The Brandenburg Concertos are regarded by many as the finest compositions of the baroque era, and there is no better music than Bach’s to show off the brilliance of period instruments. Hear the strings shine with rhythmic energy in concerto No. 3. An intimate group of violin and two recorders paints the sheer elegance of concerto No. 4. A special highlight of this program is Telemann’s Viola Concerto, with its rich tones depicting wit, sorrow and exuberance performed by the Society’s own David Miller.
Director and Harpsichord
- Vivaldi: Sinfonia in G Major
- Telemann: Viola Concerto in G Major
- Purcell: Pavane and Chacony in G Minor
- J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049
- Boyce: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major
- Avison: Concerto Grosso No. 5 after Scarlatti
- J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concert No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048
One hour before the start of each performance inside each concert hall.
H2 Young Professionals
After the 1/21 performance, join us at Symphony 8.
Christina Day Martinson
Amelia Peabody Chair
Beginning in the 17th century, young men of wealth often traveled throughout the Continent to complete their education and expand their knowledge of the world. These trips could last for months or longer, during which time languages, painting, music, and associations were cultivated. The compositions on today’s program take us from England to Italy to Germany, a musical grand tour of Baroque instrumental music.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) is remembered today primarily as the composer who shaped the instrumental concerto, directly influencing the concerto writing of other composers such as J.S. Bach. Vivaldi was employed by the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four charitable institutions dedicated to the care and education of indigent children in Venice. His work for the Pietà did not require his continued presence in Venice; rather, he traveled extensively and pursued his many compositional opportunities. His Sinfonia in G Major, RV 146 shimmers with quick passagework set against harmonic progressions that entice our expectations. The middle movement, Vivace, is in a minor key and duple meter, providing contrast with the outer movements.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), a contemporary of Bach and Handel, was one of the most famous musicians and composers of his day. He held many prominent positions throughout Germany, including Leipzig, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. He was a prolific composer, equally adept in instrumental and vocal writing, comfortable with sacred and secular styles. While in Hamburg, he organized the Concert Spiritual, public concert programs that included a wide range of musical styles and compositions.
Telemann composed the Viola Concerto in G between 1716 and 1721; it is one of two concertos he wrote for this instrument. His penchant for writing lyrical melodies with clearly defined phrases can be heard in the first movement of the concerto, which recalls a stately dance. In the second movement, Allegro, the soloist interrupts the orchestral ritornello by playing part of the orchestral opening. With its next entrance, the solo part expands and elaborates on that same idea. The third movement, Andante, presents a contrasting minor key. The final movement, Presto, contains two halves, each of which repeats, suggesting another dance. The second half of the movement takes a wonderful turn to minor (recalling the third movement) before returning to the opening idea.
In the Brandenburg Concertos, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) also combines dance styles with concerto structures. These concertos were most likely written for Bach’s orchestra at the Cöthen court, where he was Kapellmeister from 1717–1723. In 1721, Bach dedicated the set of six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg, perhaps as a way of indicating he was seeking a new position. The Margrave of Brandenburg did not have the works performed at his court and he did not acknowledge receipt of the collection. They were found in 1873 in the Margrave’s library and have been known as the Brandenburg Concertos ever since. Each concerto explores the possibilities of different instrumental and formal combinations while maintaining the basic principle of alternation fundamental to the concerto structure.
In the Fourth Brandenburg, Bach uses only high instruments, violin and 2 flutes, as the soloists accompanied by an orchestra of strings plus basso continuo. With its focus on long-held notes in the flutes and the sparse orchestral accompaniment, the opening of the first movement feels leisurely. While the two solo flutes are easily heard, it can be difficult to hear a solo violin among the rest of the strings. Bach solves this compositional challenge by using the solo violin to connect the sections of the movement, suggesting a solo concerto within the context of the concerto grosso.
In the second movement, Andante, Bach uses the soloists as echoes of the orchestra. Those roles then reverse as the soloists elaborate on the opening idea and the orchestra replies. This movement concludes with two chords that prepare us harmonically for the final movement, Presto. This spirited conclusion is filled with fast passages for the soloists and an orchestral ritornello that features imitation.
Bach scored the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for strings. This is a standard orchestration for a concerto grosso; however, Bach groups these instruments in an unusual way. The orchestra consists of 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos plus bass and keyboard playing the basso continuo. The groups of strings act as both full orchestra (tutti) and soloists. The first movement begins with a three-note motive introduced by the whole ensemble. Then the solo groups play the idea in succession — a treat for the eye as well as the ear. The rhythmic and harmonic energy of this motive permeates the entire first movement as solo and orchestral sections alternate.
The second movement, Adagio, comes as something of a surprise. The score contains only two chords and so the challenge for the ensemble lies in how to play or realize those notes. They might be played as written or used as the skeletal structure for a short improvised passage by one of the soloists.
The third movement begins with a flourish in the first violin that is quickly imitated by the other two violins and the rest of the orchestra. Like the last movement of the Telemann Viola Concerto in G, the final movement of this concerto suggests a dance in its form and rhythmic vitality.
Henry Purcell (1659–1695) spent most of his life with the Chapel Royal in England. He sang in the chapel and after his voice changed, he studied composition. Recognized as an important composer of his day, Purcell composed in all genres common in 17th-century England. His compositions carry a sense of restraint that serves to intensify the musical and emotional expression. In the Chacony in G, Purcell weaves delicate lines over a repeating bass pattern. With the Pavane, Purcell references a slow, duple-meter dance that originated in the 16th century.
William Boyce (1711–1779) was an organist and Master of the King’s Musick in London. As a composer, he wrote music for the church, court, and theater with equal ease, including about 50 odes in celebration of the new year or royal birthdays. The Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major was originally the overture to an Ode for the New Year. The symphony, in three movements, illustrates Boyce’s skillful craftsmanship and unfaltering sense of expression. Because of works like the symphony, the chronicler and contemporary of Boyce, Charles Burney remarked, “There is an original and sterling quality to his productions.”
Although he had been offered positions in other cities, Charles Avison (1709–1770) chose to spend his life in Newcastle upon Tyne in England. He was organist and Director of the Newcastle Music Society, for which he had organized subscription concerts beginning in 1735. His Concerto Grosso No. 5 after Scarlatti shows his preference for Italian composers, a view he made public in the prefaces to his publications. This concerto is one of twelve works Avison arranged for strings from harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757).
The Grand Tour expanded the tourist’s horizons and offered the traveler new experiences to be treasured. In our tour of Baroque instrumental music from England, Italy, and Germany, we can share in that sense of discovering new horizons as the diverse sound world of some of the best composers of this time are heard.
Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, Ph.D.
2010–2011 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
Brandenburg Concerto no. 3