J.S. Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto: A History, Analysis, and Review of Performance Practice

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J.S. Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto: A History, Analysis, and Review of Performance Practice

It is doubtful that when Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos he realized he was writing what would become one of the most compelling collections of chamber music ever written. In 1721, Bach was working in the town of Cöthen as Kapellmeister. Although the work was enjoyable, he craved a more substantial position. Following this ambition, in late 1720 he traveled to Hamburg where he applied and was rejected for an organ post. The denial spurred him to submit a second application to the Margrave of Brandenburg. He brought together six pieces, later termed “Brandenburg Concertos,” (self titled “Six Concerts Avec Plusieurs Instruments” (The Oxford Companion to Music)) that he had previously written and submitted them as a resume to the Margrave. Although he was unsuccessful in securing the post, the concertos survive to this day. Bach, ironically, probably never heard what were to become some of his most famous works (The Oxford Dictionary of Music). Furthermore, scholars have speculated that the Musgrav never examined the score, because the original manuscript was found unopened in pristine condition. His hunt for employment ended when Bach attained a position at Leipzig where his skills as a performer were utilized more than his compositional expertise (Boyd) (Alexander) (Gutmann) (Huscher).

The concertos are considered a culmination of Bach’s talents as a composer, showcasing in six pieces all the compositional tools he had at his disposal: a perfect compositional resume. The instrumentation may seem peculiar, but musicologists have constructed several possible hypotheses. Some conjecture that Bach did not even consider the instrumentation, and instead distributed parts evenly to create the proper counterpoint, completely disregarding conventional techniques of orchestration. He viewed the parts as interchangeable (The Oxford Companion to Music). Others speculate that the concertos’ instrumentation were a representation of what musicians were available to the Margrave. Unfortunately, those musicians could not handle the virtuosic concertos’ demands. One sees influences of composers such as Telemann, Fasch, Molter, and Gaupner, but there are also many aspects of the concertos that are unique: for instance, the relationships exhibited in the concertos between the solo and tutti sections had not been used before (The Oxford Companion to Music). It is important to note that the six concertos were not written with the intention of them being played consecutively (Boyd) (Alexander) (Gutmann) (Huscher).

The fifth Brandenburg, perhaps, had the most historical impact of the concertos. The piece is a concerto grosso in D-major written for flute, violin, and harpsichord with violin, viola, and basso continuo support (The Oxford Dictionary of Music). It was supposedly the last of the concertos written, and was intended to exhibit the new harpsichord that Bach brought to Cöthen in 1719. The lengthy and virtuosic cadenza in this piece provides the ideal vehicle for this purpose. In Bach’s first draft a mere eighteen-measures were allotted to the passage, but that quickly conceded to an epic sixty-five-measure production. It takes an adept keyboardist to accomplish this piece. Scholars believe that Mozart may have heard this work and used it as inspiration when developing the piano concerto. This was the first time a keyboardist was the centerpiece of a major chamber work (Boyd) (Alexander) (Gutmann) (Huscher).

The first movement is based on traditional concerto form with a twist. The addition of the cadenza before the last ritornello statement and the sheer length of the movement were unheard of at the time. The second movement, marked “affettuoso,” is sedate and has only the three soloists playing. The movement is so perfectly scored, however, that one does not notice the lack of harmonic support normally provided by the strings. The third movement is described as a type of “da capo aria” because the beginning section is repeated again at the end. The movement is highly fugal and features the keyboard in the middle section with the flute and violin coming back to the forefront to end the piece (Boyd) (Alexander) (Gutmann) (Huscher).

Bach’s time-period featured an utterly different sound world compared to today. A new trend has emerged in recent decades to try and recreate the sounds that Bach had in mind when he wrote the concertos. This trend is termed performance practice, and, if done correctly, adds a unique element to the piece. The main reason performance practice has evolved over time is the development of new and improved instruments. These include the evolution of string instruments that use concave bows and the Boehm flute, rather than the transverse baroque flute and string instruments that use converse bows. Baroque instruments have a different timbre and performance issues that result from their construction. The baroque violin’s converse bows made the instrument have a distinctive timbre and phrasing. The bow forced the performer play phrases a certain way, because it allowed for a strong downbeat then a gradual decrescendo through the phrase (Powell 143). Baroque flutes also had particular limitations. For instance, the range on the instrument was much smaller than the modern Boehm flute allows one to play. The older instruments generally only reached a G#6 instead of the F#7 that modern flutes achieve, which means the contemporary flute is able to play nearly a whole octave above its predecessor. Consequently, most of the music from the baroque and classical periods have flutes playing only up to a G#6. Additionally, playing with the constant vibrato that one is accustomed to hearing from modern performers would have proved difficult. Vibrato, instead, was used as an ornament: saved for very special moments in the music (Moyse 4). In order to produce vibrato on a baroque flute a performer had to use his fingers over the tone holes, producing an embellishment called “finger vibrato” (Manning). Musicians using proper performance practice try to emulate early instruments using what is available today. The difference in tuning systems is one issue for which modern performers cannot compensate. Today, instruments are calibrated to play best when tuned to either A=440 Hz or A=442 Hz (depending where one is), but in the Baroque era instruments were generally tuned to A=415 Hz. A performer using a period instrument will, in most cases, be tuned to the older tuning system and will in turn sound flat to the modern listener (Toff 254). Most of today’s audiences expect a performer to use well-informed performance practice. As a result, the trend is becoming increasingly common not only for its historical merit, but the experience of hearing music as the composer heard it, the way it was meant to be heard. Or, in this case, the way Bach never heard it (Armstrong) (Toff 254) (Galway 154).

­ Works Cited

Alexander, John. Bach’s ‘Brandenburg’ concertos. The musical pilgrim. New York: Oxford university press, 1929.

Armstrong, Eleanor. Personal Interview, 1 May, 2007.

“Brandenburg Concertos.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. 16 Apr. 2009 .

“Brandenburg Concertos.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. 16 Apr. 2009 .

Galway, James. Flute. London: Kahn & Averill, 1990.

Gutmann, Peter. “Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.” Classical Notes. 2008. 1 Feb. 2009 .

Huscher, Phillip. “Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5.” Chicago Symphony Orchestra Web Page. 2008. Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 3 Feb. 2009 .

Moyse, Marcel. How I Stayed in Shape. West Brattleboro: Schott: 1998.

Powell, Ardal. The Flute. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Manning, Dwight. “Woodwind Vibrato from the Eighteenth Century to the Present.” Performance Practice Review 8.2 (1995) May 2007 .

Toff, Nancy. The Flute. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.


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