Friday, November 18, 2005
J S Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, background
Perhaps the most important orchestral work of Bach's service at Cothen (1717-1723) was a collection of six concertos. The set was written as the result of a wish expressed by Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg, that Bach provide some music for his private orchestra. The works were completed early in 1721 and were sent to the margrave with an elaborate dedication in French under the title, "Six concerts avec plusieurs instruments. . . ." They are at once Bach's earliest large orchestral works and his finest accomplishments in this field. In style, content, and expressive intent they are as diverse as their instrumentation. No two are alike, and they contain virtually a summary of concerto developments up to Bach's time.
Considered in the light of the modern orchestral ideal, the first two "Brandenburg Concertos" offer the greatest variety of tone color and instrumental contrast. However, instead of supplying individual color to the thematic material or to the implied harmony of the continuo, there is a wholesale duplication of polyphonic lines. This typical Baroque technique of instrumentation merely reinforces the contrapuntal strands, as various stops might be added to organ registration for the same purpose.
In Bach's orchestral music, again in typical Baroque style, dynamic contrasts were planned sectionally ("terraced") rather than the later Romantic concept of expressive dynamics between instrument and instrument or from measure to measure. Where there are major timbral contrasts it is between large structural elements. One instrumental scheme usually carries through an entire section or movement. This is in contrast, of course, with the more modern practice of constantly shifting the instrumental tone-colors. That is, Bach's orchestrational style is compositional and contrapuntal rather than coloristic.
The remaining concertos of the set differ greatly from each other, especially in instrumentation. The outstanding characteristic of the Brandenburg concertos, however, is their great variety of textures, form, and moods. It is difficult to exaggerate the technical perfection of these works; yet their ability to provide listening pleasure is equally great. The sheer exuberance of many of the movements, and the restrained dignity of others, combined with their richness in instrumental color and texture, make this set of works unique in the literature. Among Bach's first attempts at writing for instruments alone, they represent an amazing accomplishment. In no later orchestral works did he transcend the expressive levels he attained here, and seldom did he equal them.
A further note--if the "Brandenburgs" were truly among his earliest instrumental works, then he would have had to have created them initially during his Weimar period, during which he may have written the outstanding sonatas and partitas for violin. Given Bach's conscientious devotion to composing and the uselessness of Lutheran sacred music in Calvinist Anhalt-Cöthen, it is likely that he composed dozens (if not hundreds) of other instrumental works between 1717 and the Brandenburg dedication in 1721.
Sources (among others): "Johann Sebastian Bach: the Learned Musician", by Christoph Wolff; "The True Life of J. S. Bach," by Klaus Eidam (translated by Hoyt Rogers)
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