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Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049

Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Born: March 31, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
  • Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany


Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049

  • Composed: ca. 1720
  • Instrumentation: 2 solo flutes, solo violin, continuo (harpsichord), strings
  • CSO notable performances: First: February 1905, Frank Van der Stucken conducting; José Marien, violin; Edwin S. Timmons, flute; Louis Weber, flute. Most Recent: November 2002, Robert Porco conducting; Timothy Lees, violin; Randolph Bowman, flute; Kyril Magg, flute. 
  • Duration: approx. 17 minutes

Brandenburg, in Bach’s day, was a political and military powerhouse. It had been part of the Holy Roman Empire since the mid-12th century, and its ruler—the Markgraf, or Margrave—was charged with defending and extending the northern imperial border (“mark,” or “marche” in Old English and Old French), in return for which he was allowed to be an Elector of the Emperor. The house of Hohenzollern acquired the margraviate of Brandenburg in 1415, and the family embraced the Reformation a century later with such authority that they came to be regarded as the leaders of German Protestantism; Potsdam was chosen as the site of the electoral court in the 17th century. Extensive territorial acquisitions under Frederick William, the “Great Elector,” before his death in 1688, allowed his son Frederick III to secure the title and the rule of Brandenburg’s northern neighbor, Prussia, with its rich (and nearby) capital city of Berlin; he became King Frederick I of Prussia in 1701. Frederick, a cultured man and a generous patron, founded academies of sciences and arts in Berlin, and built the magnificent palace Charlottenburg for his wife, Sophie Charlotte, which became one of the most important musical centers in early-18th-century Germany. When Frederick William I succeeded his father in 1713, however, he turned the court’s focus from music to militarism, and dismissed most of the excellent musicians that his father had assembled; several of them found employment at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig, where a young prince was just starting to indulge his taste and talents for music. Frederick William did, however, allow his uncle, Christian Ludwig, younger brother of the late King Frederick and possessor of the now-lesser title of Margrave of Brandenburg, to remain at the palace and retain his own musical establishment.

Johann Sebastian Bach met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1719, during his tenure as music director at the court of Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, the young prince who had recently signed up some of the musicians fired by Frederick William I. Bach worked at Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, and he and Leopold seem to have gotten along splendidly. The Prince enjoyed travel, fine art and, above all, music, and he respected and encouraged Bach in his work, even occasionally participating in the court concerts as violinist, gambist or harpsichordist. Provided by Leopold with an excellent set of instruments and a group of fine players (and the second-highest salary of any of his court employees), Bach enjoyed a fruitful period at Cöthen—many of his greatest works for keyboard, chamber ensembles and orchestra date from those years.

Early in 1719, Leopold sent Bach to Berlin to finalize arrangements for the purchase of a new harpsichord, a large, two-manual model made by Michael Mietke, instrument-builder to the royal court. While in Berlin, Bach played for Christian Ludwig, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach lost an infant son a few months later, however, and in 1720, his wife died and he rejected an offer to become organist at the Jacobkirche in Hamburg, so it was more than two years before he fulfilled Brandenburg’s request. By 1721, however, Leopold had become engaged to marry a woman who looked askance at his huge expenditures for musical entertainment. Bach seems to have realized that, when she moved in, he would probably be moved out, so he began casting about for a more secure position. He remembered the interest the Margrave Brandenburg had shown in his music, and thought it a good time to approach him again, so he picked six of the finest concertos he had written at Cöthen, copied them out meticulously, had them bound into a sumptuous volume (at no little cost), and sent them to Christian Ludwig in March 1721 with a flowery dedication in French—but to no avail. No job materialized at Brandenburg and, in 1723, Bach moved to Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he remained for the rest of his life. It is possible that the Margrave never heard any of these magnificent works that immortalized his name, since records indicate that his modest Kapelle might not have been able to negotiate their difficulties and instrumental requirements. The Concertos apparently lay untouched in his library until he died 13 years after Bach had presented them to him, when they were inventoried at a value of four groschen each—only a few cents. Fortunately, the manuscripts were preserved by the noted theorist and pedagogue Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a pupil of Bach, and came eventually into the collection of the Royal Library in Berlin. They were brought to light during the 19th-century Bach revival, were published in 1850, and have since come to be recognized as supreme examples of Baroque instrumental music.

The Brandenburg Concertos differ from those of later eras in both instrumental disposition and form. These are concerti grossi (“great concertos”), works in which a small group of soloists (concertino) rather than a single instrument is pitted against the orchestra (ripieno). Most of the fast movements of the Brandenburgs use a formal procedure known as ritornello, which is based on the contrast of sonority between concertino and ripieno. First the orchestra presents a collection of thematic kernels from which much of the movement grows. Then the soloists take over for an episode, sometimes borrowing material from the opening orchestral introduction, sometimes providing something new. The orchestra then returns (ritornello is Italian for “return”) and is followed by another solo episode and then by another orchestral ritornello, and so forth. The remaining fast movements are based on dance types, while the slow movements are usually lyrical and through-composed, a sort of elaborate wordless aria.

The Fourth Concerto features a violin and two flutes (or recorders) accompanied by a string orchestra and keyboard. (Two decades later, Bach arranged it as a harpsichord concerto [BWV 1057] for the performances of the Collegium Musicum that he directed after settling in Leipzig.) The opening measures of the first movement present the joyous leaping motives from which the ensuing music is spun in a skillful play of textures and harmonic shadings that takes particular delight in contrasting the timbres of violin and flutes against each other and the larger ensemble.

The Andante is a dark-hued lament whose character would allow it to fit easily into Bach’s most fervent church cantatas. Particularly poignant are the tiny cadenzas for the flute, as though the intense emotion of the piece called not just for expression by the entire assembled company, but also for brief moments of individual reflection.

The festive mood of the opening movement returns in the finale, whose bounding rhythmic propulsion gives it the spirit of a great, whirling dance. Soloists and orchestra share the themes—imitating, intertwining, accompanying—like the carefully patterned steps of an elaborate court ballet. The solo trio is, however, primus inter pares ("first among equals"), with the violin displaying an especially dazzling virtuosity, including a breathtaking flurry of scales and broken chords in the movement’s middle section.

—Dr. Richard E. Rodda