Bach, J.S.: Brandenburg Concertos 
No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047
No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051

Brandenburg Concertos 
No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047
No. 6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 21, 1685, and died in Leipzig, Saxony, on July 28, 1750. He wrote the six Brandenburg concertos not later than March 1721, probably at Cöthen. At their first performances, he presumably played the harpsichord solo in No. 5 and violin or viola in the others. The San Francisco Symphony first played No. 3 in February 1914 under Henry Hadley's direction. It was played here most recently in November 2009, with Alexander Barantschik leading. Duration: about twelve minutes. 

Concerto No. 2 was first performed here in February 1931 with Issay Dobrowen on the podium; the most recent performances, in February 2007, were led by Alexander Barantschik. Duration: about thirteen minutes.

Concerto No. 6 was introduced here in January 1973 with conductor Seiji Ozawa; Jaime Laredo led the most recent performances in April 1993. Duration: about eighteen minutes. All instrumentations listed in the program note are translated from Bach's autograph.

Bach was thirty-two when he assumed the position of Kapellmeister at the Court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen, in December 1717. It was a big decision for the composer, who already had a perfectly good job as orchestra leader for the Duke of Weimar, where he had worked since 1708. The Duke refused to accept Bach’s resignation and had him held under arrest for a month before he finally relented and let his orchestra leader go.

But the allures of Cöthen were substantial. Leopold’s passion for music was boundless. He was himself a reasonably accomplished performer on the viola da gamba and, to a lesser extent, as a violinist and harpsichordist. As a teenager the Duke had convinced his mother to start hiring a musical staff with whom he could play chamber music when he was at home in Cöthen, and by the time he assumed the throne himself the assemblage had grown into a full-fledged collegium musicum—essentially a small orchestra.

What Prince Leopold could offer Bach was a professional ensemble of three violinists, a cellist, a double-bassist, two flutists, an oboist, a bassoonist, two trumpeters, a timpanist, an organist, and three singers—and their numbers might be eked out by amateur musicians who held other positions at the court.

Many of Bach’s most buoyant instrumental works date from his years at Cöthen, including his Brandenburg Concertos and his violin concertos. The exact dating of these works is often problematic, since most of Bach’s Cöthen manuscripts are lost. The Brandenburg Concertos appeared as a collection of six discrete works, and they were, at least in part, Bach’s arrangements from earlier settings. The collection was assembled as a sort of job application. In 1721 Bach was in his fourth year as Prince Leopold’s musical director, and everything was going more-or-less swimmingly, but in that year the Prince married his cousin, the Princess of Anhalt-Bernburg. She reportedly disliked music, and Bach unquestionably disliked her.

On March 24, 1721, feeling the urgency to get out of Cöthen, Bach inscribed a servile dedication letter in courtly French to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, whom he had met a couple of years before and who he felt might be interested in hiring him. The letter—and the six concertos that accompanied it—seem never to have been acknowledged, and it is all but certain that the Margrave of Brandenburg never had the works performed. He probably couldn’t have, since they call for the instrumental forces of Anhalt-Cöthen, which surpassed those at the Margrave’s palace in Berlin.

Nonetheless, the name Brandenburg became attached to them many years later. Bach would remain in Cöthen until 1723, when he moved to Leipzig, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Though each of the six Brandenburg Concertos has a distinct character and employs a different combination of instruments, the set hangs together as a seemingly inevitable cycle. Perhaps we are simply projecting this characteristic on the Brandenburgs in retrospect; their music was certainly not conceived as a single span, at least at the outset, since some of their movements are simply Bach’s rearrangements of earlier works. In many ways the Brandenburg Concertos stand as a summa of the possibilities of the Baroque concerto grosso, pushing the genre’s boundaries to the outer limit and beyond. The Italianate solo concerto, the classic concerto grosso (pitting a “soloistic” group of players, or concertino, against a background ensemble, called the ripieno or tutti), the orchestral suite, smaller-scale chamber music—all come into play in the course of these six pieces.

These concerts shake up our accustomed perception of these thrice-familiar pieces by presenting them not in the order Bach assigned when he drew up his collection in 1721, but rather in a sequence that highlights the differences among them. Here concertos that emphasize the blend of orchestral sections (Nos. 3 and 6) are separated by one that capitalizes on solo virtuosity (No. 2).

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in F major (“for three violins, three violas, and three violoncelli, with bass for the harpsichord”), along with the First and the Sixth, can be taken to exemplify the emerging sense of what we recognize in retrospect as an orchestral style, stressing the textures of instrumental sections as they contrast and coalesce. These are concertos in the sense that the word was employed in the Baroque to mean a “coming together” of instruments. Here the instruments that come together are the strings, distributed in a way that departs markedly from Italianate concerto models. Knowing how fascinated Bach was with numerology, we keep our eyes peeled for reflections of that interest in his scores. Is it merely a coincidence that the Concerto No. 3 should be scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos (adding up to three instrumental sections), atop the inevitable continuo bass? The violinists and violists serve as both concertino and ripieno; in tutti sections the three players of each instrument (their ranks may be increased in orchestral performance) perform in unison, as a section, but in the contrasting episodes they go their separate ways as three soloists. The opening Allegro offers a magnificent example of what might be called “musical choreography,” in which the musical material is tossed from one instrumental group to another. In performance, the listener inevitably becomes a rapt viewer as well, watching the themes pass from violins to violas to cellos like a sonic volleyball. The closing movement, also an Allegro, is a high-spirited fugue that seems to ask the players to push the tempo to the limit. The two Allegros are connected by a musical mystery: a sequence of merely two chords forming an imperfect (or “Phrygian”) cadence. There is little agreement among musicians and musicologists about whether the chords should be played verbatim or whether they should close a movement inserted at the player’s discretion. In many performances today the harpsichordist interpolates a movement here—either an existing movement by Bach from a solo-harpsichord piece or an improvisation of his or her own—with the orchestra joining in to intone the final two chords before everyone leaps into the finale. Sometimes the concertmaster joins the harpsichordist at this spot for a movement from a Bach violin sonata. Still, it is odd that Bach should have placed a fermata over the second of the chords rather than the first; one could imagine an improvisation taking place above the first chord—i.e., prior to the harmonic resolution—but hardly after it. But the manuscript is clear in this regard and the whole question remains a puzzle without a certain solution.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (for “one trumpet, one flute, one oboe, one violin, all solo, and two violins, one viola and bass in the orchestra, with violoncello and bass for the harpsichord”) is the first of the set’s three concertos that exploit instrumental virtuosity. The piece calls for a solo group (the concertino) that interweaves against a background texture of strings and harpsichord (the ripieno). The natural trumpet of Bach’s time played at a generally higher pitch than standard modern trumpets do, yielding the unusual disposition of four solo instruments that operate in roughly the same register. This affords the composer opportunities to develop his material in close counterpoint while relying on the instruments’ distinct timbres to keep their various lines clearly defined. The strong rhythmic articulation of the opening Allegro yields to a more sinuous Andante in which the texture is reduced; and the concerto concludes with the entire ensemble offering a textbook four-part fugue that shows how much fun a good textbook can be.

After such a high-wire act, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (for “two violas, two violas da gamba, violoncello, bass, and harpsichord”) comes as a richly stuffed cushion, abjuring as it does hard edges and sonic brilliance in favor of an overall sense of enveloping luxury. Like the Third Brandenburg Concerto, this is a work for strings, though for an unusual combination of them. Violins are banished, leaving the top lines to a pair of warm-toned violas. Two violas da gamba fill in the middle ground of the texture, and a continuo group of harpsichord and some combination of low strings (bowed or plucked) handles the bottom part. The opening movement stands as a masterful display of contrapuntal skill in which Bach keeps his violists scurrying after one another in close canon. Even within this dense texture, solo instruments break out as a momentary concertino, usually as a group of two violas and cello. In the second movement Bach reduces the ensemble to a trio sonata for two violas and continuo, on which he bestows music of timeless, profound consolation. A rondo finale intersperses contrasting episodes among four statements of a buoyant, gigue-like ritornello. The movement’s structure, however, is more subtle than that suggests since the third interpolated episode mirrors the first. That yields an overall structure for the movement of A-B-A-C-A-B-A, a grand musical palindrome that brings the proceedings back to their beginning.

—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: A DVD with Gottfried von der Göltz directing the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the Castle of Cöthen, where Bach worked when he wrote these pieces (though they were apparently not performed there when they were new) (Euroarts)  |  Harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock directing the English Concert (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Rinaldo Alessandrini directing the Concerto Italiano (Naïve)  |  Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico (Teldec)  |  Jeanne Lamon leading Tafelmusik (Sony Classical Vivarte) 

Reading:  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Wolff (Norton)  |  J.S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd (Oxford Composer Companions series, Oxford)  |  Bach, by Boyd (Schirmer)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Bach, edited by John Butt (Cambridge)  |  The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, by Michael Marissen (Princeton)