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Analysis Of The Brandenburg Concertos By Johann Sebastian Bach

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Music is an infinite art, there is no limit to what one can create. Man has traced the history of music further back than 1500 BC, to the most primitive forms of human music. Art has evolved throughout the years as well, through the developments of human language and the vast new technological frontiers that we still have yet to conquer. As art evolves, the people who create art do as well. One of these great creators was Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21st, 1685 – July 28th, 1750), who had a large influence in art and music during his time. One of his most prized creations are the Brandenburg Concertos, which are a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig (a military officer from Prussia) in 1721. Bach’s first official visit to Ludwig regarding the Brandenburg Concertos was dated as March 24th, 1721 in letters and other documents that were found. It is still disputed on when exactly these six works were composed, although it is speculated by historians and fellow musicians that it was between 1708 and 1720, which gave Bach 12 years to create them. Most likely, Bach composed the concertos over several years while serving as Grand Kapellmeister at Kothen (a person in charge of music-making, typically in a chapel), and possibly extending further back to his employment in Weimar, Germany (1708–17).

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The Brandenburg Concertos may have been one of the last series of concertos to be written by Johann Sebastian Bach, it does seem like a piece to be played only for special occasions and gatherings. Out all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Brandenburg Concerto #2 stands out to me the most. The development of this Concerto must have been very complicated, as the trumpet part is still regarded as one of the most difficult in the entire piece. The trumpet part was also originally written for a clarino (otherwise called a natural trumpet, which is valveless and able to play the notes of the harmonic series), but after the 18th century, the clarino became extremely rare because less and less people continued to play it. After clarino skills were lost in time, the part was played on a more modern valved trumpet. The concerto features four prominent instruments.

The trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin are used against the backdrop of a strong foundation of strings and continuo. The writing is virtuosic and brilliant; the high trumpet part gets increasingly difficult as more of the piece progresses, even the most masterful of players have difficulty with handling the swift notes that have to be delivered by the trumpet. The piece closely follows the Italian concerto grosso pattern, punctuating the solo group’s music with tutti combinations for the string section, although here the soloists are often more weaved in and out of the musical fabric than in the basic Italian model that was also used by composers of the Baroque era of music. Bach uses several new techniques which set him apart from other Baroque composers during this period. His unique form of gives the soloists a very distinct role in this concerto.

Not only do they gently progress the piece forward (as a concertino in a concerto should), but they also offer several portions where great energy is expressed through a series of high notes which stand out. The first movement is rhythmically strong, lacking a tempo indication, but is able to deploy the soloists as members of the overall ensemble, as well as out-front players, displaying excellent blending. The soloists are often both recognizable and appear as they are apart of the rest of the ensemble, which can be clearly seen in the parts each instrument of the concerto has. Revamping a theme from the first movement, the Allegro assai takes counterpoint more seriously. In the earlier movements, Bach easily weaves a beautiful melody from one instrument to another, fully exploiting their contrasting colors and sounds, reflective of the Baroque style. In the final portion of the movement, each of the soloists provide a different voice in a full-fledged fugue, with the string orchestra reinforcing key moments and reminding you of earlier portions of the piece. The fugue of this movement isn’t very easy to pull off. The phrase that is used to bring out a more colorful sounding collaboration between the strings, flutes, clarino and others is hard to manage.

Although the finale is bright and full of excitement and energy, there is great difficulty being able to finish off such an extravagant portion of a piece. The genre of this piece is a concerto Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 is a concerto because of the several components that were used to create it. However, some of Bach’s are still being argued as to being cantatas. A cantata usually consists of a string section, an oboe section, and a (continuo) group, as well as timpani and brass depending on who the composer is (Bach used them frequently, especially during holidays). The notable difference between a concerto and a cantata is that a vocal part is used to accompany the strings in a cantata, whereas the instruments had independent parts seperate from the vocal portion.

A concerto is generally composed of three movements, in which, usually, one solo instrument is responsible for carrying the piece (like a flute, violin, oboe, or cello) and helping with the progression between movements. An orchestra or concert band backs the solo instrument, which helps with properly blending sound. Before the common/modern oboe was created and used as a solo instrument in concertos, the hautbois (the predecessor of the oboe) was used instead. This piece represents the Baroque style of art in perfect form. The Baroque style was used to create a higher, more exuberant style of art. Paintings, dance, and music were created and performed with precision, and detail was key. The baroque was a period of musical experimentation and innovation, composers and artists were more willing to reach further with their art forms and create new styles. New forms were invented, like the concerto (which Bach used) and sinfonia. However, Bach’s concerto format changed from time to time. It is interesting to note that across all of the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach changes the number of violin parts in the ripieno. For Brandenburg Concerto #5 in D Major, Bach writes only one violin part, rather than two, which is generally known as his normal format for his series of concertos. Because it followed the Renaissance era of art, musicians were still filled with more ideas to apply to their compositions.

The Baroque style is used to create deep colour, grandeur and surprise to achieve a sense of awe. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 creates this with ease, using a concertino composed of a clarino in F, alto recorder, oboe, and violin. The ripieno is composed of two violins, viola, violone, and basso continuo. The format of a concerto also created a large shift in the piece. The clarino does not play in the second movement, as is common in baroque era concerti. This is due to the way it was made, which allows it to play only in major keys. In modern day, different conductors have put their own twist to this classic piece of music.

These excellent works have been performed by orchestras with the string parts each played by a number of players, under the batons of, for example, Karl Richter and Herbert von Karajan, who have both made large impacts in music’s long history. They have also been performed as chamber music, with one instrument per part, especially by groups using baroque instruments and historically informed techniques and practice. Playing through the entirety of Brandenburg Concerto #2 is no walk in the park, it requires diligence and a fairly large amount of practice. There is also an arrangement for a four-hand piano duet created by fellow world renowned German composer and teacher, Max Reger. As an added bonus, Brandenburg Concerto #2 was also chosen as the first to be played on the “golden record”, a phonograph record containing a sample of Earth’s sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes that were launched on August 20th, 1977, and September 5th, 1977.

10 December 2020

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