a sort of dramatic confrontation between solo and orchestra that stands out as one extreme in the continuum of solo-orchestra relationships that these concertos so thoroughly explore. Both the first and second movements are in triple meter (3/8 in the opening Allegro; 3/4 in the gently melancholic, E minor Andante that follows), while the finale is alla breve (2/2). Despite a double bar, the Andante prepares us harmonically for the fugal games one is tempted to call antics in the finale” (Dettmer).
Concerto No. 5:
“Hearing the fifth concerto in the context of the rest of the set makes it clear that, apart from Bach’s inimitable strength as a contrapuntist, the key to his ability to make music that is both sublime and entertaining lies in the fact that in his hands, everything is elastic. No other composer of the Baroque era could write through the constraints of form as if it was not there at all. Bach saw more options than anyone else, in form and in influence. The way he blended the Italian sound into his own in these concertos ennobled both Italian and German music. The scope of his vision and his relentless invention, making everything he wrote new, frustrates any attempt at comparison” (Keillor 5).
“This fifth concerto is scored for flute, solo violin, obbligato harpsichord, and strings. It is the only one of the six pieces to have any solo material given to the harpsichord, which is part of the continuo throughout the other works, filling out the harmonies. What is quite bizarre and beautiful about the opening movement is the way the solo instruments and string ensemble seem to be muscling in on each other's musical functions. More specifically, the ritornello is almost carried away by the soloists although it is normally the territory of the tutti ensemble. The harpsichord seems to be holding the work together, and there are episodes in the second half of the movement where everything has ground to a halt except for the harpsichord. At the end of the movement, the other soloists actually support the free-flowing harpsichord line. It is a sort of divide-and-conquer movement, with tutti versus soloists, and also soloists against soloists. The harpsichord wins. No one wrote music with this sort of free play of function before Bach” (Keillor 5).
“The following two movements, briefer than the first, form an admirable contrast. The second movement is for soloists only, somber and cooperative. Though it is intimate and free of the first movement's tension, it is the most concerto-like movement in the traditional sense. This is a colossal irony, considering how the tensions of the concerto form were exploded in the first, which is as much a departure from the form as it is an adherent. The final movement is a charming dance, a lively gigue with fugal powers” (Keillor 5).
Concerto No. 6:
“Bach’s sonic imagination was seemingly limitless, and for this final concerto he chose to limit the work's instrumentation to strings and continuo, meaning that the only non-bowed instrument heard is the harpsichord. Every other concerto in the set made extensive use of contrasting timbres, balancing the strings with the winds, often in unprecedented ways. This limitation of timbre is also extended to register; there are no violins, just two violas, two violas da gamba, a cello, and the violone, which is near the cello range and is from the gamba family. The overall effect of this decision is a spirit of repose and conclusion. There are no visceral contrasts in the music, though the final Allegro is faster than the other two movements; the concerto, whenever it was actually composed, makes a splendid way to end the overall set” (Keillor 6).
“Bach’s writing for these instruments was unconventional for the time. In the early eighteenth century the lower members of the violin family were considered orchestral instruments with supporting roles. They were given comparatively easy parts to play, while the gamba and its relatives were regarded as chamber instruments and necessarily received more difficult lines. Bach chose to reverse the level of difficulty, giving the viola and cello the tough solo parts, while the gamba players were free to cruise along in the supporting roles. In the second-movement Adagio, they are completely silent” (Keillor 6).
“The form of the three-movement work is also filled with reversals. The opening movement sounds initially like a freely composed fugal arrangement, free of the stark contrasts normally associated with concerto form. Its ritornello, normally a focused bit of recurring melody, rambles along without drawing much attention to itself, while the music that is supposed to be spun out of the ritornello is concise and sharp. Compounding the irregularities further, the second movement (lovely and languid) ends in a different key from the one it starts in. The final movement assumes the character of a fugal gigue, but reveals itself to be a set of variations based on the initial ritornello, which is a much freer demonstration than the traditional spinning-out of the initial material” (Keillor 6).
“Overall, these surprises result in what in many ways is the most various and striking among the Brandenburg Concertos” (Keillor 6) – and, this one “may actually have been the first composed” (Keillor 6). In any event, this concertos “beauty is equal to its invention” (Keillor 6).