Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2


Johann Sebastian Bach (1865-1750) spent the bulk of his professional life as a musical functionary of the Lutheran church, and often at war with the authorities for whom he worked. One such position was as the court organist in the ducal court in Weimar (1708-1717). Bach’s 9 year tenure here was an eternity for him. He eventually ceased to get along with anybody. Denied a much deserved pay increase, Bach befell a spat with his employer, told them to shove it, and tried to quit. Instead he was thrown in jail for a month, released, and then fired.

However, this event did indeed have a silver lining. Now a free agent, Bach was quickly scooped up by Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. What this meant for Bach was that he was freed from church duties and able to compose secular music for some of the best musicians in Europe. It was here in this position that Bach had almost total autonomy to explore and compose new musical forms that were starting to emerge in the Baroque era. Among these are the Brandenburg concerti. By all accounts Leopold and Bach appear to have had a good relationship, but by 1723 the prince had to take the unfortunate step of releasing Bach. The dismissal was a combination of finances and matrimonial compromise. Prince Leopold’s wife, Friederica Henrietta, did not care for music, but especially disliked Bach.

When Bach saw the writing on the wall he reached out to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, a known admirer of Bach’s musical talents, and offered the Margrave his services. Along with a gaggingly obsequious cover letter, he sent the Margrave an artistic resume, six concerti, works he clearly felt offered a cross-section of his artistic skills as a court composer. Alas, the Margrave complained he did not have the orchestra to perform the works. The music was never performed and the scores were filed away in the Brandenburg State Archives where they remained unperformed and forgotten for the next 126 years. The works were eventually discovered in 1849, authenticated as a true work of Bach, and published.

In 1723 Bach was appointed liturgical music director at St. Thomas School, Leipzig. Bach held this position for the remaining 27 years of his life until 1750, by which time the majority of the many ecclesiastic and municipal authorities who were collectively his boss had considered him an epic pain the fanny. Did they appreciate what they had in Bach? Apparently not.

The second of the six concerti, Brandenburg Concerto 2, is a concerto grosso with multiple soloists: trumpet, flute, oboe, and violin – the trumpet being the first among equals.

The first movement is of ritornello form, in which each solo instrument eventually plays the main melody. Bach’s use of ritornello form in this concerto is a brilliant and idiosyncratic interpretation of ritornello form of the Italian style just as idiosyncratic use of the concertino. Never before or since has a concerto ensemble of any note of this of this type (trumpet, flute, oboe, and violin) been written. In a word: sensational.

The second movement is scored for flute, oboe, and solo violin and accompanied by a single cello and harpsichord. For reasons both practical and musical, the trumpet doesn’t appear. On the practical side, leather lunged and steel lipped he may be, the trumpet player cannot be expected to play as continuously as the other instruments of the ensemble. Given the incredible rigors of the first and third movements of this concerto, a rest is both a physical necessity and an act of mercy. On the musical side it is the expressive message of the movement. It is a sublime and lyric bit of night music, a nocturne, particularly noted for the gentle intertwining of the solo flute, oboe, and violin. The trumpet, with its piercing brilliant sound would not just dominate the other instruments, it would also disrupt if not outright destroy the shadowy expressive mood.

Presumably well rested, the trumpet returns as the lead instrumental voice in the third movement fugue (a multi-voiced, polyphonic formal process). Each theme is introduced by each solo instrument. The accompaniment is provided by the basso continuo (a single cello and harpsichord), the orchestral strings are not active participants in the unfolding of this fugue. In fact, they don’t come in until measure 47 or this 139-measure movement. This third movement is about the bright, brilliant, treble dominated timbre colors of the concertino.

Brandenburg 2 expanded the formal melodic, harmonic, and expressive frameworks that were Bach’s Baroque inherence. He sums up what went before him and at the same time lays the foundation for the future.

Program Notes by Luke Smith

Program NotesLuke Smith