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Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

September 26, 2021: Paul Neubauer, viola; Arnaud Sussmann, viola; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Sihao He, cello; Joel Noyes, cello; David J. Grossman, bass; Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord

In March 1719, when Bach was in Berlin to collect the new harpsichord made for Cöthen by court instrument maker Michael Mietke, he had occasion to play for Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. The meeting spurred an invitation from the Margrave for Bach to send him some compositions. The works that he sent probably originated in Weimar even before Bach’s move to Cöthen in 1717, but it took yet another two years for him to complete, compile, and submit his “Six concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (Six concertos with several instruments). He dedicated the 1721 manuscript to the Margrave, saying:

As I had a couple of years ago the pleasure of appearing before Your Royal Highness . . . and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the small talents that Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honor me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my composition: I have then in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments.

No record exists of the Margrave of Brandenburg ever using the scores, ever sending Bach a fee, or ever thanking him. Legend has it that a lack of acknowledgment may have stemmed from the Margrave’s instrumental resources not matching those of Cöthen or Weimar, thus rendering the pieces unperformable at his establishment. It is certainly true that Bach used unprecedented and different scoring in each of the individual works, treating the collection like an “Art of the Concerto Grosso” and thus was not aiming to match any specific establishment’s resources. The manuscript eventually became the property of the state library in Berlin, remaining unpublished until the Bach revival in the nineteenth century. In 1880 Philipp Spitta, Bach’s famous biographer, coined the term “Brandenburg Concertos,” which has been used ever since for the beloved works.

Bach empoyed the simple yet flexible plan for the eighteenth-century concerto grosso developed by Torelli and Corelli, standardized by Vivaldi—a small solo group (the concertino) alternating with the full ensemble (ripieno or tutti), typically in three movements: fast, slow, fast. The Brandenburg Concertos offer a wide spectrum of innovative instrumental schemes and combinations and a great variety in treatment of form. Nos. 1, 3, and 6 use instrumental forces that are fairly balance in number, with No. 1 containing some violino piccolo solos and No. 6 featuring two violas. Nos. 2, 4 and 5 contrast a small concertino with a large ripieno throughout, with different instruments featured in each case.

In the Sixth Concerto Bach uses only strings and continuo, as in the Third. In this case, however, he creates a new atmosphere of somewhat darker colors by dispensing with violins. (Could Brahms have been following his lead in his A major Serenade?) The concertino is made up of two violas (originally viole da braccio), two violas da gamba (now usually played on cello), and cello. The solo violas provide an especially mellow sound that contributes to this Concerto’s unique sonority. Perhaps the most striking feature of the work, other than scoring, is the incredible contrapuntal writing in the first movement. The violas enter in canon separated by a time interval of only two sixteenth notes. The second movement is a poignant Adagio ma non troppo, followed by the energetic final movement in da capo form (A-B-A), made lively by syncopations and a bubbly mood of optimism.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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