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FastNotes

  • Like all of the six concertos that Bach sent to the Margraf of Brandenburg in 1721, the Fourth “Brandenburg” Concerto is for an unusual, perhaps unique combination of instruments. Bach scored this concerto for solo violin and two solo flutes against a body of strings.
  • Bach specified “flauto,” by which he meant end-blown recorders, instead of the ancestor of the modern flute (which he called “flauto traverso”), but in modern performances flutes have inherited the parts.
  • The jaunty, good-humored opening Allegro is a complicated tapestry, with the colors of the flutes and solo violin interwoven in the texture.
  • In the second movement the flutes answer the phrases of the larger group with no accompaniment but the solo violin.
  • The finale is a combination of concerto style and formal fugue, with the tutti sections corresponding with fugal expositions and the solo sections constituting the freer episodes.

Like all of the six concertos that Bach sent to the Margraf of Brandenburg, younger brother of the King of Prussia, in 1721, the Fourth “Brandenburg” Concerto is for an unusual, perhaps unique combination of instruments, as if Bach were seeking to overwhelm the Margraf with the sheer variety of his musical ability. He probably succeeded all too well — the musicians of the Margraf’s small musical establishment may well have been intimidated by the set; in any event it appears they never played the concertos.

Taking as his point of departure the concerto grosso, in which a small group of soloists stands out from a larger ripieno (accompaniment) group, Bach scored this concerto for solo violin and two solo flutes against a body of strings. Bach specified “flauto,” by which he meant end-blown recorders, instead of the ancestor of the modern flute (which he called “flauto traverso”), but in modern performances flutes have inherited the parts. This combination naturally sounds very bright, particularly since the flute parts lie fairly high. One result is an almost precious perkiness, particularly in the first movement.

Bach uses his forces differently in each movement. The jaunty, good-humored opening Allegro is a complicated tapestry, with the colors of the flutes and solo violin interwoven in the texture. In the second movement the flutes answer the phrases of the larger group (Bach refers to them in the score as “echo flutes”), with no accompaniment but the solo violin; the high flute parts allow the violin to function as a kind of bass, relatively speaking. The finale is a combination of concerto style and formal fugue, with the tutti sections corresponding with fugal expositions and the solo sections constituting the freer episodes. Though Bach was not normally given to virtuosic display, he gives the violin two extended moments of pure flash: a sequence of rapid scales in the first movement, and a shimmering passage of arpeggiated bowings on alternating strings, known in the fiddling trade as “bariolage,” in the last movement. Howard Posner