Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

April 3, 2016: Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway, flutes; Benjamin Beilman solo violin; Sean Lee and Danbi Um, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Paolo Bourdignon, 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 the Margrave to invite 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. But this overlooks the fact 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 The manuscript eventually became the property of the state library in Berlin, remaining unpublished until the Bach revival in the nineteenth century.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 well-loved works.

The standard plan for the eighteenth-century concerto grosso was simple and at the same time flexible. The format, developed by Torelli, Corelli, and Vivaldi, consisted of a small group of solo instruments (the concertino) alternating with a larger group (the ripieno or tutti). Most of these works used a string orchestra for the ripieno and two violins and cello for the concertino, and the usual number of movements was three: fast, slow, fast.

Bach’s 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, whereas Nos. 2, 4, and 5 contrast a small concertino with a large ripieno. The Fourth Concerto combines elements of a solo violin concerto and a concerto grosso, with a concertino group of the solo violin and two flutes (originally recorders). The solo violin is required to play almost without pause in the first movement, and to execute virtuosic cadenza-like passages in the third movement. The lightning-quick scale passages and double-stops make this Concerto as difficult, if not more difficult, than any of Bach’s violin concertos.

The three movements of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto follow the traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement. The first movement uses da capo form (a beginning section, followed by a contrasting section, then a repeat of the first section). The slow movement revolves around chains of pulsing two-note groupings and makes much of the contrast between loud (full group) and soft (soloists alone). The texture of much of the last movement is fugal, and its momentum is infectious. Near the end the “heartbeat” is twice suspended by forceful chords and rests before the energetic push to the finish.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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