Bach Orchestral Works
( Originally Published 1935 )
Bach left four orchestral suites, for different instrumental combinations. The first one, in C major, is for two oboes, a bassoon and strings. The second one is in B minor, for flute and strings. The third is the suite in D major, with the justly famous Air—that noble and tender melody that the violinist Wilhelmj made popular in his arrangement for the G string. The last suite is in the same key, and, like the third, more heavily scored than the earlier ones. It would be superfluous to describe these suites in detail, while it is not exaggeration to say that each one of them is a mine of strong and beautiful music. The two most frequently played are the delicious second suite, for the flute and strings, and the third, with the celebrated Air already referred to, and other pieces also famous.
These suites and the Brandenburg concertos belong to the time when Bach was concertmaster for the Prince of Cöthen. There he had an orchestra to experiment with, and an employer who was an uncommonly intelligent patron of music. Wherever he went in the course of his hard-working life, Bach took what musical means came to his hand, exploiting to the utmost their possibilities. The Brandenburg concertos are his first attempts at instrumental composition on a big scale. They constitute superb examples of his power of synthesis and origination. In them Bach exemplifies all the resources and possibilities of the concerto of his day, while his audacious employment of wind instruments was beyond anything previously attempted.
The opening allegro of the first Brardenburg concerto, in F, is a prototype of many of Bach's fast movements in the pulse and vigor of the music, the glints and contrasts of instrumental color, and the almost cellular development of the ideas. The slow movement, as customary in this form, is the melodic one. It consists largely in a duet of the first oboe and the small, high-pitched violin that Bach selects for his string solo, over the quiet accompaniment and the occasional rejoinder of the lower stringed instruments. The finale, again in a fast tempo, dismisses the more poetical mood of the preceding section by passages of the gayest and most rollicking humor. The rhythms and motives are almost those of the folk-dance. oboes, high violin and the customary other strings.
The first and second Brandenburg concertos are closely related as regards form and in key. Very different from the first, however, and highly ingenious is the color scheme in the second, achieved by combinations between the solo trumpet, solo flute, solo oboe and solo violin, set against the "ripieno" of the other strings. This, figuratively speaking, is Bach with his coat off, in the open air, leading the measure. A rapid florid figure is usually set against a stockier and more energetic movement in another part. Flying passages contrast delightfully with the sustained singing tones of other voices. The sonorous "tuttis" crash in after exhilarating solo displays, as if to say "bravo." With four measures of this music, or even two—such is the divinity of its arithmetic—the listener feels instinctively aware of all that is to come, while, on the. other hand, there is such constant germination of the motives that it is certain Bach could have continued for many more pages without exhausting his ideas or our interest. For the slow movement, flute, oboe and violin converse together over a steady moving bass. The finale is a lively and audacious combination of rhythmic figures and the strongly contrasted colors of trumpet, flute, oboe-and string tone.
The third Brandenburg concerto has quite a different plan. It uses only strings, and divides the orchestra not in solo and ensemble parts, but in three groups, of equal size, each comprising three violins, violas and cellos. Those players, virtually soloists all, must be stout fellows; the sturdy two-fisted opening movement asks not only a substantial tone but the hearts of men. In modern performance the numbers of players in. each choir is proportionately multiplied. The first movement is followed by the shortest slow movement in orchestral music—two measures! Measures which are really only sustained chords to separate the two quick-moving divisions of the work from each other. In the last section there is more display of individual part-writing than in the first, two themes flying with nimbleness and legerdemain from group to group of instruments.
The fourth Brandenburg concerto has a first movement scored piquantly for a solo violin, two solo flutes and the "ripieno" strings. At first the strings mark by a sharp stroke the beat, while the flutes carry the lilting tune. Later on come some whirling passages of great velocity for the solo violinist—who must have been a good man, possibly Spiess of the Prince's band, or even Bach himself, for he in his youth was no in-different executant on the violin as on other instruments. The slow movement is an excellent illustration of the contrasts in planes of sonorities which Bach's instrumental music often affords, and to which reference has already been made. It juxtaposes soft and loud passages which answer each other. Stocky counterpoint, at a vigorous pace, and rapid scale passages that relieve it, make the stuff of the finale.
The fifth Brandenburg concerto, in D major, for performance by solo flute, solo violin and solo harpsichord, is the one which gives prominent display to the keyed instrument. The festive figure that opens the movement is carried along vigorously by the harpsichord (or usually, when it is played in these days, by the piano). There follow various combinations of concertante and "ripieno," with special bravura pas-sages for the harpsichord player, and finally a long and unaccompanied cadenza for that executant which is a masterly summing up of what has preceded, ex-tending almost to the end of the movement. The slow movement is for the polyphonic ensemble. In the finale the harpsichord again takes a prominent part.
The sixth Brandenburg concerto, in B flat, is for solo violas and cello, with the strings "ripieno." It be-gins with a swinging "canon in the unison," one part imitating at the distance of a single beat the motive just played by another part, and so continuing throughout the movement, which, following this precise method, provides the most exhilarating music. The slow movement is the one that is deepest in meaning and the most elaborate in the part-writing of any slow movement of the Brandenburg set. There are four separate and eloquent melodic lines "There is a noble severity of design, profound beauty and feeling. And again, in the finale, Bach's laughter echoes through the world.
Such are a few of the surface characteristics of the Brandenburg concertos. Bach wrote other concertos for solo instruments and orchestra—two concertos for solo violin, and the concerto for two violins; concertos for solo harpsichord, two concertos for two harpsichords and two for three harpsichords, and the quadruple concerto, which is a transcription by Bach of the Vivaldi concerto for four violins with orchestra. Most of these concertos, however, are transcriptions by Bach of concertos for solo violin or for other instruments by other composers. He was all the time absorbing music, any and all music that he deemed worthy of study, and transcribing it. F transcribed for different instruments a great many of his own works. When he transcribed he often developed. When the concertos come from an outside source they are more than copies of other men's music, in many cases constituting improvements on the original which have caused otherwise perishable material to survive and come down to us.