Length: 20 minutes
Orchestration: solo flute, solo violin, solo keyboard, strings, and continuo
Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is a good place to begin an exploration of Baroque music. The concerto form itself, with its alternation of soloists and orchestra, was a product of the Baroque era, which began around 1600 and ended about 150 years later, with the death of Bach and his contemporary, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). In the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, Bach's imagination overflows with many of the traits that various authors have cited as belonging to the Baroque, especially invention and contrast. It was one of six "concertos with several instruments" that the composer gathered together in 1721 and dedicated to the music-loving youngest son of the Elector of Brandenburg, which explains the title.
Bach wasn't too caught up in keeping track of when and why he wrote his music, so scholars today can only make educated guesses when it comes to dating his works. The Dutch scholar Pieter Dirksen has made a particularly strong case for dating the Fifth Brandenburg to 1717. That year, Bach visited Dresden for a keyboard showdown with the French virtuoso Louis Marchand - the two greatest players of the age were slated to meet mano a mano in a musical heavyweight title bout. The "haughty" Marchand sneaked away at the last minute, leaving Dresden at the crack of dawn by "special coach," and Bach won the day. Among the high points of Bach's 1717 Dresden visit were his performances with the violinist who led the city's orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Volumier, and the orchestra's flutist, Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin. Dirksen argues that the trio likely played the Fifth Brandenburg together at these performances.
The music itself easily bears the weight of this assertion. Bach started with a combination of solo instruments - a flute, violin, and keyboard - popular in chamber music at the time. Chamber music is what we find in the concerto's slow movement, the affettuoso (a direction to the performers to play tenderly, with feeling). In the outer movements, the keyboard occupies the foreground, though Bach keeps the flute and the violin busy as well. This was the first concerto to give such a prominent role to the
keyboard, including a thrillingly virtuosic 64-bar solo cadenza (a passage, improvised in some works, meant to show off the soloist's talent) in the first movement. Beyond this ample proof of Bach's keyboard mastery, the entire concerto offers compelling evidence to secure his place among the greatest composers of the Baroque, or, indeed, any era.
-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.