31 Days of Classical, Day 30: Bach's epic cadenza

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
July 30, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Each day throughout July, I'll share with you a piece of classical music. Thirty-one days, thirty-one pieces.

The list is by no means definitive, nor is it necessarily a list of all of my favorite music from the classical world. Every morning, I start my day with music that inspires me in some way, whether I'm inspired by its happiness, its loneliness, the instrumentation, the harmony, the colors, the melody -- each piece is special in some way -- and offers an opportunity to either hear something you've never heard, or hear something new in a piece you've known your whole life.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, 1st movement cadenza

This is the cadenza from Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. A cadenza is a part in a piece of music where the rest of the players in the ensemble stop playing, and a soloist plays a solo for a bit. In this case, it's for more than THREE MINUTES, which I assure you, is highly unusual. And even more unusual given the time in which Bach lived and wrote this piece (18th c). This cadenza is, historically speaking, the first kind of music that resembled what would eventually become a keyboard concerto or a piano concerto (piano soloist playing with an orchestra).

But why is the cadenza so LONG? Turns out, Bach had just bought a new harpsichord and wanted to show it off. This cadenza is so masterfully written; I love how it gets a bit crazy at 1:54, and even more frenetic at 2:17, but Bach is using this to set up the return — which he does at 2:45. At this time, the ensemble knows it's getting close to time to come back.

Cadenza aside, the harpsichord gets a workout for most of the piece anyway. To hear how the cadenza fits into the first movement at large, you can hear the first movement in its entirety here (it's about 10 minutes long).

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