Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is the first work in a set of six of the best-known instrumental works from the first half of the 18th century. Bach (1685-1750) composed his six Brandenburg Concertos while he was working for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, ruler of a small principality in the heart of German-speaking central Europe. They were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, another German princeling Bach had met during a 1719 trip the composer made to Berlin to buy a harpsichord for the Cöthen court. The Margrave apparently asked Bach to compose a set of concertos, and Bach obliged with his six "concertos with diverse instruments," the manuscript of which bears a dedication to the Margrave and a date of 1721.
The first of the set, in the balmy key of F major, lives up to Bach's description, with a pair of solo horns, three oboes, a bassoon, and a solo violin added to the basic Baroque orchestra of strings and continuo (usually harpsichord and cello). The horns, instruments traditionally associated with the hunt, give the concerto an outdoor, autumnal feeling - indeed, in its first version, the concerto originally served as the instrumental opening to Bach's "Hunt" Cantata of 1713 (itself famous for its aria "Sheep May Safely Graze"). In reworking the music, Bach added the third movement Allegro and expanded the sequence of dances that comprise the fourth movement.
In its final form, the concerto combines elements of the older baroque suite, which consisted of an overture followed by several dance movements, with characteristics of the (then) recently developed Vivaldi-style concerto, with its alternation between orchestra and soloist. In the opening movement, Bach treats the different solo instruments antiphonally, with different instruments sounding off against or in combination with one another. The slow second movement begins with an oboe "spinning out," in typical Baroque fashion, a seemingly endless melody. This tune is repeated and elaborated by the various soloists before a series of stark notes that seem to each hang in the air are sounded by different orchestral voices to segue into the third movement.
This third movement Allegro resembles the finale of a Vivaldi-style concerto in its outlines - it's fast, and it features a prominent solo for the violin, with the other solo instruments here interpolated into the orchestral texture. The mini-suite of dances that follows brings to mind another function of music during Bach's time, when orchestras often entertained the prince and his court at table, while they dined, with just this sort of elegant, undemanding music. Bach uses the opening minuet to frame a series of trios, the first for oboes and bassoon only, the second a Polacca (a moderately paced processional couples dance of Polish origin) for muted strings, the third a festive interlude for oboes and horns.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.