Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047

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            One of the signal achievements of the music of the Baroque era was inauguration of the concerto.  The fundamental principle of the genre is the contrasting of a soloist, a group of soloists, or even two or more groups of musicians with each other during the course of a composition.  Almost every significant composer of the time composed them, but none reached the zenith of achievement in the genre as did J. S. Bach in his six Brandenburg Concertos late in the style period. From 1717 until 1723 he was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Cöthen, a small court in eastern Germany.  The Brandenburg Concertos stem from this time:  the full score in Bach’s hand bears the date of 24 March 1721, but it is probable that simply marks the completion of the set; he certainly had been working on them over a period of time.  They bear the title “Brandenburg Concertos” owing to their dedication to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig.   Bach had played before him earlier in Berlin and the concertos were the result of an invitation to provide some works for the Margrave.  Nothing came of it—no money, no thanks, not even a by your leave.   But the Margrave’s loss is posterity’s gain.

            Bach’s soaring imagination comes to the fore in the Brandenburg Concertos in many ways, not the least of which is his striking use of a variety of instruments in various combinations.   In addition to the normal body of strings that is familiar, we encounter trumpet, recorders, French horns, oboes, flute, violino piccolo, violas, violas da gamba, and harpsichord. The soloists are accompanied by a small orchestra (the ripieno), and—like almost all Baroque music--supported by the omnipresent bass instruments and keyboard.   Called the continuo, this essential group reinforces the harmony, and is the foundation of the musical texture.  Its importance in Baroque music one wag once compared to the “ . . . presence of the Holy Spirit—subtle, and conspicuous only in Its absence.”

            As with most Baroque music, prepare for long phrases, literally “spun out,” as the faster sections take their time to reach a pause.  Melodies tend toward short motives that often “chug” along in a relentless motoric, but charming fashion.  Economy of means is an artistic virtue—making the most of little—and Bach was the master of it.  The slow movements, while still exhibiting the long phrases of the faster ones, generally fashion their melodies, not out of short incisive motives, but seemingly as long-breathed instrumental “operatic arias.”  The Italian vocal influence is unmistakable here, and again, it is one of Bach’s defining traits.

            The second concerto is distinguished for its use of solo trumpet in the small group, along with recorder, oboe, and violin, accompanied by the usual larger group of strings and harpsichord. Owing to the paucity of virtuoso recorder players, the transverse flute is often substituted for the block flute (recorder).   The trumpet faces a challenge, not only in the need to “hold it down” to blend with the softer soloists, but also in the formidable high register in which it famously must play.  It’s written much higher than most of today’s orchestral trumpet parts for the simple reason that only in that manner could eighteenth-century players have a full scale to play melodies—there being no valves on brass instruments in those days to make it possible otherwise.  This difficult part was the chief reason for the long time that the second concerto was not performed after Bach’s generation, but skillful modern players, with appropriate equipment, now essay it with success, but still, not without talent and effort. 

            In the traditional Italian tradition, the orchestra (ripieno) announces the main themes, followed by sections featuring the soloists with other themes.  Not so here, for Bach typically pushes the envelope by integrating the soloists with the ripieno, and blending the themes of both in a winsome mélange.  After orchestra opens with the main theme, the soloist present theirs, then the chase is on, with both groups alternating and combining in ever changing textures.   Soloists, pairs of soloists, soloists integrated with the orchestra—it’s a kaleidoscope of Baroque colors.  A unison statement of the main theme by all rounds it off.

            The second movement gives the trumpeter a much deserved rest, and features the remaining three soloists, accompanied, of course, by the continuo.   Andante literally means “to walk,” and this delightful stroll is carried along by what is commonly called a “walking bass” that never relents.  The delightful interplay by the three soloists is in the charming musical style that soon followed the Baroque.  Its progressive style belies the occasional misconception of Bach as stuck in the old style.

            The last movement is dominated by the small group of soloists, the large group not entering until well into the movement.   Listeners of a certain age will recognize the main theme of the movement as that of the PBS series “The Firing Line” with William F. Buckley, Jr.—who adored Bach.  The trumpet boldly announces the tune, which, in fact, is that of a full-fledged fugue, answered by the violin and oboe, and then the flute.  The driving, happy lilt is prima facie evidence of Bach’s consummate skill in using what many consider a “stuffy,” academic texture in a light, dancing context.  But, then so could Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, for that matter.  The music soars, while almost invisible technical machinations are at work.  Finally, in the peroration, the trumpet again sings out the familiar theme with which it opened the movement.   Obviously, the Margrave missed the boat on these immortal concerti.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan