Written by Jeff Counts
Instrumentation: 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 celli, double bass, harpsichord.
Duration: 10 minutes.
THE COMPOSER – JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750) – After four years as Kappelmeister in Cöthen, Bach seemed ready to move on. The small town had no substantial organ, no tradition of choral music and due to the Calvinist bent of the court, no instrumental church music scene either. Bach stayed as long as he did because of his friendship with Prince Leopold but there were clear indications in 1721 that the composer was looking for a new job.
THE MUSIC – The clearest of these indications was the composition of the six Brandenburg Concerti. Bach dedicated the set to the Margrave (hereditary nobleman) Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. The Margrave had apparently requested some of the composer’s work and Bach seized the opportunity to impress him with the new concerti and an accompanying note of incredible obsequiousness that says much about 18th century expectations with regard to royal courtesy. While Bach’s letter was little more than obligatory fluff, the music it promised was destined for landmark status. Not that the Margrave would notice. He never replied, let alone offered Bach a position in his court. Thankfully, though, his interest (however mild) in Bach’s music resonates still through the magical set of pieces it inspired. Bach’s gifts for variety and instrumental coloration are on full display in the Brandenburg Concerti, the most perfect Baroque exemplars of the genre ever written. No. 3 features nine solo strings in three familial groupings with bass and harpsichord accompaniment. With no specifically designated soloists, Bach was free to spread the spotlight throughout the upper voices of the ensemble in successively inventive ways. This concerto differs from the typical three-part structure and lacks an official adagio movement. In its place is a pair of chords that provide an opportunity for cadenza flourishes that link the two allegro sections. Bach eventually did leave Cöthen for Leipzig, but his attempt at employment in Brandenburg, though unsuccessful, was history’s gain.
THE WORLD – Peace was finally achieved between Sweden and Russia with the 1721 Treaty of Nystad that confirmed Russian control of the Baltic. Also that year, rudimentary smallpox vaccination was introduced in England and Pope Clement XI died in Rome.
The second movement of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047 consists of sixty-five measures that take approximately four minutes to perform and is scored for solo flute (recorder), solo oboe, solo violin, cello, and harpsichord. The three high-pitched solo instruments generally use the middle and upper part of their registers. For example, the lowest pitch for the violin is the D just above middle C. This stratification, combined with certain melodic and rhythmic features, clearly differentiates the melodic and accompanimental voices. Melody
The three solo instruments are the primary vehicles for the melodic material in this movement. The melodic line is very short (only two measures long) and is clearly stated for the first time by the violin in mm. 1-3. This melody contains several distinguishing features. It begins with an ascending step and then proceeds to descend by step. This descent is slightly interrupted by an ornament on beat 3 of m. 2. For instance, on beat 3 of m. 2, the primary note is G. This G forms part of the descent from Bb (beat 1), A (the second half of beat 2), continuing to F (beat 1 of m.
3), E (beat 2), and D (the second half of beat 2). The G is ornamented by the Bb and A that also form part of beat 3 of m. 2. The principle melody also features a trill on beat 1 of m. 3 and an accented passing tone on beat 2 of m. 3. Rhythmic characteristics of this melody include beginning with a quarter note anacrusis followed by a dotted quarter. The agogic accent on the highest note of the melody gives a stress to the first beat of each even-numbered bar. Though the rhythmic values of the continuation of the melody vary throughout the movement, the durations of the first two notes are constant.
After its first appearance, this melody is then imitated by the oboe (m. 3) and the flute (m. 5), at the original pitch. Once all the voices have stated this melody, the melody continues to be used imitatively throughout the movement, with the exception of two passages, mm. 34-37 and mm. 46-57. In these two passages, the melodic material consists largely of step-wise motion that creates suspensions on beat 1 of every bar. This material is derived from the accompanimental material of the opening melody. When the violin has finished stating the primary melody and the oboe enters with this melody at the end of m.
3, the violin continues with material that is largely step-wise in motion and creates suspensions on beat 1 of every bar. The suspensions come in a variety of forms: 6-5 (m. 4), 2-1 (m. 6), and 7-8 (m. 7). While the solo instruments are charged with the melodic material, the cello and harpsichord play an accompanimental role. These voices play almost consistent eighth notes. The eighth-note motion is disrupted only five times throughout the movement. In mm. 14, 22, 32, and 42 the quarter notes on beat two and three slow down the surface rhythm and give a sense of expectation of closure.
In fact, all of these measures feature dominant, or dominant-seventh, sonorities and are followed by a tonic harmony in the next bar. The eighth-note motion is also absent from the accompanimental voices in the last four measures of the piece. Harmony With the melody and the prevailing rhythmic motion of the movement being largely constant, it is left to the harmony to provide contrast. This movement is in d minor, but many other keys are touched upon. A minor is the first contrasting key to appear. The dominant of a minor is introduced quite early in the piece in m. 8, but a strong arrival on A is delayed until m.
15. In the intervening measures, Bach introduces a harmonic idea that will be used later in the piece. The harmony of m. 10 consists of the V7 chord of C major; however, this dominant resolves deceptively to a minor in m. 11. C major appears as a key area in. mm. 17-24. The modulation to C major is accomplished through the use of a pivot chord: the F major sonority on beat 1 of m. 17 functions as both the VI of a minor and the IV of C major. The cadence in C major in m. 23 is one of the strongest cadences in the entire movement. All voices sound an unembellished C major triad on beat one.
Furthermore, beat 2 of this measure is the only time in the movement (aside from the first measure) where all melodic voices are silent. G minor is briefly tonicized in m 25. This key area is approached through a combination of a deceptive resolution and a pivot chord. In m. 24, a G dominant seventh chord appears. It does not resolve to C as expected, but rather deceptively to a minor. This a minor sonority functions simultaneously as vi of a minor and ii of g minor. This g minor section is very brief, as the progression V7-vi(ii) is sequenced in the following measure to tonicize d minor.
With this tonicization of d minor comes a return of the opening melody at its original pitch (oboe, m. 27). The d minor triad of m. 29 functions as a pivot chord in the modulation to Bb major. There is a strong cadence in Bb major in m. 33, and the piece remains in this key until m. 39. This is in fact the largest period of harmonic stability that the listener has encountered so far. It is striking therefore that this is precisely the section where the primary melodic idea disappears for the first time. Whereas in the first 33 measures of the piece, the melody remained constant and the harmonic varied, in mm.
33-39, the harmony is stable and the melody is contrasting. G minor, which had previously been briefly tonicized, returns as a key area in m. 39. Bach hints at its return in m. 37 with the D major sonority (the dominant of G). In m. 39, the V7 sonority of Bb major is resolved deceptively to g minor, and this vi functions as a pivot chord (i of g minor). A strong cadence in g minor appears in m. 43. However, the movement does not remain in g minor for long, as this tonic triad is actually a pivot chord marking the return of d minor (i re-interpreted as iv).
The remainder of the movement is in d minor, though a circle of fifths progression provides some contrasting harmonic motion. This circle of fifths progression is preceded by the two strong dominant-tonic motions in d minor of mm. 45-48. From here, Bach cycles through A major (m. 49), D major (m. 50), G major (m. 51), C major (m. 52), F major (m. 53), and Bb major (m. 54). The cycle is broken by the E diminished sonority of m. 55 (ii? of d minor) which functions as a pre-dominant, leading to the dominant of m. 56 and finally to the tonic in m. 57. Form and Phrase Structure
While this movement does not follow a recognizable form such as ritornello or binary, it can be divided into smaller formal units when the harmonic motion is considered alongside features of the melody and the texture. As noted above, the accompanimental voices in mm. 14, 22, 32, and 42 contain quarter notes that contrast with the almost pervasive eighth note motion of these voices and thus stand out upon hearing. These measures also announce the arrival of significant key areas: a minor (m. 15), C major (m. 23), Bb major (m. 33), and g minor (m. 43). These measures mark significant structural moments in the movement.
The sections delineated by these points of arrival can be further broken down into smaller formal units based on melodic and harmonic features. As noted above, the primary melody is two bars long, and each imitative entry follows directly once the previous voice has finished stating the melody. The entries of the voices are very easily heard as the texture throughout the piece is quite thin. These two bar units are combined into larger phrases. The section from mm. 1-15 can be divided into two phrases, mm. 1-7 and mm. 7-15, based on the cadence in d minor in m. 7.
The first phrase consists of the presentation of the melody in each of the three solo voices. The second phrase, likewise, contains a presentation of the melody in all three voices, but this phrase is two bars longer than the first because of an additional entry in the flute (m. 13) and the modulation to a minor. The section from mm. 15-23 is one phrase. As with the first phrase of the movement, each solo instrument presents the melody at the same pitch level (this time starting on C). However, this phrase is two bars longer than the opening phrase because of the cadential material in mm. 22-23.
The section from mm. 23-33 is divided into two units, mm. 23-27 and mm. 27-33. The first phrase contains the presentation of the melody in the violin, which is then sequenced up a fifth in the flute in m. 25. Measure 27, with the tonicization of d minor and the return of the opening melody at its original pitch, sounds like the beginning of a new phrase. Measures 33- 43 can likewise be divided into two phrases, mm. 33-37 and mm. 37-43. Measures 33-37 are distinguished by the absence of the original melody and the relative stability of Bb major as a key area. The primary melody returns in m.
37, and the phrase that begins in this measure contains a statement of the melody by all three solo instruments. The final section of the piece, mm. 43-65, can be heard as being divided into four sections: mm. 43-45, mm. 45-57, mm. 57-62, and mm. 62-65. The first of these sections is very brief and contains a single statement of the melody in the oboe. The second section, quite long, contains the circle of fifths progression with no statement of the primary melody. The third section contains a statement of the melody in the violin and the oboe. The flute begins its entrance, but the melody is truncated.
In the final section, the eighth note motion of the continuo voices is gone, as is the primary melody. These measures consist entirely of cadential material. This material is noteworthy because of its chromaticism and its rhythmic treatment. At first, the cadence seems to be approached in a predictable manner. The tonic six-four chord of m. 62 is followed by a dominant seventh in root position at the end of this bar. Theoretically, a tonic triad could follow at the beginning of m. 63 to bring the movement to a close. However, Bach prolongs the dominant functioning harmony with a fully diminished seventh chord (in third inversion).
This chord does not resolve as expected. One would expect the Bb in the bass to descend to an A, however it rises chromatically to a B natural. This B natural forms part of another fully diminished seventh chord (borrowed from the key of the dominant) and is in first inversion. This seventh chord finally leads to the dominant to prepare for the final appearance of the tonic (albeit with a piccardy third). The effect of this surprising harmonic motion is highlighted by the hemiola, as each of these sonorities gets a full two beats. One remarkable feature of all of the phrases in this movement is how they overlap with the preceding phrases.
Several features combine to produce this characteristic. First, the accompanying voices begin on beat one of the first measure. The melodic entries, however, always begin on beat three. From the beginning then, there is a two-beat separation of the phrase structure of the melodic and accompanying voices. This separation is highlighted at cadences. In this movement, the resolution harmony always appears on beat 1 in the accompaniment. However, at this point, the melodic voices are still in the process of completing their descending line, which is only accomplished at the end of beat two.
Furthermore, the point of arrival in the cadences serves not only as the end of one harmonic progression but also as the beginning of another progression. As all of the phrases are elided, this movement contains no significant moments of rest and stability. One never gets the sense that one idea has completely ended before something else begins. Conclusion In addition to the elision of phrases, other musical elements contribute to the sense that musical ideas never completely finish. For one, the wave-like quality produced by the entrance of the imitative voices is quite hypnotic and could, in theory, be continued indefinitely.
Also, the harmonic motion is not goal-oriented. Bach does not set up the expectation for one significant contrasting key area to be explored in the movement. Rather, many different key areas are touched upon, but none (with the possible exception of the Bb area) are featured for a significant amount of time. Furthermore, the one key area which one expects to hear, namely F major (the relative major of d minor), is completely absent from this movement. Because this movement is not goal-oriented, the listener gets the sensation that it continues to open out.
Indeed, it is not until the circle of fifths progression begins in m. 49 that the listener gets the sense that the end of the movement is approaching. The arrival at this turning point is quite unexpected and takes the listener by surprise. To speak colloquially, it is as if someone got in their car and started driving, with no destination in mind. Since there was no reason for the trip, the driver did not know when to turn around and come back home. Nevertheless, the driver finds himself on a familiar road near his house, and because he is almost there decides to just go home.