Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major

I chose today’s piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 because the first movement always gives me the impression of forward movement. It would be a perfect accompaniment to a scene from a movie where a horse-drawn coach, pulled by a chestnut gelding, trundles along a French country lane. (Or a 21 year-old on his first visit to France–see an excerpt from my memoir below). It always puts me in a light and happy mood.

The liner notes to my old vinyl recording of this concerto, conducted by Pablo Casals, states that it is the only one of the six Brandenburgs to treat the keyboard as an integral member of the featured instruments. In the others that have a keyboard, it is merely played as a continuo, that is a harmonic accompaniment. In the fifth concerto, however, the keyboard definitely the most important instrument. On the recording I have, the keyboard part was performed on piano by Rudolf Serkin, a rather famous pianist in the second third of this century.

Bach gives the second movement over to an unaccompanied trio consisting of flute, violin and keyboard. Serkin, I believe, was noted for his chamber playing, and on this recording, the trio plays the slow and pensive “affetuoso” movement with grace and feeling.

Bach gets our feet tapping again in the third movement with another fast tempo, this time a gigue. It starts out as a round with the violin stating the twelve-note theme of a fugue. Next, the flute joins in with the theme followed next by the piano. Finally the rest of orchestra picks up the fourth voice in the fugue and the piece continues on its rapid way, each instruments weaving in and out and around one another in an intricate pattern. About, three quarters of the way through, the fugue ends, and so Back restarts it again in the same order-violin, flute, piano and orchestra.

I was just thinking how intricate the last movement was, and how complex it must be for an orchestra to play. But then I remembered that he wrote two-part, three-part, four-part, and five-part inventions for keyboard. How taxing that must be for the poor piano player, you might think. But what about his great organ pieces, like the Tocatta and Fugue in D minor in which the organist also uses each leg as well on the foot keyboard! Bach manage to build such complex and revolutionary pieces out of basics forms of his day. They were new and revolutionary and yet stood on the solid ground of the tradition in which he grew up. See, you can be creative and interesting without tearing everything down.

Download MP3 or buy CDs of Johann Sebastian Bach: 6 Brandenburg Concertos / 4 Orchestral Suites – The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock

Biography

Landing in France

The 747 circled lazily over the French countryside. I must confess that my nose was pressed against the window as we descended and the swatches and daubs of colors turned into farmland and small towns. I had flown before, of course, and was therefore used to seeing shopping malls, mass-produced houses made of ticky-tacky, and industrial-sized farms from above. But seeing France from the air took my by surprise. It was as if the whole fabric of how the landscape–and hence how one saw the world–were woven out of different material.

The small villages sat at the crossroads of two roads, lined by hedgerows that ran through the fields. These town had an organic appearance. Vaguely round, sometimes bisected by a creek or small river, they were a complex interweave of trees, honey-colored stone walls, gray roofs and winding lanes. Sometimes, at the apex of one of the small conurbations, I’d see the shiny gray slate roof of a church and its spire pointing skyward. It was like looking down on an entirely different and ancient but vibrant world.

For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of stepping into the great river of history and somehow being connected to it. It was a feeling of homecoming. For some reason, American life and popular culture have seemed somewhat foreign to me. Most of the really successful people here say we must look to the future and those who can’t change and adapt are doomed. Unfortunately that usually gets interpreted as rejecting all the traditions, history and disciplines that got us here in the first place. Perhaps growing up as the grandson of immigrants made me feel more connected to the “old world.” Maybe that’s retrogressive of me, but I see the wasteful alternative played out on a daily basis as people constantly reinvent the wheel.

I soon learned France was a place that was both keenly aware of its past and could embrace the trends of the future as well. Take the airport where I landed-Charles De Gaulle. In January of 1977 when I first landed there, it was one of the most modern airports in the world, and it still seems that way to me in my mind’s eye. Your plane lands at one of the satellite terminals and you take incredibly long moving walkways to the main terminal where you collect your bags. Inside, you must take an escalator inside a glass tube that passes through a central circular atrium, like the veins of some huge organism.

The second thing that struck me about France was how it smelled. As soon as the door opened into the terminal a pungent smell met my nose. It was a mixture of the smells of coffee, chocolate, real butter, perspiration and the ubiquitous black tobacco cigarettes–Gauloise and Gitanes.

After gawking like a tourist for about an hour and passing through customs, I managed to find out that a bus would take me to a train that would drop me at the Gare du Nord. While waiting for the bus, I walked over to a little café cum news stand and bought a croissant. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem, had taught me how they make croissants. You make a pastry dough, roll it out, spread it with a layer of butter, fold it up, roll it out again, and repeat this procedure a few more times. The layers of fat and dough are what makes them so light and rich at the same time.

The croissant I bought during my first hour in France was a bit of a disappointment, but I savored the moment anyway. I climbed on the train at Charles De Gualle airport, which slid through the small track-side towns, then suburbs and finally past the high rise apartment buildings of the 18 arrondissement. Here I was, a bumpkin from Indiana, thousands of miles away from home in a place where no one at all knew me. It was now up to me to find my way through this new world all on my own. I had to find a place to stay, get myself enrolled in classes and manage my funds to last until June. What a wonderful journey I was beginning.

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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.)

3 Responses to Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number 5 in D Major

  1. Hi Kurt, I’m completely with you, as usual, on the Brandenburg case. Here is a link to my post on the matter for interest
    http://leapingtracks.wordpress.com/2012/06/22/quiet-please-we-are-in-the-presence-of-greatness/

    As you will see, although I covered all of them in one go, I gave a special mention to the third movement of the 5th, drawing pretty much the same conclusion as you.

    Like

  2. Diana says:

    Great posts on both Bach and France. Enjoying your insights… 🙂
    Diana

    Like

  3. kvennarad says:

    The 1st movement of Brandenburg 5 is one of my favourite pieces of music. I love the harpsichord cadenza, and the moment when the ensemble comes back in is so climactic I can hardly restrain a whoop!

    Like

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