Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Menuetto – Trio I. – Menuetto – Polacca – Menuetto – Trio II. – Menuetto
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681 – 1767)
Overture Suite in D major, TWV 55:D21
Six concertos Avec Plusieurs Instruments is an almost modest title on the front page of the calligraphic autograph of the score that represents one of the unquestionable pinnacles of Western civilization. In the nineteenth century, the collection became known by its current famous name, The Brandenburg Concertos. A German musicologist wanted a more specific title than the generic original, and the fact that it was originally in French did not suite the romantic ideal of the national genius. The fact that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), although a genius, was not a romantic and that the term “national” in his age was viewed (if at all) from a very different perspective, did not matter much. (Afterall, Telemann’s almost equally significant collection Musique de Table received its German title Tafelmusik at the same time.) The genius cult was always followed by various myths and legends, some of which proved to be very persistent. The traditional narrative thus tells the story about the future cantor of Leipzig, who at the time was still the Kapellmeister at Köthen. While searching for new employment, he sent his beautiful score to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in March 1721. The ungrateful aristocrat set the score aside without even looking at it, but it did remain in his possession and was deemed worthless after his death. It was only through pure luck and after changing several hands that it was rediscovered more than a hundred years later in 1850.
The fact that Margrave never responded to Bach’s humble gift and the accompanying inscription (also in French, very ornate, but somewhat awkward) was not unusual: correspondence between aristocrats and members of lower classes would break the conventions of the time. The fact that the score seemed untouched for more than a century does not mean that Bach’s music was not heard on Margrave’s court: music was performed from parts, not scores. The fact that the parts were not preserved is also not unusual, nor that there are no written records about possible performances.
Bach himself was undoubtedly aware of the quality of compositions he dedicated to the supposedly ingrateful Christian Ludwig – he recycled the same music multiple times during his time in Leipzig. Although there are no records about their performances in Leipzig in the original form, transcripts of scores prepared by Bach’s student Christian Friedrich Penzel have been preserved.
The assumption is that the concertos were composed much earlier than 1721, and not only in Köthen, but even before that in Weimar. The speculative, but mostly accepted chronology states that the oldest concerto is No. 6, composed between 1708 and 1710. The latest are probably No. 4 and No. 5, most likely completed in 1720. This chronology is primarily based on style – No. 6 and No. 3 do not yet contain pronounced influence of Vivaldi’s style, since Bach did not discover the Venetian master’s collection L’estro armonico until 1713. After the discovery, Bach adopted some recognizable elements of Vivaldi’s style – particularly the ritornello form, which he did not just copy, but significantly upgraded. In that respect, although he was sometimes deemed a relatively conservative composer in his time, Bach was very up to date with the latest developments in music of his time.
Peculiar, even bold combinations of instruments in the concertino groups of the Brandenburg Concertos were long considered especially innovative, but concertos for multiple instruments such as those were also composed by other artists of the time, including Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann David Heinichen and Christoph Graupner. While Telemann and Henichen at the time already exhibited the elements of the upcoming galant style, Graupner was, perhaps, the closest to Bach, especially in the masterly formation of often tricky polyphonic movements.
Concerto No. 1 in F major is the only one for which we can be absolutely sure that it was adapted from an earlier composition. Symphony in F major, BWV 1046a is sometimes assumed (with equally valid “pro” and “con” arguments) to be the introduction for Bach’s so-called Hunt Cantata. There are, however, significant differences between the two versions. The first one contains three movements, i.e. there is no third movement of the final version and no polonaise in the final movement. Along with a number of changed details, the greatest difference is in the performing ensemble. Namely, the final version was obviously envisioned as a composition for a larger ensemble – it is the only Brandenburg concerto that, instead of the standard 8’ violone prescribes the use of the 16’ violone grosso, the precursor of modern-day double bass. (The larger string ensemble in ripieno parts is perhaps also required only in Concerto No. 2 – all other concertos can be performed with one instrument per part and correspond to the ensemble that was available to Bach in Köthen.)
The greatest difference from the original version, however, is the introduction of another solo instrument – the small violin, violino piccolo, tuned one third higher than the standard violin. Since there was no violin solo in the original version, and with the exception of oboe and the first violin in the second movement, there was a need to put the new instrument to work, which happened in the aforementioned Allegro and polonaise of the fourth movement. The part can be (and usually is) performed on the standard violin, but Bach skillfully used the tuning of the smaller instrument by employing, for example, double and triple stops that include the use “empty” strings, additionally contributing to the characteristic sound of the concerto.
However, the sound is primarily dominated by horns. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, horns were relatively new instruments, unusual in standard ensembles of princes’ chapels (including the one in Köthen). In the first movement, Bach marked this symbolically (and wittingly!) by giving them the material that is different from the material assigned to other instruments. The horns thus appear as a foreign body disrupting the harmony of other instruments that everyone was used to hearing in an ensemble. But after being “punished” with silence in the second movement, horns manage to “socialize” in the two remaining movements. Their acceptance is presented in the second trio of the third movement where the bass support to their solos is offered by the violins (in the original version) or oboes (in the final version).
While Concerto No. 1 was somewhat haphazardly turned into a violin concerto, No. 4 was such from the very start, regardless of the “anomaly” where the violin does not have the solo status in the second movement. That movement is dominated by other soloists, flutes. A lot of ink has been used trying to answer the question what exactly were flauti d’echo that Bach marked in the score. Are these side-blown or end-blown flutes, or perhaps the obscure flageolets? Should their parts be played as they are written (on side-blown or alto recorders) or an octave higher (on sopranino recorders or flageolets)? It has, more or less, been agreed that these were in fact recorders. This is supported by a later adaptation of the concerto for harpsichord and orchestra (BWV 1057) done in Leipzig, which contains the unambiguous mark: flûtes à bec (recorders).
The form of the first two movements of the concerto is rather conventional – the first one follows the principles of the ritornello form, while the second one uses the favorite baroque topos of the echo (this is probably the reason for the flauti d’echo marking), where the solo violin mostly offers the bass support to flutes instead of playing solo. But the third movement is an entirely new and peculiar synthesis of the strict fugue form and virtuoso concertante ritornello form. Although the fusion is not necessarily very innovative (it was already occasionally used by Corelli and Vivaldi, and in Germany by Christoph Graupner at the same time as Bach), Bach was unsurpassable in polyphony and in this movement (once again) confirmed to be the master of synthesizing the “old” and the “new”.
Composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) dedicated the final composition of tonight’s program, The Overture Suite in D Major, TWV 55:D1, to another aristocrat – Ludwig VIII the Landgrave of Darmstadt. Telemann was in contact with his predecessors for almost half a century, during the golden age of the Darmstadt Court Orchestra under the Kapellmeister Christoph Graupner. But why he decided to contact Darmstadt once again near the end of his life in 1765 is not quite clear. At that time, Graupner had already been dead for five years, and Telemann himself was in poor health – like Graupner (or Bach and Handel), Telemann was suffering from vision loss and composed only sporadically. Still, at the very end of his life and artistic journey, Telemann composed some works that were undoubtedly masterpieces, such as his Ino cantata, also from 1765. The Overture Suite in D Major, however, is not held in such high regard. Moreover, it might even be called rather backward for the age – comparing its score with a year older Symphony No. 1 composed by then eight-year-old Mozart (and composed for the same ensemble!) would be enough to claim that Telemann was behind the times.
Or perhaps not? At first glance, this was a typical, conventional, even a routine score for Telemann, which abound in his oeuvre. Yet, despite his poor health, the old master was still full of spirit, according to his contemporaries, proving with this work that the hyper productive composer still had an ace or two up his sleeve. The paired movements Plainte and Réjouissance, for instance, defy conventions in the choice of key – The Lamentations are so gracefully mournful despite their “joyful” D major key, while the Rejoycing is filled with exuberant cheer despite its “dark” B minor key – the same key that Bach used for his monumental Mass in B minor before his death.
But the pinnacle of Telemann’s mastery is in the Tintamare movement, which is sometimes used as the nickname for the entire suite in its proper spelling and grammar form Le Tintamarre (Telemann’s French was equally awkward as Bach’s). The uproar is depicted by music that seems to want to create the appearance of contentlessness – there are neither motifs nor formal development, only a sort of hoquetus of almost the entire ensemble followed by a virtuoso perpetuum mobile by the violins – first the second violins, and only then the first. Still, the “uproar” is harmonious, and with much more content than the deafening noises (both literal and metaphoric) we are surrounded by every day.