Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048

Recorded Aug. 19, 2016 at Baroque Inside/Out concert
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Duration: 10’41”


Baroque violins: Antti Tikkanen, Airi Yoshioka, Fiona Hughes
Baroque violas: Jason Fisher, Gesa Kordes, Kathleen Overfield-Zook
Baroque cellos: James Wilson, Carl Donakowski, Anna Steinhoff
Violone: Heather Miller Lardin


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed the six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 during his tenure in Cöthen, the Calvinist court where secular instrumental music took precedence over sacred music.  Each concerto explores a different combination of solo instruments and varying degrees of coordination between the soloists and the full orchestra (the latter group also known as the ripieno or ritornello).  Bach didn’t have many musicians at his disposal in Cöthen.  A further reduction in numbers after the arrival of Prince Leopold’s unmusical new bride was certainly a factor in Bach’s decision to leave his post.  But during better times, those few musicians—whose ability clearly compensated for their scant numbers—helped inspire Bach’s fabulous and diverse concerto scorings.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is scored for just 11 instruments: 10 strings and a keyboard.  Building from the bottom of the ensemble, we have the continuo helping to support the harmony and comprised of double bass and harpsichord; above there are three cellos, three violas, and three violins.  (It is mere coincidence that the number “3” figures so prominently in this particular concerto?)  Other Brandenburgs may utilize more striking combinations of timbres.  What the work lacks in variety of instrumental color must be made up in more nuanced ways.

Brandenburg No. 3 works instead as an early string symphony.  The term “concerto” still applies since that word often meant a “coming together” of different musical forces (as when different people work together in a “concerted effort” to achieve some goal).  The solo instruments are the three violins, though this will often be easier to see than hear given the sonic uniformity of this all-string work.

The first allegro carries a buoyant confidence in its steady rhythm.  Most of the material is constructed out of nothing more than a three-note neighbor pattern, e.g., G-F#-G or D-C-D.  At key moments, such as the beginning of different episodes, Bach scatters the motive quickly across the members of the string family, from violins to violas to cellos.  The entire ensemble plays together most of the time.  When they don’t, it is because the three solo violins are enjoying a few moments of contrapuntal dialogue.  That strategy becomes more noticeable toward the close of movement, where Bach largely silences the lowest strings and our ears can better track the interplay happening above.  (Note: a version of this movement with added winds and horns can be heard in Cantata 174.)

The surviving copies do not transmit an actual slow movement, only a two-bar half cadence known as a “Phrygian cadence.”  Many works from the Baroque, including some by Bach himself, do not include written-out slow movements; or when they do notate something, it is often not fully realized.  It may be just a few chords that end with this same Phrygian cadence.  Modern performers can thus look to other concertos for suggestions about what to do at this moment in Brandenburg No. 3: Insert additional chords?  Improvise something in the nature of a solo cadenza? Play it as written?  Even if Bach intended that last solution, it does seem like a missed opportunity to carve out just a moment of contrast before the second Allegro begins.

The finale presents a canon in G major that thrills and soars in a jubilant 12/8 meter.  It is one of the few movements in Bach’s concertos in which he composes a simple binary A-B structure with both parts repeated.  It bears a close resemblance to the many gigues that Bach used as concluding movements in his instrumental suites.  Bach does a masterful job of dispersing the energetic figures across the texture, particularly in the B section.  Certainly the first violin takes on a soloist’s role.  However, the entire ensemble shares in the enthusiasm of this brilliant finale.

© Jason Stell, 2016