On March 24, 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach completed the Brandenburg Concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt.
The concertos belong to the genre of concerto grosso, popular during the Baroque period. This was structured as the concertino small group of soloists playing instruments selected for their distinct color, accompanied by a larger group of instruments known as the ripieno. Playing together in contrast or in combination, the concertino section and the ripieno ensemble created a mixture of musical colors.
Bach is revered as the greatest composer of all time for his ability to consistently break the mold of tradition in ingenious ways. By selecting a wide range of instruments to stand out in different pieces within the collection, Bach was able to demonstrate his command of the distinctive voice of the instruments commonly used in court ensembles.
Photo: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Public Domain
In Concerto No. 1, Bach immediately parts with convention by starting the whole collection with all instruments playing in concert, and achieves a sublime symphonic opening where the more intimate atmosphere typical of court chamber music would traditionally have been employed. The piece closes with a minuet, reminiscent of the elegance of traditional Baroque court music.
Being closest to the concerto grosso form, the concertino section in No. 2 is an eclectic selection of four instruments with very different sounds — a valveless natural trumpet with the sound of a hunting horn, the recorder, the oboe and the violin — creating a unique effect.
Intriguingly, Concerto No. 3 is without a concertino, being a string ensemble accompanied by basso continuo: violin, viola, cello, with three of each, interweaving and conversing with one another.
The concertino section in Concerto No. 4 comprises two flauti d’echo (echo flutes) and a violin: The two woodwind instruments play in sequence and follow the violin melody, creating an echo effect.
Perhaps Bach’s most audacious innovation appears in Concerto No. 5, in which the harpsichord, traditionally serving as accompaniment, takes the lead. In this, the whole piece paves the way for subsequent concertos for keyboard instruments.
Concerto No. 6 once again lacks a concertino section, but this time is even without violins. The combination of violas and a variety of different Baroque viols creates a dark, brooding effect.
The Brandenburg Concertos were, essentially, Bach’s resume for applying to a position in the Prussian court to further his career. Once received, however, the manuscript was stored in the Margrave’s library, and was not to be published until more than a hundred years later, when the manuscript was rediscovered. They never would be played in the Margrave’s court.
(Paul Cooper and Chang Ho-ming, Taipei Times)
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