The Brandenburg concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1046–1051, original title: Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments) are a collection of six instrumental works presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721 (though probably composed earlier). They are widely regarded as among the finest musical compositions of the Baroque era.
The dedication page Bach wrote for the collection indicates they are Concerts avec plusieurs instruments (Concertos with several instruments). Bach used the "widest spectrum of orchestral instruments... in daring combinations," as Christoph Wolff has commented. "Every one of the six concertos set a precedent in scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel." Heinrich Besseler has noted that the overall forces required (leaving aside the first concerto, which was rewritten for a special occasion) tallies exactly with the 17 players Bach had at his disposal in Köthen.
Here is the first sentence of his dedication to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, its tone, if not its rather remarkable length, typical of dedications of the period:
"As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have 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; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him."
Because King Frederick William I of Prussia was not a significant patron of the arts, Christian Ludwig seems to have lacked the musicians in his Berlin ensemble to perform the concertos. The full score was left unused in the Margrave's library until his death in 1734, when it was sold for 24 groschen (as of 2008, about US$22.00 of silver). The concertos were discovered in the archives of Brandenburg in the 19th century.
In the modern era these 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. They have also been performed as chamber music, with one instrument per part, especially by (but not limited to) groups using baroque instruments and (sometimes more, sometimes less) historically-informed techniques and practice. There is also an arrangement for two pianos by composer Max Reger.
Title on autograph score: Concerto 1mo à 2 Corni di Caccia, 3 Hautb: è Bassono, Violino Piccolo concertato, 2 Violini, una Viola è Violoncello, col Basso Continuo.
This concerto is the only one in the collection with four movements. An earlier version (Sinfonia, BWV 1046a) which does not use the violino piccolo was used for the opening of cantata BWV 208. This version lacks the third movement entirely, and the Polacca from the final movement, leaving Menuet - Trio I - Menuet - Trio II - Menuet. The first movement can also be found as the sinfonia of the cantata BWV 52, Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht. The third movement was used as the opening chorus of cantata BWV 207.
Title on autograph score: Concerto 2do à 1 Tromba, 1 Fiauto, 1 Hautbois, 1 Violino concertati, è 2 Violini, 1 Viola è Violone in Ripieno col Violoncello è Basso per il Cembalo.
This piece was almost certainly written with the court trumpeter in Cöthen, Johann Ludwig Schreiber, in mind. The trumpet part is still considered one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire, played on either the natural or the modern valved trumpet.
The trumpet does not play in the second movement, as is common practice in baroque era concerti due to the construction of the instrument, which allows the trumpet to play only in one key. Because concerti often move to a different key in the second movement, the trumpet is unable to play.
This piece was also chosen as the first to be played on the "golden record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth's common sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.
Title on autograph score: Concerto 3zo a tre Violini, tre Viole, è tre Violoncelli col Basso per il Cembalo.
The second movement consists of a single measure with the two chords that make up a Phrygian mode cadence and—although there is no direct evidence to support it—it was likely that these chords are meant to surround or follow a cadenza improvised by a harpsichord or violin player. Modern performance approaches run a gamut from simply playing the cadence with minimal ornamentation (treating it as a sort of "musical semicolon"), to inserting movements from other works, to cadenzas varying in length from under a minute to over two minutes. Notably, Wendy Carlos's three electronic performances (from Switched-On Bach, Switched-On Brandenburgs, and Switched-On Bach 2000) have second movements that are completely different from each other.
Occasionally, the third movement from Bach's "Sonata for Violin and Continuo in G , BWV. 1021" (marked Largo) is substituted for the second movement as it contains an identical Phrygian mode cadence as the closing chords. The Adagio from the Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1019a, has also been used.
The outer movements use the ritornello form found in many instrumental and vocal works of the time. The first movement can also be found in reworked form as the sinfonia of the cantata BWV 174, "Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte", with the addition of three oboes and two horns.
Title on autograph score: Concerto 4ta à Violino Principale, due Fiauti d'Echo, due Violini, una Viola è Violone in Ripieno, Violoncello è Continuo.
The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. In the second movement, the violin provides a bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied.
Bach adapted the 4th Brandenburg concerto as the last of his set of 6 harpsichord concertos, the concerto for harpsichord, two recorders and strings in F major, BWV 1057. As well as taking on most of the solo violin's role, the harpsichord also takes over some of the recorders' parts in the andante, plays a basso continuo role at times and occasionally adds a fourth contrapuntal part to an originally three-part texture (something which Bach occasionally did while improvising). The harpsichord concerto is thus more than a mere transcription.
Title on autograph score: Concerto 5to d une Traversiere, une Violino principale, une Violino è una Viola in ripieno, Violoncello, Violone è Cembalo concertato.
The harpsichord is both a concertino and a ripieno instrument: in the concertino passages the part is obbligato; in the ripieno passages it has a figured bass part and plays continuo.
This concerto makes use of a popular chamber music ensemble of the time (flute, violin, and harpsichord), which Bach used on their own for the middle movement. It is believed that it was written in 1719, to show off a new harpsichord by Michael Mietke which Bach had brought back from Berlin for the Cöthen court. It is also thought that Bach wrote it for a competition at Dresden with the French composer and organist Louis Marchand; in the central movement, Bach uses one of Marchand's themes. Marchand fled before the competition could take place, apparently scared off in the face of Bach's great reputation of virtuosity and improvisation.
The concerto is well suited throughout to showing off the qualities of a fine harpsichord and the virtuosity of its player, but especially in the lengthy solo 'cadenza' to the first movement. It seems almost certain that Bach, considered a great organ and harpsichord virtuoso, was the harpsichord soloist at the premiere. Scholars have seen in this work the origins of the solo keyboard concerto; indeed it is said to be the first-ever example.
An earlier version, BWV 1050a, has innumerable small differences from its later cousin, but only two main ones: there is no part for cello, and there is a shorter and less elaborate harpsichord cadenza in the first movement. (The cello part in BWV 1050, when it differs from the violone part, doubles the left hand of the harpsichord.)
Title on autograph score: Concerto 6to à due Viole da Braccio, due Viole da Gamba, Violoncello, Violone e Cembalo.
The absence of violins is unusual. Viola da braccio means the normal viola, and is used here to distinguish it from the "viola da gamba". When the work was written in 1721, the viola da gamba was already an old-fashioned instrument: the strong supposition that one viola da gamba part was taken by his employer, Prince Leopold, also points to a likely reason for the concerto's composition—Leopold wished to join his Kapellmeister playing music.
The two violas start the first movement with a vigorous subject in close canon, and as the movement progresses, the other instruments are gradually drawn into the seemingly uninterrupted steady flow of melodic invention which shows the composer's mastery of polyphony. The two violas da gamba are silent in the second movement, leaving the texture of a trio sonata for two violas and continuo, although the cello has a decorated version of the continuo bass line. In the last movement, the spirit of the gigue underlies everything, as it did in the finale of the fifth concerto.