Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 1, BWV 1046

performed by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Riccardo Chailly, or below by the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado

(cover image by Brooke Lark)

I feel such a sense of distance from people like Bach and Telemann and Handel and all the rest… chronologically, aesthetically, all of it, and there are cases when that distance manifests itself in some uncertainty about the origins of pieces, especially when someone like Bach reuses or recycles or adapts previous works to more recent commissions or occasions.

At AllMusic, John Keillor describes the set of six Brandenburg concertos as “the most complex and artistically successful failed job application in recorded history.” They were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt (hence the name), and Wikipedia suggests that while they were presented to the dedicatee in 1721, they were likely written earlier:

While he took the opportunity to revise the music, most likely, it was not freshly composed. He appears to have selected the six pieces from concertos he had composed over a number of years while Kapellmeister at Köthen, and possibly extending back to his employment at Weimar (1708–17).

That’s a practical approach, I guess. In any case, it doesn’t change the fact that this set of six works are considered to be some of the finest of the Baroque era. They are in the Italian style, more or less, whatever that means, partially as the result of Bach’s having studied assiduously Vivaldi’s concertos, to find out what made them tick so magically.

It may not surprise you to know that Baroque music, like almost all music, is pretty out of my wheelhouse, so I won’t get into the details of what the Italian style is, what Bach learned from Vivaldi, or any of the rest, but it does interest me that Bach, who so many music (and even really non-music) people think of as practically a deity, himself looked up to someone and studied their work out of admiration and awe. That’s saying something.

The first concerto is for two horns, three oboes, bassoon, “violino piccolo,” (which is exactly what it sounds like, a smaller violin), two violins, viola, cello, and continuo. Sections, or whole movements, of this work are to be found later, either as adaptation into a sinfonia, or in cantatas.

The work is the only one of the set in four movements, and has a duration of about 20-ish minutes, as follows:

  1. [no tempo indication] (usually performed at Allegro or Allegro moderato)
  2. Adagio in D minor
  3. Allegro
  4. Menuet – Trio I – Menuet da capo – Polacca – Menuet da capo – Trio II – Menuet da capo

As you can see, that final movement is pretty robust. In my recording from the Leipzig Gewandhaus with Chailly, the final track is labeled as ‘Menuet – trio – polonaise.’ The first three movements each come close to four movements, while the final movement exceeds eight.

These aren’t symphonies, obviously, but in many ways, a modern listener, as in, someone used to a concerto from the past 200 years or so, wouldn’t really identify this as a concerto. There’s not one soloist with the orchestra; rather, everyone is sort of a soloist, in a way. To someone only familiar with tradition from the 19th century onward, it’s somewhere between a suite and a concerto, a chamber work and an orchestral one, but what we don’t really need to know is… well, anything. It’s just beautiful, vibrant, refreshing music.

That’s really what comes to the fore here. This entire piece is full of counterpoint and other things that may sound pedantic to the average reader/listener, but this music is so full of life that there’s not a moment where it gets stodgy or academic, especially in Chailly’s lively reading with the Gewandhaus.

The opening bars of the first movement bear this out: we hear in this cornucopia of sound obviously strings, but oboe, horn, harpsichord, a lilting, bouncing, twirling organism that barely slows down for the entire piece. Listen for things like how the instruments call and answer each other, like an echo, or how the melody gets handed off and passed around the orchestra. Instruments will appear and disappear in this small ensemble in an elegant, melodious game of catch. One can see how this allegro tempo is suitable to the opening movement. It has such life. Listen also for the horns, something brought out by some as not particularly Italian, but they blend in beautifully.

From our vantage point at the beginning of the 21st century, well acquainted with the Romantic era, we might see this second-movement adagio as ‘the slow movement’ in a sort of symphonic work, but is it? It’s certainly the slowest in the work, but let’s focus on how it’s actually still similar to the opening movement. How do the instruments all intertwine with each other and contribute to the overall complexity and unity of the movement? While the tempo is greatly slowed from the previous movement, there’s still an unstoppable forward motion, not galloping or sprinting, but the music rolls on ever forward, this time in a more stately manner.

The third movement, this time officially marked allegro, is a triple meter movement, reeling and bouncing forward, sort of never stopping the momentum once it’s been established, with the exception of a few grand slow-down moments. We can appreciate the clarity of the Gewandhaus recording when it involves a piece with so many distinct layers and textures. It’s refreshing.

The finale is the real meat of the piece, with its multiple sections. The menuet theme at the beginning is perhaps the most memorable to me. It’s stately, elegant and delicate, but that doesn’t prevent it from pushing forward with a good degree of confidence. Really everything about this is so captivating, and it only grows on you once you know each of the piece’s details and contours.

For some people, there’s the image of Bach as a stoic, religious, serious man, a genius of the highest order, and certainly the latter he was. But wait until the polacca or polonaise or however it’s labeled, and what you’ll hear, really through this entire piece, is Bach enjoying himself. Something like the solo violin or cello suites, the solo piano music, is exquisitely crafted on a spiritual level, but may seem to some like music more for meditation rather than celebration. Here, in this work, we hear a jovial, more lighthearted side of the composer that may be beneficial for those who see him as a man too serious to appreciate.

The finale is superb, in its multiple sections, with that terribly charming menuet, contrasting trio, and absolute blast of a polonaise. It’s such a delightful finale to a really enjoyable work. Again, it might take a little getting used to, but this music is really joyous and uplifting. Give it a few listens.

That’s all we’ll see of Bach for a while, but do stay tuned for more Beethoven and another round of Editor’s Choice composers. Thanks so much for reading.

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