The Brandenburg Concerts

Published on 28.08.2018, 12:04

On 24 March 1721, Bach signed the preface of a leather-bound score called ‘Six concerts avec plusieurs instruments dédiées à son Altesse Royalle Monseigneur Crétien Louis Marggraf de Brandenbourg’. This magnificent manuscript in Bach’s own, meticulous handwriting contains the six works that became known in music history as the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’. They were sent by Bach as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg, but were almost certainly never performed at the same court.

Bach himself was active at the Court of Cöthen at the time (1717-1723), where the young prince Leopold von Anhalt-Cöthen ‘s excellent court orchestra was in employ, made up of musicians from all around Europe. No doubt, Bach used his own musicians on the various occasions he performed the six concerts for his sovereign Leopold so it would be more appropriate to speak of the ‘Cöthener Concertos’.

The most remarkable aspect of the six concertos is their enormous diversity –particularly with regards to musical structure and instrumentation. It seems as though Bach wanted to establish some kind of compendium of what could be done with the ‘concerto’ genre at that time. His piece was indeed the most brilliantly diverse instrumental collection ever to be conceived: no two concerts were written for the same combination of instruments and the alternation of solo instruments and tutti was different every time.

The following musical notes to and rhetorical interpretations of the Brandenburg Concertos stood at the base of the choreographic composition conceived by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Concerto No. 1 in F major  BWV 1046

1.(without tempo indication) - 2. Adagio - 3. Allegro - 4. Menuetto – Trio – Menuetto – Polacca – Menuetto – Trio - Menuetto

concertino: 2 corni da caccia, 3 oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo; ripieno: 2 violins, viola, continuo

Parts 1, 2 and 4 of this concerto date back to 1713 and were originally the introductory Sinfonia to Cantate BWV 208 ‘Was mir behagt ist nur die muntre Jagd!’. Bach composed this cantata on the occasion of the 35th birthday of prince Christian von Sachsen-Weissenfels, a fervent hunter. The cantata was probably performed as a festive conclusion to a hunt. Hence the use of two hunting horns (corni da caccia).

The nobility is celebrating the favorable outcome of the hunt in predictably stately and courtly fashion. In the middle of these imposing sounds, the violino piccolo attempts to draw attention to itself in a dignified manner. While in the first part it still took on a modest part in conjunction with the other strings, during the inharmonious and dissonant sounding Adagio, it enters into an exciting dialogue with the oboe. It then continues its attempts to further breach the established order, in a vivid Allegro with provocative, virtuoso solos, but to no avail. In the fourth part, the aristocracy sets things straight with a number of ornate, distinguished court dances. In this final move, the aristocratic concert achieves its balanced conclusion.

Concerto No. 2 in F major BWV 1047

1.(without tempo indication) - 2. Andante - 3. Allegro assai

concertino: trumpet, recorder, oboe, violin; ripieno: 2 violins, viola, continuo

Repetitive, short, obstinate motifs in the high ranges lend this concerto the character of a continuously flaring pattern of flames. It largely owes its lively play to the four soloists: trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. Above all, the uncommonly high trumpet commands our unfailing attention. The Andante has a more introvert character, in part because of the missing trumpet. The three other soloists offer poignant notes in an intense dialogue using a ‘traurig’ motif with many a ‘suspiratio’ (sigh) figure as a continuously repeating mantra, worked out in minute detail. In the third part, the trumpet takes the lead again. Using a flashing motif in the high ranges, it then enters into to a fiery fugue with a compelling, unstoppable cadence.

Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV 1048

1.(without tempo indication) - 2. Adagio – 3. Allegro

concertino: 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos; ripieno: continuo

The ultimate string concerto! In the first movement, all instruments present themselves in three groups of three (three violins, three violas, three cellos) with an air of self-confidence and positively steadfast tone, dominated by an obstinate ‘figura corta’ (or ‘anapest’: short – short - long). This cheerful, harmonious opening seems to continue until suddenly, in measure 47, a more erratic motif causes some insecurity. This motif continues to pop up as a sort of disruptive element, almost turning chaotic in the end. Ultimately, however, the main theme triumphs. What is noticeable in this movement, are the different powerful unison cadences, underlining the unity and the homogeneity of the strings.

No solos appear in the concerto itself. That is probably why Bach, exceptionally so, decided not to include a slow middle movement to this part. After a short transitional cadence (Adagio) the players in the third movement present themselves in quick succession, showcasing a whirling theme akin to a blustering wind, that picks up again and again and appears to go on without ending. This uninterrupted deluge of notes is of such a grandeur and force that as a listener you ultimately feel there is only one instrument playing in its full splendor – the strings.

Concerto No. 4 in G major BWV 1049

1. Allegro - 2. Andante - 3. Presto

concertino: violin, 2 ‘flauti d’echo’ (recorders); ripieno: 2 violins, continuo

The graceful fourth concerto offers a remarkable leading role to the three soloists. Two playful recorders offer a charming, gracious theme with a light-footed dance-like character in 3/8 measure. All the time, a virtuoso violin solo boldly (sometimes even rampantly) tries to escape and break through the structure. However, the winds always respond with due attentiveness, and repeatedly step up as soloists. This results in an exciting, vivacious dialogue between the competing soloists, a dialogue which is nicely structured by the parts in tutti.

The middle movement (Andante) is an intense, nostalgic lament. The sad theme of the tutti is continuously repeated by the three soloists as if it were an echo – perhaps a sad memory of a love long lost? Suspiratio (sigh) figures underline the wistful character of the whole part.

During the subsequent Presto, the light-footed ambiance returns in the shape of a whirling fugue, running playfully through all the voices. After the exposition, the solo violin attempts to reclaim a leading role, but is continuously parried by the recorders playing a fugue theme. A second, more powerful attempt at an outbreak follows in which the violin tries to overturn the score’s structural features in a provocative, almost brutal fashion with virtuoso interludes. But yet again, the fugue valiantly reasserts itself, with the winds continuing in a leading role. At the end, the battle for dominion rears its head once more with snappy staccato chords, but the two recorders lead the fugue to a balanced, final cadence.

Concerto No. 5 in D major BWV 1050

1. Allegro - 2. Affettuoso - 3. Allegro

concertino: flute (traverso), solo violin, obligato harpsichord (cembalo concertato); ripieno: violin, viola, continuo

This concerto is undoubtedly the most harmonious and ‘balanced’ of all six. The three solo parts, violin, traverso and harpsichord, are strongly connected on a harmonic basis, above all by means of a series of attractive dialogues, which showcase a great wealth of varied and well-ornamented motifs in one smooth, flowing motion. The main theme of the first movement shows an ecstatic, exuberant pleasure through open broken triads and a great ambitus (more than two octaves). Particularly exquisite is the way in which, time and again, the soloists make room for the return of the main theme with short, leisurely motifs. The harmonic unity between the three is so intense that near the end, with short, decelerating impulses, the flute and the violin clear the way for an elaborate solo of the harpsichord which launches into a virtuoso interlude with an unrelenting cadence, offering a unique moment in music history – the first great solo cadence.

The slow movement (Affettuoso) is a beautiful trio for soloists in which the harpsichord takes on the role of the soloist, as well as the continuo part. The three voices engage in an almost perfect dialogue with a short melancholic, loving motif developed down to the minutest of details. An example of perfect interpersonal communication. The third movement (Allegro) seems to draw directly from the Music of the Spheres and descend upon earth like a light-footed gigue. The violin and the flute launch into a light-flashing, butterfly-like fugue theme which minutes later is adopted by the harpsichord and reaches earth at the start of the shared tutti. Marvelous dance music wells up exhibiting a joy that is unburdened of any restriction and seems to go on forever in an unrelenting cadence. In the middle movement something akin to a dissonant counterforce develops (the Confutatio of Reason) with a new theme in minor. This theme engages in a thrilling battle with the fugue theme which now also appears in minor. Exciting modulations to exotic keys ensue until, after a cadence in B minor, the harpsichord takes swift action with a fierce D major chord after which the A part is repeated as a whole and this superb concerto reaches it conclusion.

Concerto No. 6 in B-flat major BWV 1051

1. (without tempo indication) - 2. Adagio ma non troppo - 3. Allegro

concertino: 2 violas, 2 viola di gambas, cello; ripieno: continuo

In terms of instrumentation, the sixth concerto is the most exceptional of all: two violas, two gambas, a cello and a continuo part. The high strings and the winds are missing and that results in a low, dark musical idiom. The two violas (normally intended to fill in the mid-range voices) take the lead and engage in a veritable duel with each other. In the first movement, they are fighting a fierce battle for the lead by means of a canon, with the two voices succeeding each other rapidly at the same level to a heavy and a light bar part. To keep everything in check, the other voices do not evolve beyond stiff, enduring repetitive eighths. In the second movement (Adagio ma non troppo), the two violas give each other much more space. Paying close attention to the other’s trajectory, they take it in turns to bring to bear an expressive cantabile melody that traverses all of the important keys. The result is an interesting dialogue between them. This harmonic rapprochement has its crowning moment in the final movement (Allegro) where the two violas embrace each other in a peaceful coexistence. For the first time in the six concerts, the soloists are unanimously playing the same theme. And a theme of surprising beauty and simplicity it is. This warm-blooded melody, like a kind of refrain, keeps returning in a variety of keys, offering a poignant conclusion to the entire cycle.

Kees van Houten

Kees van Houten was born in Helmond in 1940. After a grammar school education, he undertook training in piano- and organ-playing at the Brabant Conservatory in Tilburg. From 1957 to 2008, he was the organist of the St Lambert Church in Helmond where, for more than fifty years, he played the historical 1772 Robustelly organ. From 1971 to 1992, he was head teacher of organ at the Faculty of Music of the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht. He and Marinus Kasbergen co-authored the book ‘Bach en het getal’ (1985) and ‘Bach, die Kunst der Fuge en het getal’ (1989).
In the series ‘Van Taal tot Klank’, he went on to publish 14 books on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, with topics including the cross shape in the St Matthew Passion, the Hohe Messe and the Weihnachts-Oratorium.

As a concert organist, Kees van Houten has held numerous international performances. In addition, he gives lectures, workshops and interpretation training on Bach to professionals as well as to amateurs and laypeople in the Netherlands and beyond.

Kees van Houten was very closely involved in the preparation of the choreography of the Brandenburg Concertos.