Welcome to a new series! Over the next six weeks, we will be hearing the six Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach. These are some of the most well-known pieces of classical music ever written.
Despite their popularity, these concertos were not very popular during Bach’s lifetime. Even Bach himself did not think that they were worth very much – he intended them merely as his resume for a new job. Apparently, the Duke that he was working for at the time had recently remarried, and his new wife is not a fan of classical music. Faced with an increasingly shrinking role, Bach decided to seek employment elsewhere. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he applied for using these six concertos, leading snarky scholars everywhere to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.”
The first concerto, which we will hear today, is the only one of the six that does not follow the convention of a concerto grosso. This is a format that features two or more solo instruments accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble. It usually includes a fast movement at the beginning and the end and a slow movement in the middle, but this one has four movements. This format was made popular by Antonio Vivaldi, composer of the very famous Four Seasons, and much of the first concerto reflects characteristics of his style. For instance, Bach incorporates a violin piccolo, a tiny instrument played only in Italy and almost never heard in his native Germany. Bach also utilizes wind instruments to create a sound color more often associated with the Italian music of that time than the German music. However, he does not fail to provide his usual sampling of counterpoint genius, as well as the sound of hunting horns throughout the piece. See if you can pick them out! Another thing to listen for it is the sad, almost-weeping voice that occasionally is featured any violin and woodwind parts; this voice is repeated and the subsequent Brandenburg Concertos as well.