Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

On Monday we introduced Bach’s orchestral output by discussing his circumstances surrounding their composition. During his time in Cöthen, Bach dedicated the previously-composed Brandenburg Concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg at his request for music. Are you familiar with this work?
By going to this link, you can hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in their entirety played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
Of this set of six concertos, all but the first contain the standard three movement structure of the time. Listen for a fast movement followed by a slow movement, and ending with a second fast movement in the final five concertos. Bach also varies the type of concerto in each, some containing solo instruments, while others strictly remaining orchestral without the use of a soloist. When using a soloist, listen as Bach creates a sort of dialogue between the soloist and ensemble, almost as if they are carrying on a conversation.
Do you enjoy Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? What is your favorite of his orchestral pieces?


  1. They're ALL masterpieces, but I think No. 2 is my favorite. I'm pretty sure a recording of the first movement of this Concerto was included on the disc that is on the spacecraft Voyager, which is now venturing out of our solar system and I think is the farthest man-made thing from earth. What do you think, Jessica, about Sebastian's choice of solo instruments? The recorder paired with the trumpet is quite problematic in actual live performance. It's so hard for the piccolo trumpet to play softly enough to balance the other instruments -- especially up in the stratosphere where the part is written. I'm of course thinking of modern instrumentation. Do you know if the instrument in Bach's time was able to play softer?

  2. Thank you, Mark, for your comment and excellent question! You are correct, the first movement from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F was included on "The Golden Record" sent aboard the Voyager Spacecraft. To answer your question regarding instrumentation, instrument construction has undergone many changes since the Baroque period. The trumpet, for instance, saw the development of valves during the 19th century. Another change came with the use of larger concert halls rather than the smaller venues common in Bach's time. With this change came the need for the trumpet to project its sound to fill the larger space. Baroque trumpet specialist Kris Kwapis says that "From a physical point of view, the length of the Baroque trumpet is about twice that of the modern equivalent in the same key, and having a longer tube to resonate gives the player a bit more control over the sound produced. While the modern piccolo trumpet gained increased accuracy with the addition of valves, it is not without sacrificing the ability to play softly enough to easily balance a recorder, oboe, and violin. Trumpet players in the Baroque era were often prized more for their ability to play with a sweet sound like that of an oboe than merely for the dynamic power called for in larger symphonic works (i.e. Mahler, Bruckner, Stravinsky) and especially in the higher tessitura, the valveless trumpet can truly sing lightly and softly, making it a perfect complement for blending with the instruments Bach pairs it with in the second Brandenburg concerto and all of the other works he wrote with the trumpet in mind." I hope this helps answer your question!

  3. Wonderful Jessica! Thank you so much for the fascinating answer. -Mark