JS Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

Recordings of Brandenburg's Number 5 and 6 can be found in Columbia's Online Reserves here.
A Score can be found here.
Another introduction to the Brandenburgs is here.
For an allegorical reading of the Brandenburg Concertos by the noted early music conductor, Philip Pickett, click here.

In 1721, Bach presented a stylishly-bound set of six concertos in diverse combinations to the relatively minor Margrave of Brandenburg perhaps in the hope of gaining a position at the Margrave's court. If this was indeed their purpose, Bach failed; he was not hired. According to the manuscript, Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is scored for "one flute, one solo violin, one violin and one viola in the ensemble, cello and double-bass and harpsichord concertato."

What makes this concerto especially remarkable is the extended solo for the harpsichord. Although concertos for odd instruments were relatively common in the period, concertos for keyboard instruments were rare. At the time the harpsichord was known primarily as a continuo instrument and, as such, its role was to support the soloists, here the flute and violin. In this concerto Bach spotlights the harpsichord, making it a soloist as well. Indeed, the harpsichord seems to eclipse the genteel flute and violin, taking the first movement into increasingly remote harmonic areas, before beginning a lengthy cadenza (a virtuosic solo episode) of its own before the final ritornello. Bach's keyboard concertos would eventually lead to the modern piano concerto.

The Margrave of Brandenburg
Things to Note
While incredibly influenced by Italian forms - Bach copied out keyboard arrangements of several works of Vivaldi and others - Bach viewed them through a more international lens, mixing them with French and English techniques and styles as well as those of his own native Germany. Consequently, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 has a somewhat more complicated structure than that of Vivaldi's Concerto for Oboe, Bassoon, Strings and Continuo. Although both share the genre of Concerto Grosso and are structured in ritornello form, with its alternations of stable tutti ritornellos (such as those that open and close the work) and solo episodes, Bach's use of the form differs considerably from Vivaldi. While the entrances of Vivaldi's ritornellos tend to be clearcut and his textures more homophonic, Bach often fades the ritornellos in and out within a more polyphonic texture.
Note throughout how Bach teases the listener into expecting a return of the ritornello. Often, the ritornello will sneak into the texture, instead of making a powerful statement. Another way in which Bach's concertos differ from Vivaldi's is the way in which he uses the material from the ritornello thematically, incorporating it into the soloists' material in an unprecedented way - in this way the episodes seem to emerge from the ritornello, rather than stand in contrast to it.
The ritornello theme utilizes the stile concitato or agitated style, a technique "invented" by Monteverdi in his eighth Book of Madrigals and associated with warlike emotions and repeted note figures. Like many ritornellos, it can be divided into three sections - the vordersatz, fortspinnung and epilog, or put simply, beginning, "spinning out" and closing.
While on the small scale, the first movement is a complex take on ritornello form, on the largest scale, the work can also be thought of as an ABA form, with the B section beginning at the lengthy solo in the minor mode at 3:00; the A material returns at 4:51.
The second movement of the concerto is an exceedingly beautiful and much more ruminative work akin to an early church trio sonata, while the third movement is again lively and in a compound meter.

The opening Ritornello of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, in Bach's hand.
Listening Chart

JS Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (c. 1721), mvt. 1
Timings match recording by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort

0:00 Ritornello Complete Ritornello played by orchestra, loud, bright, strong, major..
0:20 Solo Flute, violin with Harpsichord accompaniment. Faster rhythms, some new themes as well as themes from the ritornello.
0:44 Ritornello (first phrase) Orchestra, loud
0:49 Solo Soloists play similar material to first Episode
1:08 Ritornello (middle phrase) Ochestra, loud
1:15 Solo Soloists play similar material to first Episode moving the work more strongly to a minor key.
1:35 Ritornello (middle phrase) Orchestra loud, in a minor key.
1:40 Solo Soloists play similar material to first Episode, later harpsichord begins playing faster scales. Fake entrance of ritornello at 1:57
2:21 Ritornello (middle phrase) Orchestra
2:27 Solo Further fragments material from ritornellos
3:00 Minor Section of the work Large Scale transition: Quiet flute and violin dialogue, accompanied by quiet orchestra. Largely in the minor, slow harmonic rhythm (movement from one harmony to another.)
3:17 Staccato (detached) notes in cello, flute and violins.
3:50 Long held high notes prepare for ritornello return.
4:04 Ritornello (first phrase) Orchestra, loud
4:08 Solo Violin and flute trade off scales in imitation, fake entrance of ritornello at 4:26
4:51 Ritornello (first/second phrase) Orchestra, loud, return to original key.
5:02 Solo
5:30 Ritornello (middle phrase) Orchestra, loud
5:38 Solo Harpsichord begins to take control: Fast harpsichord runs leading into cadenza. Staccato notes in flute and violin then they drop out leaving:
6:17 Harpsichord Cadenza Long passage of motives from solo sections.
8:10 Faster, more brilliant, highly virtuosic. Begins to sound as if Bach, or the harpsichord player, were drunk while composing.
8:36 Tension increases in anticipation of ritornello return.
9:26 Final Ritornello Orchestra, loud, plays complete ritornello.

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All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.