Learning to Listen: Brandenburg Concertos

Learning to Listen: Brandenburg Concertos 1 to 3


September 30, 2013
margrave christian ludwig von Brandenburg-Schwedt
Portrait of Christian Ludwig Markgraf von Brandenburg-Schwedt (1677-1734), recipient of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
Artist: Antoine Pesne; public domain

Last week on Learning to Listen, we heard some of the specific characteristics of Baroque music, like the sound of a harpsichord, or certain ways composers wrote melodies, or listening for music that has lots of trills and decorations to the notes.

Today, we'll hear three of the six Brandenburg Concertos, written by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Brandenburg Concertos are excellent examples of music from the Baroque Era.

Bach wrote these sometime before the year 1721 — he met a music lover named Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg who asked Bach to send him some concertos. Bach didn't write the concertos from scratch; he had already written all six of these in some way, shape or form, but Bach handpicked them for the margrave to demonstrate his versatility as a composer.

And the Brandenburgs are diverse — about as diverse a set of six pieces you'll find.

Each one of the six concertos features instrumental soloists, or highlights specific groups of instruments, meaning we can (more or less) call them each a concerto grosso.

Concerto No. 1:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 sounds the most generic to me at its beginnings, but there are tiny details that pop out of the texture. The hunting horns, for one. This Concerto features the hunting horns, oboes, violins and bassoon at various times, as well as a smaller violin called the violino piccolo.

The second movement is a passionate, musical sigh. There are these sad cries from the oboe and violin — it's absolutely gorgeous. Listen for the three-note half-step or whole-step motive (a motive that's central to several of the Brandenburgs).

A couple other odd things about Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 — not only is it the only Brandenburg Concerto with 4 movements — it's the only concerto Bachever wrote that had four movements. And, through the course of music history, you'll see far more concertos that have three movements than four.

The fourth movement is a strange little minuet and for a bit inside it, it's only oboes and a bassoon playing for about a minute and a half. Included in the fourth movement is a polonaise — or in Italian it's called a polacca. You'll hear the hunting horns playing during the polacca.

Concerto No. 2:

The Second Brandenburg is the only one of the six that has trumpets in it. Well ... one trumpet. Trumpet, oboe, flute/recorder and violin are the soloists in this concerto — a bit strange since all those instruments are more or less in the same range, but it works. The trumpet sits out for the second movement.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 is the one on the Golden Record that's on the Voyager space probes launched in 1977. Also, it was used as the theme song for William F Buckley's Firing Line.

Concerto No. 3:

Bach was a numbers guy, so he more than likely put this particular concerto in the third spot because of how it's organized musically: three violins, three violas and three cellos, with a bass and a harpsichord. There aren't any wind instruments in Brandenburg 3.

That three-note motive is back for this one in the first movement. It's the second movement that's weird, though. Bach intended it to be improvised and only included two chords — total — for the entire second movement. Ensembles are usually creative with this anomaly, sometimes using music from other pieces Bach wrote; some recordings use the slow movement from his Violin Sonata in G because it's in the same key, and it ends the same way. It makes it fun to hear these performed live, because you never know what to expect.

Next week, we'll hear Concertos 4 to 6, and then we'll be done with the Baroque era for a bit!