Baroque Festival: Bach and Vivaldi Concertos

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra 2024 Baroque Festival. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The music on today’s concert comes from the dawn of the orchestral age. The style of the early 18th century would soon seem antiquated, even downright strange, by the turn of the next century, and nearly irrelevant to the modern orchestra of the mid-19th century and beyond. But none of it would have been possible without the innovations of the Baroque era: the organizing of common-practice harmony (still how we think of chords in most classical and pop music), the rapid evolution of instrument-making (this was the age of Antonio Stradivari), and the flourishing of music publishing, which created the first truly international careers.

The concerto originated in Italy. Composers wanted to show off the colors and capabilities of the latest violins, woodwinds, and brass, either as a small group (sometimes called a concerto grosso), or as a solo backed by a larger ensemble. Soon Northwest Europe caught wind of this trend and started importing Italian music, influencing local composers as well.

Antonio Vivaldi Concertos

Antonio Vivaldi must have written more concertos than anyone ever—more than 500. Born in Venice in 1678, he was ordained in 1703, but almost immediately gave up his priestly duties to pursue a musical career. That year he was appointed violin master at the Ospedale della Pietà, a music school for orphaned and abandoned girls. The students needed music to play at their wildly popular concerts, and Vivaldi fitted them with no end of custom concertos. In 1711 he published 12 of them under the title L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), turning to the enterprising Amsterdam publisher Estienne Roger, and they became must-play pieces for violinists across Europe. As his reputation grew, he accepted more and more opportunities beyond the Pietà.

The two Vivaldi concertos on this concert—now catalogued as RV 569 in F major (ca. 1717) and RV 577 in G minor (ca. 1720–24)—were destined for the Dresden court. In February 1712, the Saxon electoral prince Friedrich August paid a visit to the Pietà, and returned four years later with his top musicians in tow. One of them was the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel, who took lessons with Vivaldi, and was so smitten that he apparently founded a “Vivaldi cult” after returning home to Dresden.

Both these concertos blur the line between solo violin concerto and concerto grosso. The violin predominates, but other instruments also get solo turns, and they all weave in-and-out instead of strictly back-and-forth (Vivaldi called this a concerto con molti strumenti). In addition to violin, the F-major concerto also features two oboes, two horns (a German specialty, uncommon in Italy at the time), bassoon, and a cello solo in the finale. The G-minor concerto includes a second violin, two recorders, two oboes, and bassoon.

Bach Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 and 3

In 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach was Kapellmeister in Cöthen, where he wrote mostly secular music because Prince Leopold, a Calvinist, had no need for elaborate liturgical works. He did, however, hire a topflight band for his own enjoyment—the players of the Kapelle were a tight-knit bunch who rehearsed in Bach’s apartment.

But between the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720, and his remarriage to Anna Magdalena in December 1721, Bach consider a move, and remembered the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, whom he had met in Berlin a few years earlier. He put together six concertos to send as an application portfolio, demonstrating an incredible range of instrumentation and style. These Brandenburg concertos were likely revisions of older pieces he wrote in Weimar in the mid-1710s, and perhaps kept in his repertoire in Cöthen. In any case, nothing came of the application (he ultimately moved to Leipzig in 1723), and the manuscript was forgotten in a library until it was rediscovered in 1849. Still, the concertos were not recognized as gems or widely performed until the 1930s.

The First Brandenburg is a mostly Italianate concerto con molti strumenti, featuring three oboes, two horns, bassoon, and an extra-high piccolo violin (today usually played on a standard one). It is unique for having four, rather than three, movements—the last being a string of dances. The Third Brandenburg is either a large string chamber piece or a small string orchestra piece, scored for three violins, three violas, and three cellos—plus bass and harpsichord. It’s unusual for its minimalist middle movement: just two chords, marked Adagio, perhaps intended for a brief improvisation or simply as a portal to the kaleidoscope circles of the finale.

Telemann Overture (Suite) in D major

Georg Philipp Telemann was born four years before J.S. Bach but lived 17 years longer, turning into something of a Baroque legacy act by his ninth decade. This Overture (Suite) in D major was one of his last works, written around 1765, when a nine-year-old Mozart was already the latest thing. Scored for oboes and horns with strings, the Suite is in the French style, and dedicated to Count Ludwig VIII of Hessen-Darmstadt, whose love of hunting is reflected in the prominent horn writing.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.