Bach Playlist: The Brandenburgs

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
June 16, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Bach wrote his six Brandenburg Concertos for the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, possibly hoping to secure employment in the margrave's court. Lacking the necessary virtuosic players, the margrave never heard the concertos, and the manuscripts weren't published until 1850, one-hundred years after Bach's death.

Typically, when we think of a "concerto" we think of an orchestra along with a soloist. The Brandenburgs are so-named for the woven web of solos passed around the ensemble throughout each piece.

If a composer, like Bach, chooses to use multiple soloists from inside the orchestra, rather than one soloist in front of the ensemble, it is usually referred to as a concerto grosso. Bach, likely aware he was bending the traditional concerto grosso rules in half of his Brandenburgs, instead called them Concerts avec plusieurs instruments, or Concertos with several instruments.

Strict rules aside, it is acceptable to refer to these as concerti grossi. The soloists in a concerto grosso are referred to as the concertino, which alternates with the ripieno, or remainder of the ensemble.

Each concerto stands apart from the other, using quite the variety of instruments available at the time. As a result, we often colloquially refer to Brandenburgs by their instruments (i.e. the trumpets one, the violas one, the recorders one, etc.) Often, if unsure which Brandenburg is playing, you can eliminate possibilities based on instrumentation.

Thank the Internet for providing the ability to view all of Bach's scores to these works.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F

This would be the "hunting horn" one. As if the hunting horns weren't an abnormal enough addition for the times, the First Brandenburg also calls for three oboes. While all subsequent Brandenburgs have three movements apiece, Bach's First has four. The only other concerto as long in terms of performance time is the Fifth.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F

The trumpet one. To this day, it is still one of the most difficult pieces to play for a trumpeter. The Second Brandenburg is certainly one of the most recognizable of the six, and is included on the record sent to space on the Voyager probes.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G

This is the one without wind instruments (no oboes, flutes, trumpets — nothing that requires your breath to play). All strings all the time in Brandenburg 3 (with harpsichord continuo as usual). In fact, three groups of strings make up the concertino for this concerto. I adore the momentum in this particular Brandenburg, the cascading main theme for the first movement, the hurried yet happy third movement — but that second movement is... well... what is it? It's unusual to hear the 2nd movement of Brandenburg 3 the same twice. That's because there are only two chords in the score, perhaps implying time for a soloist's improvised cadenza. Some ensembles will perform just these two chords with minimal ornamentation, others will have a violin cadenza leading into the two chords — either way, it's strange, since we do not know what Bach wanted done there.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G

The recorder one! And it's deliriously joyful. The two recorders join a violin for the concertino in the Fourth Brandenburg. Additionally, Bach gave this concerto a new set of clothes by adapting it for one of his harpsichord concertos (BWV 1057).

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D

My personal favorite will always be the harpsichord one. Flute players tend to call Brandenburg 5 the "flute" one, since the concertino consists of harpsichord, flute and violin. But of all six of the Brandenburgs, the first-movement cadenza for the harpsichord is in its own league. It takes place about two-thirds of the way through and eats up a solid three minutes. It is the first time any concerto contained a solo keyboard part, if you can believe that.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat

The violas one. How often do you hear an orchestral work that omits the violin section entirely? Most of us might not even notice unless prompted to describe the sound; violas can't play as high as violins, so using the throaty violas as the melody-makers creates a warm and unusually pleasant sound. Occasionally, I think that this, the 6th Brandenburg, is my favorite (if only it had a harpsichord cadenza).

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