Learning to Listen: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
October 7, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — This week on Learning to Listen, we focus on Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach wrote these sometime before the year 1721 — he met a music lover, Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, who asked Bach to send him some concertos. Bach didn't write the concertos from scratch; he had already written all six of the Brandenburgs in some way, shape or form, but Bach handpicked them for the margrave to demonstrate his versatility as a composer.

All of the Brandenburg Concertos are in major (happy) keys.

Concerto No. 4 in G major

In Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, two recorders and solo violin are the soloists. This combination creates a really happy sound. The recorders usually play in unison (or together), and the violin usually responds or has a conversation with them. One of the delightful parts of this movement happens about a minute-and-a-half in, a really lovely but angular violin solo.

In the second movement, the ensemble and the soloists basically have a conversation — lots of back and forth. When the soloists play together, the violin is always subservient to the recorders here, which seems strange only because the violin is usually a lead instrument. But in this second movement, the violin accompanies the recorders.

The final movement of Brandenburg 4 is as jolly as the first, and the violin gets a bit crazy about 45 seconds in, but really crazy about 2 minutes in. This solo is an excellent example of Bach's writing — his writing is often, and I hesitate to use this word, but — it's angular. Bach was a master at using the entire palette of whichever instrument he chose to highlight — in this case, the violin, which goes all over the place in a lovely dance.

When this movement starts, it sounds like an orchestral fugue — that means you'll hear the opening melodic idea repeat in different instruments several times. It's not a real fugue, which is way more complicated, but it's fugal (or fugue-like).

Concerto No. 5 in D major

Brandenburg 5 is my personal favorite. It is the first piece of music in the history that features a keyboard solo. Can you imagine?

In the first movement, the entire ensemble stops for three minutes. Bach likely did this to show off a new harpsichord he'd just bought.

There are some great moments in the harpsichord solo harmonically, and they whiz by pretty fast. The cadenza hangs out in D major for a bit, then moves to the dominant A major, and back to D, then to G major, and there's dabbling in each of these keys here and there, and all of this is fine and normal.

At 8:43 in the video, you'll begin hearing pedal A's in the left hand. This is basically a 'vamp' on a I 6/4 chord, and in many ways, we'd expect the cadenza to end after this. It seems as though Bach is setting up the return of the ensemble, but hardly.

At 8:58, it gets kinda fantasia-y. This is where the showing off happens, and it starts to get far more complicated harmonically. Eventually, he's shifting into D minor, and at 9:38, it gets real.

Not only does he start that exact spot with a grating, half-step dissonance between the left and right hand (left hand on pedal A, right hand on a B-flat), but he shifts the motion. Instead of 32nd notes in the right hand, which divide nicely and evenly by the number 4 (music IS math, after all), he puts triplet-sixteenth notes there, changing how the rhythm divides.

And all of this business of having the A in the bass on each beat of the measure — that is the dominant of D, so we expect he'll take us back to D, but he doesn't and it's the best part in the world. Rather than going from V-I in a perfect cadence of some sort, Bach uses a deceptive cadence to trick us (9:50). Additionally, to make things even more harmonically interesting, he uses a secondary dominant to get there. So instead of V-I (A to D), he rather writes V - V7/vi - vi (A to F#7 to B min). That A in the bass Bach had been harping on for so many measures becomes the A# (at 9:50) that leads us to the B minor arrival at 9:51.

Best part? He does it one last time, right before the ensemble rejoins. This second deceptive cadence is more fleeting than before, and you can hear it at 10:03.

So. Good.

For the second movement of Concerto No. 5, Bach features the soloists — just harpsichord, violin and flute. This was a popular combination of instruments in the Baroque era, and they have a great conversation.

The final movement of Brandenburg 5 starts with great interplay between the three soloists again, the ensemble sneaks in about 30 seconds into the music; it's special because they really do just slide into the texture with the soloists.

Concerto No. 6 in B-flat

On to the 6th and final concerto, and this is the most interesting politically. Yep, politically. Instruments had very specific roles in the Baroque era. The orchestra truly was viewed as a representation of social hierarchy. Violins were a high-class instrument, however Bach excludes them completely from this concerto. Instead, Bach gives the important role to an instrument that was considered a low-class instrument, something called the 'viola da braccio', which closely resembles the modern viola.

Bach's boss at the time, Prince Leopold, played another stringed instrument that sort of looks like a cello with extra strings, called the Viola da gamba. Now, THAT instrument was considered a HIGH class instrument, and as a result, it should've had the most important parts. But it didn't. Bach more or less upended the musical hierarchy of that time by making the viola da gamba subservient to the viola da braccio.

In any event, the lack of violins in this concerto results in a deep, warm sound. All of the featured instruments have thicker strings and bigger bodies. Their resonance is richer, based purely on the physics of sound.

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