Work: Brandenburg Concerto no 1
About This Work
The Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046, is the first of six great concertos which, taken in combination, add up the most complex and artistically successful failed job application in recorded history. They were written around 1721 and
dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in March of the same year. Bach's position at Cöthen was becoming less desirable to him; his wife had died in 1720 while Bach accompanied his employer, Prince Leopold of Anthalt-Cöthen, to Carlsbad. The prince was also reallocating funds from music to his palace guard, no doubt because the prince's new wife was not a music lover.
Christian Ludwig probably heard Bach perform in 1719, or perhaps earlier at the spas in Carlsbad, where Prince Leopold would have Bach accompany him. Bach sent a beautifully rendered score of the concertos to the Margrave in 1721, suspecting that the royal might be interested in giving him a job, but there is no known response to Bach's political overture.
The first concerto is, like all of Bach's concertos, indebted to the methods of the Italians. Vivaldi was particularly attractive to the German composer, who eagerly copied out Vivaldi's scores in order to understand his use of contrast, rhythmic propulsion, and orchestration. The Brandenburg Concertos were not as unusual as was once thought; Italian composers created concertos for widely varying combinations of instruments, and Bach's shifting textures have their parallels in works by other composers. But the handling of the Italian concerto material went unmatched throughout the Baroque era. One unique, perhaps non-Italian idea in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 is Bach's use of hunting horns. The concerto also calls for three oboes and a bassoon, as well as continuo strings and the violino piccolo. The sound of the horns stands out, but the composer manages to make them blend into the ensemble through the use of multiple winds.
Though the first movement does not have a tempo marking, performances of the four-movement work are about 20 minutes in duration. Each movement has a brisk pace and extraordinary counterpoint that inventively shades and blurs the contrast between the small concertino group and the tutti ensemble. Along with the horn, the violino piccolo seems to have been included in order to draw more attention to the innovative qualities of the music. The Brandenburg Concertos contain some of Bach's most brilliant counterpoint, and the attention-grabbing orchestration of the first concerto has not diminished the work's value at all. It is among Bach's best works.
-- John Keillor
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