Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048

Composed by

Johann Sebastian Bach



harpsichord, strings

notes by Chris Myers

II. Adagio
III. Allegro

Dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, on March 24, 1721.

In 1717, Johann Sebastian Bach was hired as the Kapellmeister (music director) for the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. It was the ideal gig: lots of creative freedom, good pay, and a boss who was himself a musician. Since the prince was a Calvinist who didn’t use much music in his church services, most of Bach’s works from this period were secular. In fact, nearly all of the composer’s great instrumental works—the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas, and the orchestral suites—date from his tenure in Leopold’s employ.

Unfortunately, by the early 1720s, the prince’s increased military expenses led to budget cuts in Bach’s orchestra. When Leopold married a woman with no interest in music, Bach decided that it might be wise to start seeking work elsewhere. On March 24, 1721, he dedicated a volume of six “concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (“concertos for various instruments”) to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt and sent it to the nobleman in hopes of being offered a job. There is no record of a reply from the Margrave, and Bach eventually accepted a lucrative combination of posts in Leipzig, where he lived the rest of his life.

As for the concertos, the manuscript was sold for 24 groschen in silver (a little more than $20 in modern currency) and appears to have been archived without comment. The pieces were almost certainly not performed in Berlin, as King Frederick Wilhelm I had disbanded the Prussian court orchestra upon his coronation and Christian Ludwig’s private orchestra didn’t have the necessary musicians. The concertos were finally rediscovered and published in 1849, nearly 130 years after their composition.

The Brandenburg Concertos give us a glimpse into the evolution of modern orchestral composition. In the Baroque era, a “concerto” wasn’t necessarily a virtuoso solo showpiece as we think of it today. The word frequently referred to a work in which musicians perform in concert (as a group). Concerto No. 3 was composed for three violins, three violas, three cellos, bass, and harpsichord. The nine upper strings serve as both concertino (soloists) and ripieno (accompanists), fluidly transitioning between roles throughout the piece.

The piece opens with a confident figure that is manipulated and passed around between the different instrumental sections, each of which works together as a group. The movement is in ritornello form, a common baroque structure in which a recurring musical passage (generally played by the entire ensemble) alternates with more soloistic episodes in which the musical material is developed and tossed back and forth between the performers.

The second movement of the concerto is something of an enigma. It consists of two lone chords, with a fermata (a “hold”) over the second. Did Bach intend for the performers simply to play these two chords and then move on to the third movement? Or did he intend for one or more of them to improvise a cadenza elaborating on the transition? Musicologists and performers have expressed varying opinions regarding this question. In any event, the third movement bursts out of this second chord with a sudden rush of energy. In another exhibition of ritornello form, the three groups of instruments race through an ebullient Allegro which brings the work to a joyous close.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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