The Spirit of Baroque: The Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach

Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, sweet patron muse, forgive me the words, is not what music is … All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless, and incorruptible, like a principle in geometry.

~ Edna st. Vincent Millay, American lyrical poet (1892-1950)

J.S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

The Baroque period (1600 – 1750) was a time of disruptive changes in politics, science, and the arts. The transition from the classically minded Renaissance to the Baroque was foreshadowed in the art of Michelangelo (1475 – 1564). His turbulent figures, their bodies twisted in struggle, reflect the Baroque love of the dramatic. In a similar fashion, the Venetian school of painters which include masters like Titian, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio, captured the dynamic spirit of the new age; their crowded canvases ablaze with color and movement.

In music, Johann Sebastian Bach was the undisputed maestro of the Baroque era. When he died in 1750 – the very same year that ended the Baroque period – he gave the world over 200 church cantatas, more than 150 organ compositions, seven motets and various other orchestral, chamber and keyboard music.

Bach, a devout Lutheran, believed that music must serve “the glory of God.” Through Lutheran hymns known as chorales, he and other Baroque composers produced works that spoke for that faith. But during his lifetime, Bach was known more as an organist. He rose to fame as an organ virtuoso during the nineteen years (1708 to 1717) he spent at the court of the duke of Weimar as court organist and chamber musician. After that, he served as court composer at Cothen for six years. It was during that time that Bach was asked by a nobleman visitor, Margrave Christian of Brandenburg to write some works for his orchestra. The result was the six Brandenburg Concertos. In these pieces, we are given a feel of Baroque exuberance and dynamism in the spirit of the concerto grosso in which two groups vie with each other. The second of this set has always been a favorite, perhaps because of the brilliant trumpet part.

Listen: J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major

What to listen for:

  • Four different instruments (violin, oboe, recorder, trumpet) playing in quick exchanges with the full orchestra using Baroque period instruments.
  • Lively tempo, with strong rhythmic drive throughout.
  • Recurring theme (ritornello) in full orchestra uniting movement, and alternating with short solo statements.
  • Polyphonic texture (multiple lines of melody heard simultaneously).

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