On March 24, 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) dedicated six “concertos with several instruments” to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. The dedication offers a bit of insight into the social position occupied by one of Europe’s most talented composers during his lifetime. The Margrave had apparently shown an interest in Bach’s music at a previous meeting and asked to see some of the composer’s work. Bach obsequiously obliged, writing, “I have then in accordance with Your Highness’ most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of the fine and delicate taste that the whole world knows Your Highness has for musical pieces; but rather to infer from them in benign consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience that I try to show Your Highness therewith.” (No wonder there was a French Revolution!)
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, as they have come to be known because of their dedicatee, are among the most perfect examples of the Baroque concerto that we have today. Few works in the history of music match their tireless invention, their colorful instrumentation, or the tremendous demands they make on performers.
The Third Concerto, for nine solo strings (three each of violins, violas, and cellos) and continuo, opens majestically, with the soloists grouped by instrument (the violins play one figure, the violas another, and the cellos a third). As the movement progresses, these divisions hold for the most part, although there are moments of independence for each of the soloists. The closing movement, a vigorous allegro, follows the pattern of the opening, with the nine players divided again by instrument. The two outer movements are separated by a two-note adagio cadence, during which Bach intended the musicians to improvise a link between the two sections of the concerto.
- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA studying 18th-century German opera.