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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

The remaining movements in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto have nothing to compare with this disruption. By now the harpsichord has made its point, and its status as a full partner to the other soloists is something the listener will take for granted, so there is no need to insist on it. The middle movement, explicitly marked affettuoso, is actual chamber music, scored for the soloists alone. Although played by three instruments, it is really a quartet, since the left and right hands of the keyboard have differing roles. The left hand, as always, is the continuo part, sometimes joined in this function by the right hand (where figures are marked) to accompany the other soloists at the imitative beginnings of sections. Elsewhere, the right hand takes part on an equal footing with the flute and violin, sometimes participating in imitative textures along with them, at other times alternating with them in a kind of antiphony.

This kind of obbligato harpsichord writing in chamber music is something one finds a great deal in Bach and in other German composers, too, especially Telemann. It may have been the conceptual origin of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, in which an obbligato-style chamber ensemble is turned into a concertino. Usually, in ensembles of this kind, the obbligato harpsichord is paired with one other instrument to make a sort of trio sonata in which the right hand at the keyboard is a “soloist” and the left hand the “accompanist.” Bach wrote three sonatas of this kind for flute and harpsichord, six for violin and harpsichord, and (at Cöthen, where his patron was an amateur of the instrument) three for viola da gamba and harpsichord.

The first gamba and harpsichord sonata actually began life as a trio sonata for two flutes and basso continuo before Bach transcribed it for the more compact medium. This suggests that any trio sonata might be performed with a harpsichordist taking two of the parts. (Bach surely did this sort of thing often at Cöthen and later with his Collegium Musicum at Leipzig.) In other words, the use of the obbligato harpsichord, at least when it does not involve highly idiomatic toccata-like passagework, could be looked at as a performance practice rather than a hard-and-fast compositional genre. The second gamba sonata does have a toccata-like passage in the last movement, suggesting that it was originally written for the obbligato medium, not merely adapted to it. The third gamba sonata, in G minor, is especially odd and interesting: a very extended affair with a first movement cast like a concerto in ritornello form. This, too, is a type of sonata for which there are precedents in Germany and only in Germany, where it was called a Sonata auf Concertenart (“Sonata in concerto style”).

The point is that performance genres and media were much more fluid in Bach’s day than they later became. For Bach, a piece did not necessarily have the kind of definitive form it later assumed with, say, Beethoven (and which, thanks largely to Beethoven, we now expect all pieces to have). A piece was always fair game for cannibalization in other pieces, for transplantation to other media, or seemingly arbitrary adaptation. The line between creating it and performing it was not as finely drawn as we might nowadays tend to assume. Thus it should not surprise us to learn that Bach arranged many violin concertos, including some otherwise lost ones by himself, to perform as harpsichord concertos with his Collegium Musicum, or that individual movements from the Brandenburg Concertos turn up in other works, even vocal ones.

The final movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is an excellent example of “fused” genres. It seems to have a hard time deciding whether it is a fugue, a gigue, or a concerto. But of course it is all of those things at once. We have already seen how often the two sections of a gigue begin with little fugal expositions. In the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the exposition is extended into quite an elaborate affair—in four parts, two of them assigned to the harpsichord—that lasts 28 measures before the ripieno joins in to second it with another extended exposition of 50 measures’ length, the whole 78-bar complex in effect making up one huge ritornello.

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. 25 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06010.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06010.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 25 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06010.xml