Of Bach‘s twenty-four surviving concerti, only nine come down to us in their original form: the six Brandenburg Concerti, and the three for violin. The others exist only as arrangements in which the solo-instruments (usually violins, but possibly also including oboe) were replaced by harpsichords. These keyboard versions were made during the 1730’s, when Bach was the music-director for the Collegium Musicum concerts held in Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig. In their original versions, the great majority of the concerti were composed between 1714 and 1722, when Bach was employed in Weimar and then in Anhalt-Cöthen. The Brandenburg Concerti come down to us in a particularly elaborate copy that Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 (perhaps in hopes of becoming his Capellmeister).

Our primary source-material for the others, including the two solo-violin concerti and the one for two violins, dates from the 1730’s, prepared (and revised?) by Bach and his sons and pupils for the Collegium concerts. The Concerto in D minor for Two Violins follows the three-movement, fast-slow-fast pattern that Bach used in virtually all his concerti, and which he learned from his study of Vivaldi‘s concerti in 1714 and 1715. Bach departed from this pattern only twice, in the 1st and 3rd Brandenburg Concerti. Nevertheless, the 1st has the three-movement sequence at its core, with a Menuet and Trios appended; and the 3rd is actually in three movements, even though the central movement was reduced to a progression of two chords.

In the middle and closing movements of the D-Minor Double-Concerto, the two solo violins engage in dialogue with each other, while the orchestra provides little more than harmonic and—in the last movement—rhythmic support. Only at the very end of the last movement does the orchestra take a more integral role in the musical activity. However, in the opening movement the relationships between the soloists and the orchestra are more intricate. Not only is there a dialogue between the two solo violins, but there is concurrently another dialogue between the pair of soloists and the orchestra. This second dialogue is made all the more interesting by the fact that the melodic material played by the soloists is all based on a descending scale, whereas the orchestral music is based on an ascending scale, which is heard at the very beginning of the movement and throughout.

The Fourth Brandenburg Concerto is altogether more complex. There are three bodies of sound: the orchestra of strings and continuo, a solo violin, and two alto recorders. The recorders sometimes function as part of the orchestra, and at other times as a solo-ensemble with or without the solo violin. Bach further blurs the traditional distinction between orchestral ritornello and solo passages by giving the opening of the first-movement ritornello to the solo group and assigning a merely supportive role to the orchestra. He also departs from traditional procedure in the second movement, but in a different manner. In the Italian concerti which Bach took as his models, the central slow movement is generally an aria or cantilena for the soloist with the orchestral accompaniment very much in the background. In this concerto the orchestra is involved in extensive interplay with the recorders and the solo violin. The final movement is a tour-de-force, both for the violin-soloist and especially for the composer. In it are combined some of Bach’s most virtuosic writing for the solo violin with a most demanding compositional device, a five-voice fugue.

Georg Muffat (1653-1704) was a German composer of Scottish decent who worked and studied both in Paris and Rome, where he was there influenced by Lully‘s mid-17th century ballet works, and later in the century, by Corelli‘s masterful new chamber and orchestral forms, including the concerto grosso. He evidently saw himself as an “importer” of styles, saying: “Upon my return from France, I was the first one to introduce the Lullian ballet style in Germany, so was I the first to bring this hitherto unknown harmony [e.g. Corellian style] to Germany.” In a dedication to his Florilegium, he says: “The notes, the strings, the dear sweet music tones give me my tasks in life, and here I mingle the French style with the German and Italian styles, foment no war, but perhaps exemplify in my music the harmony and dear peace desired by these peoples.”

His concerto grosso Propetia Sydera (Lucky Stars), is deservedly one of Muffat’s most famous pieces. A wonderful combination of French, German and Italian styles, this concerto has several French dance movements such as the Gavotte and Bourée, but also an extensive ciaconna in the Italian style. Muffat was quite free with the potential orchestrations of these concerti. In the preface he stated that “If you have a larger number of musicians at your disposal, you can employ more instruments [and] if there are some among your musicians who can play the French oboe or shawm melodiously and with proper moderation, they you can make admirable use of these and a good bassoonist.” We have chosen to take Muffat’s suggestions and orchestrated these pieces in a lively manner.

Tarquinio Merula was in important figure in the early history of the sonata. Serving as an organist in Cremona and Bergamo, he was exposed to some of the fine emerging violin playing in Italy in the early 17th century. His early instrumental works still have Renaissance canzona roots, but his later instrumental works display the new styles more idiomatic to the violin. This ciacona is based on a repeated bass melody and harmony (similar to the Ciacona of Muffat) that was popular for many instrumental and vocal pieces by many composers of the time The rhythmic excitement and virtuosity are hallmarks of this stile concitato.

©2001 Daniel Pyle and Lyle Nordstrom