The fifth Brandenburg Concerto finally features an instrument other than the violin. Here we meet for the first time Bach’s favorite “modern” instrument, the harpsichord. During his time, the harpsichord was so rare that Bach had to special order it from the original manufacturer. The date that the harpsichord arrived aligns very closely with what music historians believe to be a flurry of harpsichord compositions.
This concerto showcases yet again Bach’s amazing ability to blend his native German style with the Italian concerto grosso style that he so admired. We see again the existence of multiple solo instruments (including, for the first time, the harpsichord) and a constant “continuo” from the rest of the orchestra.
However, the fifth concerto shows us a Bach that is taking more liberties than usual. He gives the soloists more to do. He gives the harpsichord the daunting task of maintaining the running line, even when most of the other restaurants are grinding to a halt. He creates miniature ensembles within the orchestra that carry on internal conversations throughout the piece. Most notably, he experiments for the first time in history with an unprecedented freedom of solo function. In other words, no one had ever created a free-flowing solo line the way Bach did with the harpsichord in this concerto. Listen for the remarkable liberty that the harpsichord has (and the other instruments do not have) to stretch the tempo.
You will hear one theme in particular throughout all of the movements (particularly the first and last movement). Its continual reappearance is Bach’s way of grounding the concerto and providing it with a home base. This repeated theme is called the “ritornello.” See if you can identify how many times it appears in the first movement!