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Brandenburg concertos

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Johann Sebastian Bach

The Brandenburg concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach ( BWV 1046–1051, original title: Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments) are a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg- Schwedt, in 1721 (though probably composed earlier). They are widely regarded as among the finest musical compositions of the Baroque era.


The inscription of 24 March 1721 on the dedication manuscript to the Margrave, attests for the date of composition for the Brandenburg Concertos, but most likely they had been written over a number of years during Bach's tenure as Kapellmeister at Anhalt-Köthen and possibly even extending back to the period of his employment at Weimar (1708-17).

Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt (1710, Antoine Pesne)

The dedication page Bach wrote for the collection indicates they are Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concertos with several instruments). Bach used the "widest spectrum of orchestral instruments... in daring combinations," as Christoph Wolff has commented. "Every one of the six concertos set a precedent in scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel." Heinrich Besseler has noted that the overall forces required (leaving aside the first concerto, which was rewritten for a special occasion) tallies exactly with the players Bach had at his disposal in Köthen

Here is the first sentence of his dedication to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, its tone, if not its rather remarkable length, typical of dedications of the period:

"As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: 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."

Because King Frederick William I of Prussia was not a significant patron of the arts, Christian Ludwig seems to have lacked the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform the concertos. The full score was left unused in the Margrave's library until his death in 1734, when it was sold for 24 groschen (as of 2008, about US$22.00 of silver). The concertos were discovered in the archives of Brandenburg in the 19th century.

In the modern era these works have been performed by orchestras with the string parts each played by a number of players, under the batons of, for example, Karl Richter and Herbert von Karajan. They have also been performed as chamber music, with one instrument per part, especially by (but not limited to) groups using baroque instruments and historically-informed techniques and practice.

The individual concertos

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

Title on autograph score: Concerto 1mo à 2 Corni di Caccia, 3 Hautb: è Bassono, Violino Piccolo concertato, 2 Violini, una Viola è Violoncello, col Basso Continuo.

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro
  4. Menuet - Trio I - Menuet da capo - Polacca - Menuet da capo - Trio II - Menuet da capo

Instrumentation: two corni da caccia, three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo, and two violins, viola, cello, and basso continuo.

This concerto is the only one in the collection with four movements. An earlier version (Sinfonia, BWV 1046a) which does not use the violino piccolo was used for the opening of cantata BWV 208. This version lacks the third movement entirely, and the Polacca from the final movement, leaving Menuet - Trio I - Menuet - Trio II - Menuet. The first movement can also be found as the sinfonia of the cantata BWV 52, Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht. The third movement was used as the opening chorus of cantata BWV 207.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047

Title on autograph score: Concerto 2do à 1 Tromba, 1 Fiauto, 1 Hautbois, 1 Violino concertati, è 2 Violini, 1 Viola è Violone in Ripieno col Violoncello è Basso per il Cembalo.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro assai

Concertino: trumpet in F, recorder, oboe, violin

Ripieno: two violins, viola, violone, and basso continuo (including harpsichord).

This piece was almost certainly written with the court trumpeter in Cöthen, Johann Ludwig Schreiber, in mind. The trumpet part is still considered one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire, played on either the natural or the modern valved trumpet.

The trumpet does not play in the second movement, as is common practice in baroque era concerti due to the construction of the instrument, which allows the trumpet to play only in one key. Because concerti often move to a different key in the second movement, the trumpet is unable to play.

This piece was also chosen to be the first on the list of songs to be played on the "golden record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of planet Earth's common sounds, languages, and music. The record was sent into outer space with the Voyager probe launched September 5, 1977 in hopes that some intelligent extraterrestrial species might find and decode its contents.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

Title on autograph score: Concerto 3zo a tre Violini, tre Viole, è tre Violoncelli col Basso per il Cembalo.

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro

Instrumentation: three violins, three violas, three cellos, and basso continuo (including harpsichord).

The second movement consists of a single measure with the two chords that make up a Phrygian mode cadence and—although there is no direct evidence to support it—it was likely that these chords are meant to surround or follow a cadenza improvised by a harpsichord or violin player. Modern performance approaches run a gamut from simply playing the cadence with minimal ornamentation (treating it as a sort of "musical semicolon"), to inserting movements from other works, to cadenzas varying in length from under a minute to over two minutes. Notably, Wendy Carlos's three electronic performances (from Switched-On Bach, Switched-On Brandenburgs, and Switched-On Bach 2000) have second movements that are completely different from each other.

Occasionally, the third movement from Bach's "Sonata for Violin and Continuo in G , BWV. 1021" (marked Largo) is substituted for the second movement as it contains an identical Phrygian mode cadence as the closing chords. The Adagio from the Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1019a, has also been used.

The outer movements use the ritornello form found in many instrumental and vocal works of the time. The first movement can also be found in reworked form as the sinfonia of the cantata BWV 174, "Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte", with the addition of three oboes and two horns.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

Title on autograph score: Concerto 4ta à Violino Principale, due Fiauti d'Echo, due Violini, una Viola è Violone in Ripieno, Violoncello è Continuo.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Presto

Concertino: violin, two recorders

Ripieno: two violins, viola, cello, violone and basso continuo

The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. In the second movement, the violin provides a bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied.

Bach adapted the 4th Brandenburg concerto as the last of his set of 6 harpsichord concertos, the concerto for harpsichord, two recorders and strings in F major, BWV 1057. As well as taking on most of the solo violin's role, the harpsichord also takes over some of the recorders' parts in the andante, plays a basso continuo role at times and occasionally adds a fourth contrapuntal part to an originally three-part texture (something which Bach occasionally did while improvising). The harpsichord concerto is thus more than a mere transcription.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

Title on autograph score: Concerto 5to d une Traversiere, une Violino principale, une Violino è una Viola in ripieno, Violoncello, Violone è Cembalo concertato.

  1. Allegro
  2. Affettuoso
  3. Allegro

Concertino: harpsichord, violin, flute

Ripieno: violin, viola, cello, violone, ( harpsichord).

The harpsichord is both a concertino and a ripieno instrument: in the concertino passages the part is obbligato; in the ripieno passages it has a figured bass part and plays continuo.

This concerto makes use of a popular chamber music ensemble of the time (flute, violin, and harpsichord), which Bach used on their own for the middle movement. It is believed that it was written in 1719, to show off a new harpsichord by Michael Mietke which Bach had brought back from Berlin for the Cöthen court. It is also thought that Bach wrote it for a competition at Dresden with the French composer and organist Louis Marchand; in the central movement, Bach uses one of Marchand's themes. Marchand fled before the competition could take place, apparently scared off in the face of Bach's great reputation of virtuosity and improvisation.

The concerto is well suited throughout to showing off the qualities of a fine harpsichord and the virtuosity of its player, but especially in the lengthy solo ' cadenza' to the first movement. It seems almost certain that Bach, considered a great organ and harpsichord virtuoso, was the harpsichord soloist at the premiere. Scholars have seen in this work the origins of the solo keyboard concerto; indeed it is said to be the first-ever example.

An earlier version, BWV 1050a, has innumerable small differences from its later cousin, but only two main ones: there is no part for cello, and there is a shorter and less elaborate harpsichord cadenza in the first movement. (The cello part in BWV 1050, when it differs from the violone part, doubles the left hand of the harpsichord.)

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051

Title on autograph score: Concerto 6to à due Viole da Braccio, due Viole da Gamba, Violoncello, Violone e Cembalo.

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio ma non troppo
  3. Allegro

Instrumentation: two violas da braccio, two violas da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord

The absence of violins is unusual. Viola da braccio means the normal viola, and is used here to distinguish it from the " viola da gamba". When the work was written in 1721, the viola da gamba was already an old-fashioned instrument: the strong supposition that one viola da gamba part was taken by his employer, Prince Leopold also points to a likely reason for the concerto's composition—Leopold wished to join his Kapellmeister playing music.

The two violas start the first movement with a vigorous subject in close canon, and as the movement progresses, the other instruments are gradually drawn into the seemingly uninterrupted steady flow of melodic invention which shows the composer's mastery of polyphony. The two violas da gamba are silent in the second movement, leaving the texture of a trio sonata for two violas and continuo, although the cello has a decorated version of the continuo bass line. In the last movement, the spirit of the gigue underlies everything, as it did in the finale of the fifth concerto.

Popular culture

As with other familiar works of classical music, the Brandenburg concertos have repeatedly been mined for use in film scores and as theme music for television programs. The three movements of Concerto No. 3 were the featured tracks for the 1968 electronic music album, Switched-On Bach.

The first movement of the second concerto is the first selection of music placed upon the Voyager Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft. The third movement of the same concerto was also the theme for William F. Buckley's television talk show, Firing Line. The third concerto was used as the original theme of the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow. The first movement of the fifth concerto appeared in the soundtrack of the 1995 film The American President. The beginning of the third movement of the sixth concerto is the theme jingle for American Public Media. In 1968, progressive rock group The Nice adapted the third concerto into a piece of music entitled Brandenburger. Keith Emerson also used the sixth concerto for an instrumental solo in The Nice's adaptation of Bob Dylan's Country Pie. In 1999, the opening bars of Concerto #6 (last movement), were sampled by the hip-hop artists "Handsome Boy Modeling School" and are heard on their track "Look at this Face".

In his 1987 novel, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams implies that the Brandenburg Concertos, and presumably all of Bach's work, were actually copied from the massive computer core of an alien satellite (this satellite was set to record every detail of the universe and convert it into a Symphony of Life over 4 billion years ago) by the title character and given to a little-known composer: J.S Bach.

Brandenburg Concertos is also heard in an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As they listen to the piece during tea time, Uncle Phil, played by James Avery, comments to his daughter, Ashley, about the brilliance of the Brandenburg Concertos. Jazz, making his first appearance on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, rudely interrupts the piece and is subsequently thrown out of the house.

Also Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, 1st Movement is featured in the 'X Files' Season 2, episode 1 'Little Green Men' and concerto number 4 is featured in 'Conduit' in the same series. Concerto No. 3, 1st Movement is used in the 1988 film Die Hard, during the scene where John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) first enters the office party taking place in the Nakatomi Plaza.

In his 1962 novel Island, Aldous Huxley makes a reference to Concerto No. 4 when the novel's leading character, Will Farnaby, is given the moksha-medicine. The introduction to this piece of music assists him in his passage to enlightenment.

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