Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

Many years ago, my daughter’s violin teacher, Mark Pfannschmidt, gave us a call. He wanted to know whether we could make use of some free tickets to a performance of the National Chamber Orchestra, with which he sometimes plays. Since the tickets ranged in price from $17 to $34, we jumped at the chance. The concert took place at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts in Rockville, Maryland, which town–for some strange reason–is the final resting place for that writer and his wife, Zelda.

The National Chamber Orchestra which has since become The National Philharmonic is under the direction of Piotr Gajewski, who is also on the musical faculty at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  Gajewski also worked with a local youth orchestra that my daughter played with. I was pleasantly surprised to see the program featured two works by Bach, the Piano Concerto No. 4 in A and the third Brandenburg Concerto. My knowledge of the latter goes back to before high school, for I think it also appears on “Switched-On Bach.” But, I really fell in love with it when, on a visit to my friend Paul Mankowski’s house, I heard a recording of it conducted by Pablo Casals.

Bach wrote six concertos for the Margrave, Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg (Bavaria) in 1721. Supposedly he dedicated them to the Margrave in the hopes of gaining employment in Berlin with the Margrave’s orchestras, which was one of the finest in Europe at that time period. Unfortunately, the Margrave had asked him to compose them two years earlier, and by the time Bach presented them, his request for employment was ignored. Interesting to know that way back then they already used to say: “We’ll let you know.”
The term “concerto” originally meant a group of instruments playing together, but by Bach’s time it had evolved into a group of instruments playing in combination or alternating with a larger orchestra. It eventually came to be applied to a form with three movements for a single instrument, like a piano or violin, playing “against” an orchestra. In the third Brandenburg Concerto, Bach gives the focus to three groups–the violins, violas and cello–and puts a bass and harpsichord continuo behind them.

Though I’ve listened to this piece countless times, that night was the first time I’d ever seen it performed live. It adds such a dimension to see how a melody will start with one group of instruments, move to a second, and finally end up in the third. In a way Bach pioneered this technique and it gave rise to new forms-trios, quartets, quintets, and other chamber arrangements.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 has just two real movements. There is a brief interlude, called adagio between the two allegro movements, but it only consists of two notes. On some recordings, you will hear that expanded with an improvisational piece given to the harpsichord. That was the case on my old Casals recording.
The first and last movements of the Brandenburg Concerto Number 3 live up to the “happy” label. (Allegro means happy in Italian.) Both also have strong beats, which (and I’m not sure if this is “cultured” behavior) make me tap my feet along with them.

The reason Bach wanted to get a job with the Margrave’s orchestra, had to do with his dissatisfaction composing liturgical music, which he had to do as a choir master. At the age of 36, when he composed them, perhaps he was having a midlife crisis, and wanted to follow his bliss. The Third Brandenbug Concerto, therefore, is that much more remarkable because it has none of the whining, self-pitying tone of the modern, balding men stuck in dead-end jobs. It soars! And how much more fun we would all have if we did, too

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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