Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) | Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist and violinist whose collected body of work for chorus, orchestra, and solo instruments represents the pinnacle of the Baroque period in music. During his lifetime, Bach’s reputation rested mainly upon his incredible skill as a keyboard virtuoso; not until long after his death was his extraordinary genius as a composer fully understood and appreciated.

Although he had composed extended instrumental sequences for some of the cantatas, the Brandenburg Concertos represent the first time that Bach had written purely instrumental music on such a large scale. By utilizing formal and stylistic elements of his predecessors and adding a touch of his own genius, Bach reinvented the concept of the Concerto Grosso.

These six concertos, which were composed for differing instrumental forces, were actually the belated fulfillment of a relatively vague request that Bach had received from Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, around 1719. At the time, Bach was music director at the court of Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and there is actually ample evidence to indicate that the concertos may have originally been composed for this employer, or at least, had been played in his court. When Bach put the finishing touches on the fair copy (which was dedicated to Christian Ludwig) in 1721, the passage of more than two years’ time suggests that things had become less than satisfactory at Cöthen and he hoped to use the completed work as a sort of entreé for employment. In any event, the Concertos didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the would-be employer, as they lay untouched in Christian Ludwig’s library until after his death, thirteen years after Bach had presented them to him, at which time they were inventoried as part of the estate at a value of four groschen each – a mere few cents apiece.

Happily, the works were saved and preserved by the noted music theorist and teacher Johann Philipp Kirnberger, one of Bach’s students, and the original scores later became part of the collection of the Royal Library in Berlin. They were “rediscovered” during the revival of Bach’s music in the 19th century and published in 1850.

Bach wrote the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 around 1720. The work is in three movements, marked Allegro, Andante and Presto, and features a solo violin and two solo flutes. The solo violin part is quite virtuosic in the outer movements; in the second movement, the violin provides a bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied.

Incidentally, Bach would later adapt the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto as the last of his set of six harpsichord concertos (as the Concerto for Harpsichord, Two Recorders and Strings in F major, BWV 1057). It is much more than a mere transcription. As well as taking on most of the solo violin’s role, the harpsichord also takes over some of the recorders’ parts in the Andante, plays a basso continuo role and occasionally adds a fourth line of counterpoint to what was originally a three-part instrumental texture.