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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

These ideas apply with particular conviction to Bach’s most familiar body of instrumental music and can serve to “defamiliarize” it interestingly, perhaps illuminatingly. In 1721, while serving at Cöthen, Bach gathered up six instrumental concertos that he had composed over the last decade or so, wrote them out in a new “fair copy” or presentation manuscript, and sent them off with a suitably obsequious calligraphic dedication page, elegantly composed in French (the German court language), to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg (Fig. 6-11), hoping for an appointment to the latter’s court in Berlin. (Several of Bach’s best known compositions, in fact, were written or assembled in connection with job- or title-hunting, often unsuccessful; they include his “B-minor Mass,” about which more in the next chapter.)

The rest of the story is well known: the Margrave never acknowledged receipt of the manuscript and seems never to have had the concertos performed. Their fame dates from the acquisition of the calligraphic manuscript by the royal library in Berlin and their subsequent publication as a set. To the Margrave they must have seemed bizarre, and they were most likely quite unsuited to the resources of his court, for in their scoring they all differ radically from one another, and not one of them uses a standard orchestral complement. Their fame, plus the sheer fact that “The Brandenburg Concertos” have so long been standard repertory works, has hidden their strangeness behind a cloak of canonical familiarity. (So has the esthetic attitude that in the nineteenth century gave rise to the very idea of a standard repertory, which paradoxically regarded uniqueness as a “standard” feature of masterworks worthy of inclusion.) Perhaps the most absorbing exercise of the historical imagination, where Bach’s music is concerned, is the recovery of that hidden strangeness.

The “Brandenburg” Concertos

fig. 6-11 Bach’s calligraphic dedication of the Brandenburg Concertos.

Merely to list the ensembles the concertos call for is to make a start toward grasping their eccentricity. The first concerto, in F major, has for its concertino or solo group a weirdly assorted combination of two horns, three oboes, a bassoon, and a violino piccolo (a smaller, higher-pitched type of violin, then rare, now altogether obsolete). The movements are an equally weird assortment, mixing ritornello movements and courtly dances. The second concerto, also in F major, uses four soloists, their instruments starkly contrasting in their means of tone production and strength of voice: in order of appearance they are violin, oboe, recorder (end-blown whistle flute), and clarino trumpet. Balancing the recorder’s whisper with the trumpet’s blast must have been as daunting a prospect then as it is now. The third concerto, in G major, has no concertino at all; it is scored for a unique ripieno ensemble comprising nine string soloists: three violins, three violas, and three cellos, plus a continuo of bass and harpsichord. The fourth, also in G major, uses a violin and two unusual recorders pitched on G (designated flûtes d’echo in the score).

The last two concertos are the most bizarrely scored of all. The fifth, in D major, has for its concertino a violin, a transverse flute (the wooden ancestor of the modern metal flute), and—of all things!—a harpsichord in a fully written-out, soloistic (rather than continuo) capacity. This is apparently the earliest of all solo keyboard concertos. To us it seems the beginning of a long line, but no one could have foreseen that when Bach had the idea. The sixth concerto, in B-flat major, finally does away with the otherwise ubiquitous solo violin. Indeed, it banishes the violin from the orchestra altogether—something for which there seems to be no precedent in the prior (or for that matter, the subsequent) history of the concerto, which is so intimately bound up with the history of the violin.

Instead, the sixth concerto promotes two violas, normally the least conspicuous members of the ripieno, to soloist position, and dragoons a pair of viols (viole da gamba), not normally a part of the orchestra at all but soft-toned chamber music instruments, to fill the gap left in the middle of the texture by the “elevation” of the violas. Like the third concerto, the sixth minimizes the distinction between solo and ripieno; the concerto requires only seven instruments for performance—the two violas, the two gambas, and a continuo of cello, bass, and harpsichord.

Were these bizarrely fanciful and colorful scorings the product of sheer caprice, meant as “ear candy” and nothing more? Were they the product of immediate need or personal convenience? (Bach’s patron at Cöthen played the gamba; Bach himself, of course, was a matchless keyboard virtuoso.) Or were they somehow meaningful, in a way that more normally scored or “abstract” instrumental music was not? These are questions to which answers can only be speculative. Such questions, to the historian, are in one sense the most frustrating kind, but in another sense the most fascinating.

To answer them, it is necessary to ask other questions. Was the standard concerto scoring, or the standard makeup of an orchestra, really “abstract” and nonsignificant? Or did it, too, mean something? If so, what did its alteration or negation mean? And even more basically, to whom did it mean whatever it meant?

Recent research on the history of the orchestra shows that, from the very beginning, the orchestra—the most complex of all musical ensembles—was often explicitly (and even more often, it would probably follow, tacitly) regarded as a social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity. This assumption was already implicitly invoked a few paragraphs back when the violas were casually described as the “least conspicuous members of the ripieno.” Their inconspicuousness was the result of the kind of music they played: harmonic filler, for the most part, having neither any substantial tunes to contribute nor the harmonically defining function of the bass to fulfill. Musically, their role could fairly be described as being, while necessary, distinctly less important than those of their fellow players above (the violins) and below (the continuo instruments). Even today, the violas (and the “second violins”) in an orchestra—the “inner parts”—are proverbially subordinate players, by implication social inferiors. Our everyday language bears this out whenever we speak of “playing second fiddle” to someone else.

And if “second fiddle” implies inferiority, then “first fiddle” tacitly implies a superior condition. In Bach’s day, before there were baton conductors, the first violinist was in fact the orchestra leader. (Even today, when the leadership role has long since passed to the silent dictator with the stick, the first violinist is still called the “concertmaster.”) So when Bach banishes the violins from the ensemble, as he does in the sixth concerto, and puts the violas in their place, it is hard to avoid the impression that a social norm—that of hierarchy—has been upended.

Or consider the fifth concerto, which begins (Ex. 6-16a) with a fiery tutti played by every instrument in the ensemble except the flute. For one actually watching the performance as well as listening to it—a point that may require some underscoring in an age when our primary relationship to musical sound may be to its recorded and therefore disembodied variety—the clear implication is that the flute is to be the protagonist, and that the rest of the instruments belong to the ripieno. So the fact that the violin and the obbligato harpsichord continue to play after the first tutti cadence is already a surprise.

At first it is not entirely clear that the harpsichord part in the solo episodes is a full social equal to the flute and the violin; continuo players often improvised elaborate right-hand parts in chamber music, and Bach himself was known to be especially adept at doing so. The triplets in measure 10, unprecedented in the opening tutti but later much developed by the other soloists, can be read in retrospect as the first clue that the harpsichord is to be no mere accompanist. The triplets, like the slurred pairs of eighth notes in the second solo episode (already identified in the B-minor fugue from the WTC as “sighs”), are unmistakable emblems of what Bach would have called the affettuoso (tender) style. (They were conspicuous in the castrato music sampled in chapter 4.) In their contrast with the agitated repeated sixteenth notes of the ritornello, recalling the dramatic concitato style that goes all the way back to Monteverdi, the triplets and slurs are a signal to us that the dulcet solos and the spirited tuttis are going to be somewhat at odds in this concerto, and that the “scenario” of the piece will involve their reconciliation—or else their failure to achieve reconciliation.

It is the harpsichord that impedes reconciliation. By the time the first “remote” modulation gets made (to B minor), the harpsichord has already made it clear that it will not be content with its usual service role. Indeed, it is determined to dominate the show. In m. 47 it actually abandons the bass line (leaving it contemptuously to the viola and ripieno violin) and launches into a toccata-like riff in thirty-second notes that lasts for only three measures (Ex. 6-16b), but that succeeds in knocking things for a loop—a condition symbolized first by the failure of an attempted tutti in the tonic to achieve its cadence, and then by the long dreamlike tutti that marks the movement’s FOP in the very unusual mediant key of F♯ minor (iii).

The “Brandenburg” ConcertosThe “Brandenburg” Concertos

ex. 6-16a J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, I, opening

In this long section (mm. 71–101) a new theme, related neither to the ritornello nor to the original soloist’s material, is traded off between the flute and violin soloists (Ex. 6-16c) while the harpsichord keeps up a relentless tramp of sixteenth notes. Eventually the other soloists’ stamina gives out and the music becomes entirely harmonic, a slow march around the circle of fifths in which nothing sounds but arpeggios at various levels of speed. At m. 95 the motion is further arrested (Ex. 6-16d), with the long-held dissonances in the flute and violin, trilled pianissimo, seeming to go out of time as if everyone were falling asleep—everyone, that is, except the harpsichord and its continuo cohort, the cello.

The “Brandenburg” ConcertosThe “Brandenburg” Concertos

ex. 6-16b J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, I, mm. 47–51

At m. 101 everyone snaps out of their trance with a ritornello on the dominant that seems to be pointing the way toward home. The flute and violin conspire to direct the harmony tonicward with a sequential episode, and succeed in bringing about a small cadence on I that the harpsichord seems to abet with an entrance that apes its very first solo. The flute and violin join in with reminiscences of their first solos, and when the ripieno chimes in to cap things off with a full repetition of the opening ritornello—the normal ending for a movement like this—the piece seems about to end on the expected note of fully achieved concord.

But it has all been a diabolical ruse, and the movement, which has already reached more or less average Vivaldian length, turns out to be only half over. On the third beat of m. 125 the end so agreeably promised is aborted by a classic deceptive cadence, engineered by the bass, which (in a manner that recalls the Toccata in F, explored in the previous chapter) assaults the tonic D with a fiercely dissonant and chromatic C-natural that forces the music out of its tonal bed, so to speak, and forces it to keep going at least long enough to repair the abruption. A new purchase on the same ritornello is thwarted again, once more by the bass, which feints to the third of the chord rather than the root, producing an inversion that cannot support a close.

There will be no more attempts at closure for a long time, because the harpsichord, as if seizing its moment, launches once again into the toccata riff it had initiated some ninety or so measures earlier, and this time it proves to be truly irrepressible. The thirty-second notes keep up for fifteen measures, changing in figuration from scales to decorated slow arpeggios, to very wide and rapid arpeggios. With every new phase in the harpsichord’s antics comes a corresponding loss of energy in the other instruments (now clearly their former accompanist’s accompanists), until they simply drop out, leaving their obstreperous companion alone in play (Ex. 6-16e).

The “Brandenburg” Concertos

ex. 6-16c J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, I, mm. 71–74

The “Brandenburg” Concertos

ex. 6-16d J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, I, mm. 95–99

What follows is something no eighteenth-century listener could ever have anticipated. It had no precedents of any kind in ensemble music—and (outside of a few outlandish violin concertos by latterday Italian virtuosi like Pietro Locatelli and Francesco Maria Veracini, who probably never heard of Bach) it would have no successors, either. The unimaginably lengthy passage for the cembalo solo senza stromenti, as Bach puts it (“the harpsichord alone without [the other] instruments”), is an absolutely unique event in the “High Baroque” concerto repertory.

The “Brandenburg” ConcertosThe “Brandenburg” Concertos

ex. 6-16e J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 5, I, mm. 151–59

It is often called a cadenza, on a vague analogy to the kind of pyrotechnics that opera singers like Farinelli would indulge in before the final ritornello in an opera seria aria. And perhaps Bach’s listeners might eventually have made such a connection as the harpsichord’s phantasmagoria wore on and the remaining instruments sat silent for an unheard-of length of time. But the actual style of the solo is more in keeping with what Bach’s contemporaries would have called a capriccio—a willfully bizarre instrumental composition that made a show of departing from the usual norms of style. (Locatelli would actually call the extended—and optional—unaccompanied display passages in his violin concertos capriccii, and later collected them into a book of études in all the keys called L’Arte del violino; but even these were passages for the expected soloist, not a usurping would-be Farinelli from the continuo section!) Bach’s capriccio begins like a virtuoso reworking of the original soloist’s themes—the previously “dulcet” music now played with fiery abandon. Later there is a return to the relentless tread of sixteenth notes that had accompanied the F♯-minor episode described above. Finally, there is a mind-boggling explosion of toccata fireworks that lasts for over twenty measures before resuming the earlier thematic elaboration and bringing it at last to cadence. By the time it has run its course and allowed the tutti finally to repeat its opening ritornello one last time and bring the movement to a belated close, the harpsichord’s cadenza/cappriccio/toccata has lasted sixty-five measures, close to one-third the length of the entire movement, and completely distorted its shape.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06009.xml