This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach simply must be on any “top hits” list, and there may even be a legitimate argument that the entire list be dedicated to Bach. Such is his importance and position in the world of classical music.
Bach wrote the six Brandenburg concerti around the same time that he wrote his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, showcasing Bach’s preoccupation with numerology and symbolism. They were initially not very popular. Bach had written them as a resume-of-sorts in a kapellmeister job application for a local Duke. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he had applied for using the Brandenburg concerti, leading snarky commentators to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.” They now stand atop the world of music as some of the most foundational pieces ever written. They define the Baroque era of music while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that genre. They incorporate German, French, and Italian stylistic elements, and they feature a wide range of solo instruments.
You will hear the most famous of the Brandenburg concerti today. In this concerto, Bach utilizes the concerto grosso (small multi-movement ensemble featuring a group of soloists) format that gets introduced in the first concerto, but he decides not to feature a soloist. This was actually quite a controversial move, since the concerto grosso format was distinctly Italian (not his native German) and the featuring of soloists was considered a requirement of the genre. Bach, however, wasn’t deterred by the possibility of a negative public reaction. He continued to create controversy by adding something that we don’t often see until the mid-Classical period (18th century) – a cadenza (an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes). Listen for the lead violinist’s cadenza in the middle movement of this concerto.
We return this week to our mini-series on the piano trios of
Felix Mendelssohn to hear his Piano Trio #2 in C Minor.
You will hear four movements in this piece. They follow the
usual Romantic-era format: allegro, andante, scherzo, and finale. Mendelssohn
wrote this trio only two years before his untimely death in 1847 at the age of
This trio counteracts the lyricism and sublime beauty of the
first piano trio with a sombre, foreboding tonal scheme. Storms seem imminent
as the cello and piano trade their dark colors underneath violin’s tumultuous
worrying. The harmonic structure is never satisfied and shifts from one
tonality to another with unrelenting pace. Even the delicate second movement
contains these deep, dark sound colors.
However, the tumultuousness of the first three movements is dissipated in the upbeat finale (4th movement), which features as its main melody a tune that many know as the “Doxology,” a hymn often sung in churches around the world. Mendelssohn’s musical hero, J.S. Bach, apparently used this melody in one of his cantatas, and the young composer desired to use this melody as a form of homage to the father of classical music.
Glen Gould was one of the most important pianists of the 20th century. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould is regarded by most as one of the best in the world at interpreting the music of J.S. Bach. He was drawn from a young age to the intricate textures and complex polyphony of Bach’s music and – unlike every one of his contemporaries – had no interest in the standard Romantic repertoire. His vivid imagination enabled him to take his audience with him on fascinating journeys into Bach’s harmonic genius.
Gould was incredibly eccentric. For instance, he would not record unless the recording studio was heated to an almost unbearably high temperature. He would never play – in practice, recording, or a concert – with any other stool than the one his father had made for him in his childhood. He would never go outside, regardless of the season, without a hat and mittens on. Perhaps the most controversial of his eccentricities was his habit of humming or singing under his breath while he played. The habit was so unbreakable that he did it even while performing in concerts or recording sessions (he attributed this to his mother’s teaching him to “sing everything he played”). Many criticized his early recordings because they claimed that they could hear him humming in the background.
To me, the most amazing thing about Glen Gould is that he almost never practiced the piano. He studied his repertoire by reading it and mentally practicing it. In his view, physically playing the piano was one of the last steps in preparing a performance. As a musician who has practiced regularly for the past twenty years (and who is still nowhere near the level of Glen Gould), I find this concept of mental preparation fascinating. I’m sure his photographic memory helped him in this endeavor, but it is nonetheless interesting to think about the possible benefits of adopting his approach in our personal pursuits.
We are finishing our series on Bach’s Brandenburg concerti with the sixth concerto in B flat major. This concerto is Bach’s way of throwing the audience (as they say in Boston) a “wicked” curveball. For instance, he limited the 6th concerto’s ensemble to only strings and harpsichord – no wind instruments whatsoever. An even more shocking move is the exclusion of any violins from the concerto – only violas, violas da gamba, and cellos are utilized. Given the frequency with which Bach used the violin as the lead voice in the previous five concerti, this was a significant change. As a result of this change, the violas suddenly became the lead voice and the entire tonal register is lowered, creating a denser and more weighty sound.
You may remember our past series on Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello, in which we talked about his trailblazing effort to feature as a solo instrument an instrument that was, at that time, considered to be purely for accompaniment. We see this same trailblazing effort in the 6th Brandenburg concerto; this time, Bach is trying to highlight the oft-maligned viola.
P.S. Leave a comment and let me know what you would like to see in a future series!
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!
We are over half-way through the Brandenburg concerti!
The fourth concerto continues our journey through the orchestra by featuring flutes as two of the three solo instruments. As you will see in the video, Bach is referring to a Baroque flute rather than the modern flutes that we see in today’s orchestras. This flute was a type of flageolet, or tin-whistle, that was used during that time to teach pet birds how to sing. It has a very shrill and high-pitched sound that is usually at least one octave above the rest of the orchestra. Most ensembles today utilize the recorder as the closest approximation of its sound.
Despite the increased role given to the flutes, this is technically still a violin concerto. You will often hear the flutes echoing the violin solo line, which is the most difficult of all of the Brandenburg concerti. The violin will occasionally respond back, but most of the time it is leading the charge rather than following. The one exception to this is in the slower second movement, where the two flutes carry the melody for most of the movement. It is thought that the prevalence of the violin in these concerti reflects Bach’s perception of it as the closest approximation of the human voice.
The first two Brandenburg concerti have shown us that Bach is not afraid to embrace new styles (such as the Italian concerto grosso format) and is a master creating texture (remember the strange assortment of solo instruments in the second concerto?). As we will see, he will continue this exploration of new styles and sounds throughout the rest of the concerti.
Brandenburg #3 is no exception. Bach returns again to the concerto grosso format, but this time he does so without featuring a soloist. Is every instrument a soloist? Are none of them soloists? We’re not really sure, but we do know that the structure of the piece is unmistakably similar to concerti written by Antonio Vivaldi only a few years earlier. In Bach’s Germany, where the concerto format was seen as a remote and distasteful musical style, his embrace of it would have been very controversial.
Bach must have really loved controversy, because he didn’t just stop with his use of the concerto format. He also added a cadenza, another musical convention that was almost unheard of at this time. A cadenza is an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes. In this concerto, the cadenza replaces the middle movement and is played by the lead violinist.
Welcome back to our series on the Brandenburg concertos. This week will be hearing the second concerto, which features the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin as solo voices. This strange conglomeration of solo instruments becomes a delightful ensemble in Bach’s masterful hands. He expertly balances their different sonorities by including the most detailed dynamic markings in the entire set of six concerti. He also includes conversational elements with the entire orchestra to ensure that no one instrument overpowers the others (although in the final Allegro movement, it seems that he can’t help but let the trumpet loose at full strength for at least a few bars 🙂 .
You will notice right away that this concerto is much more virtuosic than the first concerto. Bach wastes no time in making sure we experience the power and range of the trumpet, whose part regularly soars above the accompanying orchestra during the first movement. The trumpet backs off, however, in the second movement, which features that same melancholy sighing theme that we heard in the first concerto. We also hear a fragment of the first concerto in the final movement of this concerto, which is structured as a fugue.
I found it interesting that Bach was writing the six Brandenburg Concertos at the same time he was writing his famous six solo sonatas for violin. He also wrote six miniatures for solo piano (much lesser known) and six sonatas for solo cello. This numerical pattern is typical of Bach, who was fascinated with numerology and was constantly experimenting with representations of numbers in his music.
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.