Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
If I’m feeling a bit down, and in need of a quick pick-me-up, my musical drug of choice is Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major. After just a few bars of that cheerfully busy theme, I’ll be starting to smile, and by the time the trumpet starts its insane trilling my spirits are well and truly lifted. As a recorder player I have a special fondness for them, as they’re probably the best known works in our repertoire, and they were certainly the first pieces I ever heard that used the recorder as a proper orchestral solo instrument and I was inspired by them in my childhood.

The six concertos that we know as the “Brandenburgs” are associated with one of the happier periods of Bach’s life, the time he spent as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold of Köthen. Leopold was a great music lover, and was on a mission to create a musical establishment in his small German court that could rival what he had seen in Italy. He also had the funds to pay for it. On his appointment in 1717, Bach received a good salary, was treated almost as an equal by Leopold, and he had excellent musicians and instruments at his disposal. He was also, for the only time in his career, free from the rigours of the church timetable; as a Calvinist court, there was no music in the worship at Köthen, so Bach spent his time composing instrumental music.  

By 1721 things were changing for Bach. His first wife had died suddenly, in 1720, whilst Bach was away in Karlsbad. His sons were growing up and he felt he needed to be in a larger city with better educational prospects. He looked into a job in Hamburg but that fell through, and in March 1721 he sent a collection of six concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, a member of the Prussian royal family, including in his typically obsequious dedication a large hint that he was after a job at the court in Berlin. The concertos were not composed specifically for Christian Ludwig, and some of them may have been written as far back as Bach’s previous job in Weimar.

The influence of Italian composers, particularly Vivaldi, is evident in the virtuosic solo writing, the lyrical grace of the slow movements, and in Bach’s frequent use of a ritornello structure, where a striking introductory motif keeps returning through the movement. On the face of it, they follow the usual concerto grosso model – three movements, fast-slow-fast, and written for two or more solo instruments, and orchestra. The Brandenburgs are just not any old bog-standard Baroque concertos though; Bach’s genius for melody and counterpoint alone sees to that, but the further charm of the Brandenburgs lies in their delightful quirks of structure and instrumentation:

Brandenburg Concerto no. 1 in F major, BWV 1046

This has richest instrumentation of the set, scored for two horns, three oboes, bassoon, violino piccolo (a miniature violin), strings and continuo. It is also the only one that doesn’t follow the three movement structure –  there’s an extra fourth movement consisting of a set of dances and trios. The use of horns is unusual, and it’s fun to listen to how Bach blends them in and out of the texture. The second of the trios in the final movement, scored just for the oboes and horns, is reminiscent of Handel’s great outdoor music.

Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major, BWV 1047

Scored for recorder, clarino (natural trumpet), oboe and violin solos, this one is my personal favourite, and not just because of the recorder part. The thrilling and virtuosic trumpet part gives us an idea of the musical talent Bach had available to him in Köthen. The trumpet has to take a break in the second movement because the clarino can’t handle the key change that was standard practice for middle movements, but I imagine it’s a welcome rest too for the trumpeter’s lips. The first movement was included on the “golden discs” that were sent in the Voyager spaceship to represent the best of Earth’s achievements. I hope the aliens love it as much as I do.

Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

Although the third concerto is nominally in three movements, there’s a twist here, as the second movement consists of just two chords (a Phyrgian half-cadence to be precise, a common device in the Baroque for leading from a slow to fast movement). It can be taken as an indication that these chords simply indicate the end of an improvisation, and some recordings add a harpsichord or violin solo, or a suitable movement from another work. Like the sixth concerto, this one is scored just for strings but in a more conventional line-up.

Brandenburg Concerto no. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

This one has perhaps the oddest, most puzzling instrumentation, calling for two “Flauti d’Echo” in the solo group alongside a violin. There’s disagreement about what was exactly Bach meant by this, but it’s generally played on alto recorders. The gentle tones of the recorders, often moving together in thirds, contrast nicely with the fiercely energetic violin solo.

Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

Scored for flute and harpsichord, it’s really the harpsichord that dominates the fifth Brandenburg switching between its usual supporting continuo role and elaborate solo passages. There’s an extraordinary cadenza-like passage in the middle of the first movement, in which the harpsichord wanders off in an elaborate improvisation, teasing the listener as it steadfastly refuses to return to the original theme. Bach piles on the tension almost longer than you can possibly bear it, and when the orchestra finally returns with the theme, it’s the most marvellous release.

Here, it is played by an ensemble directed by Gustav Leonhardt, featuring the late Frans Brüggen on flute:

Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051

If someone were to write a “which Brandenburg concerto are you?” quiz, the quiet intellectual types would be given number six. It’s scored for strings only, with no violins, leaving a gentle blend of viola, viola da gamba, cello, violone and harpsichord. This combination of lower strings may suggest that the concerto was composed while Bach was in Weimar, because the cantatas from that time have similar instrumentation. In contrast to the high-octane excitement of the other five, this is a wonderfully calming eventide concerto.

The problem with Bach’s gift to Christian Ludwig was that he hadn’t really thought at all about the recipient. The court at Berlin wasn’t as musical as Prince Leopold’s establishment in Köthen and there simply weren’t the musicians capable of playing these concertos. The manuscript was put away in a cupboard, unused and forgotten, and no payment or acknowledgement was sent to Bach. The concertos were found in the archives in 1849 and published the following year, 100 years after Bach’s death. Much of Bach’s instrumental music, especially from his Köthen years is known to have been lost so we’re doubly lucky that the Brandenburgs ever reached us. It’s easy to wonder how many other masterpieces have been lost but rather than mourn what we don’t have, I’ll continue to take my dose of happiness from those six sunny, fortunate concertos.


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