Bach's Six Brandenburg Concertos are essential and enduringly popular works in the Baroque orchestral repertory, full of interesting instrumentation choices and dancing melodies. Under the direction of prize-winning Bach specialist John Butt O.B.E., the ensemble has become particularly acclaimed for its inquisitive approach, shining new light into some of the best known pieces of the Baroque repertoire.
J.S. Bach: Six Brandenburg Concertos
While we know that Bach finished a sumptuous manuscript of six concertos (for ‘plusieurs instruments', as he titled it) in March 1721 for presentation to the Margrave of Brandenburg, it is not certain when Bach actually composed these works. The survival of early versions of some pieces suggests that Bach adapted these from a pool of existing works but others might have been freshly written. His aims in revision and compilation seem to have been to present six entirely disparate examples of the instrumental concerto, a genre which was by no means fixed and which could imply many instrumental combinations. Bach's tendency to produce encyclopaedic surveys of multiple musical genres was becoming a major compositional habit and his Brandenburg collection was closely followed by the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
The term ‘concerto' was rather widely used in Bach's day; he employed it most frequently on the title pages to most of the works we now call ‘cantatas', as a way of denoting those sacred works in which instruments and voices participated (‘concerted') together. Early definitions of the concerto genre alternatively (and ambiguously) translated the term as ‘agreement' and ‘disputation'. Nevertheless this contradiction does give a useful sense of the dynamics of concerto writing: the very differentiation of forces into ‘tutti' and ‘solo' groups generates an immediate sense of opposition, but the composer's task is to render this opposition productive and ‘agreeable'. Thus, although some concertos veer towards the ‘agreement' model (e.g. Nos. 3 and 6) and others towards the ‘disputation' model (Nos. 4 and, especially 5), it is perhaps most useful to see both concepts working simultaneously. What gives these concertos their particular fascination is the sense that they are highly structured but, paradoxically, also among the most carefree, joyous and spontaneous works that Bach ever produced. Somehow he manages to evoke a ‘norm' for each movement - as if the modern Italian concerto genre were more standardized than it actually was - and immediately subverts any expectations that the norm was meant to bring. In all, the genres of Bach's oeuvre show a fluidity and subtlety that we are still only just appreciating as we come to realise that the textbook is not necessarily the best route to musical appreciation.
The first concerto is immediately prominent for its use of the two ‘hunting' horns, those instruments most associated with the privilege of royal courts. Hunting was a particular metaphor in German states, which were basically a multiplicity of small courts (such as that at Cöthen where Bach worked: a small town, castle and - even today - lots of cows). Only the largest states such as Saxony and Prussia had real military pretensions, so the activity of hunting stood in for military might. The horn players (who were normally also the trumpeters) were the highest paid musicians and the more - and the better - a prince could afford, the more sumptuous his court appeared. Having said that, this concerto would still work were they to be omitted and this has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of Bach's critique of social hierarchy (see the work of Michael Marissen, in particular). On the other hand, the horns contribute immensely to the style and ethos of the piece with their unabashed hunting calls. Indeed, Bach seems to have gone out of his way to make the horns clash against the rest of the texture.
An oddity about this concerto is the way the balance of the solo instruments seems to change in the course of the piece - perhaps a sign of the diverse origins of the work (an early version survives which lacks the third movement and part of the last). But it might equally represent Bach's way of demonstrating the diversity and malleability of the genre at the outset of the collection. The piccolo violin (tuned a third higher than the standard string pitch for these concertos) first comes to prominence in the second movement, a beautiful, affecting lament that - with its piquant cross-relations - seems to all but follow a text which lies just beyond our ears. In the third movement the high violin appears in a more virtuosic light, but after this point it disappears again. This movement is also known as the opening chorus of the secular Cantata 207, ‘Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten', in which vocal parts seem to have been added to the instrumental texture. However, if Malcolm Boyd's guess is right, both this and the Brandenburg version might go back to an earlier vocal model. Thus what we hear as the third movement of the first concerto might actually be the instrumental arrangement of a chorus - something which points to the wider concept of ‘concerto', embracing vocal, as well as instrumental, music. This suggests that we should not think of these concertos purely as abstract, absolute music: their gestures, moods and rhetorical structure should perhaps be seen in a similar light to texted music.
The first concerto, uniquely, presents a fourth movement, a set of dances interspersed with repetitions of a French-style minuet. Just as vocal and instrumental genres were closer to one another than we might think, so too were the genres of ‘Italian' concerto and ‘French' suite. Not only does the return-structure of the minuet parallel the ritornello form of an Italian concerto movement, dances sometimes form the basis of the longer concerto movements (the third movement of this concerto has many of the characteristics of a passepied, that of the sixth concerto is like a gigue).
The second concerto seems to explore the utmost diversity of solo instruments but with the greatest amount of ‘agreement' between them. The solo group might initially appear an almost irresponsible choice: trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin. Not only is this representative of each instrumental family but it would also have challenged the hierarchy of the musicians in the court Kapelle at Cöthen. For instance, the trumpeter would probably have been the most highly paid and respected musician while the recorder would usually have been played by the most lowly of court musicians (although he could also have been an oboist, and thus of higher status). Moreover, each player must continually make compromises to match the other instruments in tone, style or dynamic. Bach is quite relentless in insisting that each solo instrument play in turn the same melodic material, regardless of the techniques employed or the status of the player. For instance, both oboe and recorder have to play the ‘string crossing' passages that first appear on the violin, the trumpet has to play the same agile melodic figuration as all the other instruments. In all, there is a sense in which all the players have to go through the same ‘eye of the needle'.
The first movement follows the ubiquitous ritornello style, in which the opening, tutti section is restated in various keys and environments, like the pillars of a building or the central point of a speech. But this skeleton is fleshed out in a highly individual way: the ‘subsidiary' material is often central to the solo episodes and much of this returns at later junctures - so it is thus of equal importance to the ritornello theme (interestingly the final iteration of one of these passages reveals a prominent B-A-C-H pattern in the bass). In other words, Bach shows the same subtlety in the pacing out the events of the movement as he does in his ability to combine themes simultaneously; he produces a much weightier level of musical discourse than the age would normally require.
The central movement is a rare example of a quartet by Bach (virtually all his chamber music presents a trio texture) in which the melodic line is shared among the upper three instruments. Their work rather resembles a mosaic in presenting a picture that would more usually be created by much simpler means. Should the trumpeter feel peeved at being excluded from the slow movement, the final movement provides ample compensation since here the trumpet takes the lead with the fugal subject. Of all Bach's fast movements, this one most belies the belief that the fugue is a dry, academic process; it works more like a sparkling conversation or a spirited chase in which we always expect the next entry of the subject but are somehow surprised when it arrives. Here the accompanying string parts are more or less cosmetic; while they provide some shading and emphasis, much of the time they could be omitted without major damage to the musical argument.
The third concerto comes closest to fulfilling the ‘agreement' definition of the concerto, with the opening movement comprising the interplay of the three choirs of three violins, violas and cellos and the last retaining the format of three violins and violas but with the cellos consolidated with the continuo. What is sacrificed in terms of solo virtuosity is amply compensated by the fleet interplay of forces, a kaleidoscopic celebration of the entire violin family.
The first movement is loosely based on the type of da capo form associated with sonatas. But here there is also an overall sense of dramatic intensification during the course of the movement, and the return of the opening section is modified with new gestures and some unexpected turns of event. The two cadential chords constituting the second movement (‘Adagio') certainly do not refer to a piece that has since been lost since they come on the middle of a page in the presentation autograph. Perhaps, given the complexity and intensity of the movements on either side, they should be played precisely as they stand, as if the slow movement has simply vaporised. Or perhaps, in the manner of Handel's later organ concertos, they signify a solo improvisation. There is certainly a sense throughout the collection that Bach played on the expectations and conventions of concerto writing, and here is an opportunity to render this movement in a number of different ways.
The third movement is, unusually for Bach's finales, a piece in binary form with each of the two halves repeated. Here there is a definite element of virtuosity, but transferred from the customary soloist to the entire ensemble. Never again in the history of the concerto has there been such a piece that maintains the dazzle of the concerto idiom without profiling a single soloist.
The fourth concerto opens with an extensive section which not only introduces the basic material for the movement but also reveals the instrumental argument: a solo group is contrasted with the rest of the orchestra and within this solo group there is a dialogue between the two recorders and the violin. This functions as a microcosm of the work as a whole, containing its own contrasts, departures and returns; only at the end of the movement do we hear it again complete. Rather than simply confining the solos to the episodes, Bach dislocates the solo argument from the ritornello structure: we simply cannot predict when the soloists will be strongly profiled, they are continually weaving in and out of the larger orchestral texture.
The second movement introduces a new concept in Bach's concertos: here there is a close dialogue between the solo group and the tutti in which the contrast is highlighted by dynamics rather than melodic material. The piece thus plays on the concepts of repetition, together with light and shade. With the final movement we hear yet another interpretation of the concerto style: the opening ritornello is essentially a fugue, the subject of which can subsequently be used in a variety of ways. Indeed there are only a few places where it is entirely absent. Thus the expected contrast of ritornello and episode is replaced by frequent contrasts of instrumentation, the fuller expositions of the subject providing the tutti sonority usually associated with the ritornello. Furthermore another traditional feature of the concerto - virtuosity - is provided by the violin part, something which by its very nature turns a fugue - brilliant enough on its own terms - into a dazzling concerto movement.
The fifth concerto presents a more complex hierarchy of players than most - the three soloists must establish their own mutual relationships in addition to their relation to the ensemble as a whole. These three are a somewhat unlikely group: while the violin is usual enough, the transverse flute was a very new instrument in German orchestras in 1721, an import from the trendsetting court of France. Most peculiar of all, though, is the appearance of the harpsichord in the solo group: the keyboard was perfectly familiar as a solo instrument, or as a continuo ‘chord-filler' within an orchestral texture, but was quite new as a concerto soloist. The comparatively thin tone of the instrument doubtlessly rendered it unsuitable to carry a solo line, but the construction of larger instruments, and, particularly the court's well-documented acquisition of a large harpsichord from Michael Mietke of Berlin in 1719, might well have accounted for Bach's ground-breaking experiment (and Dunedin are exceptionally fortunate in having acquired a modern copy of a large Mietke instrument, built by Bruce Kennedy).
The keyboard is hardly coy in its first appearance within a concerted context; it is accorded the most virtuosic writing, quite often dominating the texture of the other two instruments. Nevertheless, it does not, initially, have significantly more thematic material, so its exuberance barely affects the fairly standard course of the piece. However, in the closing minutes of the first movement, the harpsichord takes over entirely, presenting a frenzied cadenza that all but forsakes the principal motives and melodies. Only at the last minute does the opening ritornello return to restore order. Several interpretations of this state of affairs are possible: one theory (from Susan McClary) suggests that the keyboard, as normally the ‘servant' of the other, solo instruments, overthrows the existing hierarchy. Michael Marissen suggests that this might rather reflect Bach's belief that all humans are created equal under God and that even established earthly orders are only temporary. In terms of the experience of this movement, it might stir up a fevered desire for closure, something which has been continually frustrated throughout the course of the movement. There is also the obvious historical fact that, by the early eighteenth century, the keyboard had been established as the instrument of the composer, the one through which one would normally learn the principles of harmony, and the only one capable of comfortably presenting the entire musical texture.
The second movement is a trio for the three solo instruments alone - the point at which the concerto genre comes closest to the sonata. This scoring does not seem so unusual when it is considered that the majority of Bach's concertos were almost certainly originally performed with only a single instrument on each line: in other words, every instrument is, in a sense, a soloist. The final movement is an exceedingly vivacious gigue, which, like the opening movement of the fourth concerto, presents both a ritornello form and a large-scale da capo of the opening section. The keyboard is considerably better behaved than in the first movement, sharing out the solo sections with the other instruments. Nevertheless, it still has the fastest note-values.
Many scholars have speculated as to the origins and age of each concerto: there is a case for dating the sixth concerto to the earliest stage of the composition since it seems to be a ‘group concerto' employing supposedly archaic instruments, the two violas da gamba. Nevertheless Bach may purposely have been mixing ‘ancient' and ‘modern' elements to create a work that was as unique in its form as in its musical ideas. The parts for viola da gamba may have been designed with Bach's employer, Prince Leopold I of Anhalt-Köthen, in mind; he was, after all, an enthusiastic amateur of the instrument and the parts are relatively simple. This would also suggest a more recent composition.
The opening movement employs the ritornello form of the modern Vivaldi concerto and it contains several textural contrasts to give the illusion of solo-tutti forces. The ritornello technique here is one of Bach's most ingenious: virtually everything counts as ritornello since so much is reused during the course of the movement. Another interesting device is the canonic writing for violas at the outset, by which the two chase one another directly at a very close distance, something which provides an extremely dramatic atmosphere that infects the entire movement. As is so often the case in these concertos, Bach employs the most ‘learned' of compositional devices to tremendous aural and dramatic effect - perhaps it is this combination of skill and insight that places him so extraordinarily high in the western tradition.
The second movement is essentially a sonata trio, another example of the close relation between concerto and sonata genres, by which the concerto becomes more intimate without losing its ‘public' perspective. The intensity of the melody with its downward leap of a seventh also immediately evokes the human voice. While the da capo form of the final movement originated in the aria genre and the gigue-like idiom came from dance, the elaborated repetitions of the opening phrases recall some of the oldest instrumental idioms, in which players traditionally improvised embellishments over a given melody. But here again Bach mixes the conventions: the violas da gamba, traditionally associated with the performance of divisions, have comparatively simple parts, while the most virtuosic writing is assigned to those most shy - and derided - of stringed instruments, the violas.
Notes on performance practice
This recording reflects some of the recent debates about how the Brandenburg Concertos might have been performed in Bach's Cöthen. Nevertheless, there is little surviving performance material for specific Cöthen performances (apart from the surviving parts for an earlier version of the fifth concerto). And it is by no means clear that these six were ever identified as a set for Cöthen purposes - although they roughly match the small band of expert players on the court's roster. Bach reused several parts of the collection in later years, and in different ways, so it would be wrong to infer that he envisioned only one way of playing them.
What seems likely for Cöthen, given the small corpus and high expertise of the players, is that all the parts were played by single instruments. Thus there was a very close correlation between chamber and orchestral textures, just as Bach combined concerto and sonata conventions. Secondly, it is likely that Cöthen's principal pitch standard was lower than those for most other places in Bach's career (the most comprehensive study is by Bruce Haynes).
The evidence is partial but telling: Cöthen cantatas often seem to be very high in notated pitch for the vocalists (see, for example, Cantata 174a, ‘Durchlauchtster Leopold'); there are several surviving instruments set around the lower pitch standard from this part of Germany. Moreover, French court pitch was lower than the ‘Kammerton' that was becoming common in municipal centres such as Bach's Leipzig (which would correspond roughly to today's frequent choice of A' 415Hz), and many courts attempted to emulate French practice. Thus for this recording we have - in common with some other groups in recent years - adopted A' 392Hz as the basic pitch (‘tief-Cammerton', i.e. a whole tone below modern concert pitch and a semitone below A' 415Hz). While Cöthen court pitch was likely to have been somewhere near this, it is unlikely that pitch was ever standardized as precisely as we might often assume or wish.
The low pitch - which adds an element of technical complexity - does have several significant effects on the sound of the performance. First, it is perhaps more suited to smaller rooms than the higher pitch levels, which tend to render the music more penetrating, but it brings a warmth and glow to the sound that is well suited to the euphonious textures of the Brandenburg Concertos. Secondly, it tends to encourage a slightly slower but more subtle articulation for most instruments, which means that both fast and slow tempi can generate a rich array of note shapes and dynamic shadings. Several other things might be implied by the lower pitch: the trumpet part of Brandenburg 2 becomes marginally easier to handle, thus opening up more possibilities for expressive detail, and the piccolo violin of Brandenburg 1, sounding a minor third above the other instruments, now comes within the range of the high-pitched ‘church' violins (at ‘Chorton', which was often the pitch of church organs, roughly a semitone above modern pitch, at A=465Hz). While it is possible that this part was designed for one of the very small violins, customarily used for dancing, it could simply refer to a slightly smaller instrument designed for church use.
This recording exploits a further possibility opened by the lower pitch, one devised by our violone player, William Hunt. Having played the viol parts in Brandenburg 6 many times, he has observed that the key of Bb Major does not permit the instrument's rich sympathetic open-string vibration to be exploited as effectively as it would be in D or G. This becomes feasible if, rather like the Chorton piccolo violin in Brandenburg 1, the viols were also Chorton instruments, and were thus tuned up a third). In places, full G Major and D Major chords can be held down with lute fingering to generate the richest possible sound (this applies to broken chord figures in Movement 3, in particular, but also to single repeated notes that belong to one of the chords enhanced by sympathetic open strings).
While there is no direct evidence to support such a hypothesis, this tuning may well have been more feasible for the technique of Prince Leopold, should he have been the first player in one of Bach's performances (i.e. playing a minor third lower than the pitch notated in the score). Moreover, William has uncovered at least one clear error in Bach's score, in the first gamba part, which might point to its having been originally notated a third lower. He also adopts the Chorton tuning for the violone, which permits the instrument (at 8' pitch, as long established by the research of Laurence Dreyfus) to be played lower in its range, and thus providing a richer complement for the cello, which plays at the same register; now the lowest note in the piece becomes the open bottom string. © John Butt, 2013
The Dunedin Consort:
John Butt - Director and Harpsichord
Cecilia Bernardini - Violin
Pamela Thorby - Recorder
David Blackadder - Trumpet
Alexandra Bellamy - Oboe
Catherine Latham - Recorder
Katy Bircher - Flute
Jane Rogers - Viola
Alfonso Leal del Ojo - Viola
Jonathan Manson - Violoncello