Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048

March 24, 2019: Kristin Lee, violin; Paul Huang, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Dov Scheindlin, viola; Maurycy Banszek, viola; Edward Arron, cello; Mihai Marica, cello; Joel Noyes, cello; Tim Cobb, bass; Gilles Vonsattel, 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 certainly is 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 The manuscript eventually became the property of the state library in Berlin, remaining unpublished until the Bach revival in the nineteenth century.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 employed the simple yet flexible plan for the concerto grosso developed by Torelli and Corelli and standardized by Vivaldi—a small solo group (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 balanced 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.

Though the Third Brandenburg Concerto is scored only for strings and continuo (bass line instrument and keyboard), the texture is kaleidoscopic, with constant shifts between combinations of instruments. Bach’s love of symmetry is apparent in his balancing of the three groups of strings—violins, violas, and cellos—and the three instrumental parts within each group.

It is highly unusual that Bach did not provide a slow movement for this Concerto. In between the two fast movements Bach left a one-measure Adagio consisting of two cadential chords, out of which some keyboard players might have improvised a slow movement. The first movement’s opening three-note gesture provides motivic material for much of the remainder of the movement. The finale adopts the form of a gigue, a traditional dance movement in two-part form—here the second section of the gigue is three times as long as the first. Fast notes in perpetual motion, first presented with one instrumental part imitating the other, drive the movement irresistibly forward.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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