The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos

Synopsis

This new investigation of the Brandenburg Concertos explores musical, social, and religious implications of Bach's treatment of eighteenth-century musical hierarchies. By reference to contemporary music theory, to alternate notions of the meaning of "concerto," and to various eighteenth-century conventions of form and instrumentation, the book argues that the Brandenburg Concertos are better understood not as an arbitrary collection of unrelated examples of "pure" instrumental music, but rather as a carefully compiled and meaningfully organized set. It shows how Bach's concertos challenge (as opposed to reflect) existing musical and social hierarchies.

Careful consideration of Lutheran theology and Bach's documented understanding of it reveals, however, that his music should not be understood to call for progressive political action. One important message of Lutheranism, and, in this interpretation, of Bach's concertos, is that in the next world, the heavenly one, the hierarchies of the present world will no longer be necessary. Bach's music more likely instructs its listeners how to think about and spiritually cope with contemporar

Excerpt

Tubby the Tuba, at a rehearsal, sitting forlornly in the back row of the orchestra: “Oh, what lovely music.” (Sighs.)

Peepo the Piccolo, rushing to Tubby's side: “Here, what's the matter?”

Tubby: “Oh, every time we do a new piece, you all get such pretty melodies to play. and I? Never, never a pretty melody.”

Peepo, arms stretched out: “But people don't write pretty melodies for tubas. It just isn't done.”

Paul Tripp, Tubby the Tuba

Tubby the Tuba captures powerfully the enculturated notion of the orchestral hierarchy. As Tubby's story goes on to show, there is, of course, no inherent technical reason why tubas should not be highlighted with pretty melodies in orchestral music; it just “isn't done.” Further explanation is hardly needed.

J. S. Bach would apparently not have been moved by an appeal to tradition. He at times assigns highly unconventional roles to the instruments in his orchestras. To consider one of the most extreme examples: in the alto aria from his church cantata Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, bwv 77, Bach takes the trumpet from its then conventional, D-major-trumpets-and-drums, regal, festive context and has the instrument perform a melancholy, tortured obbligato in D minor. To consider another extreme instance, one to be examined at length in chapter 1: in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, Bach has the violas—at the time rank-and-file, accompanimental, orchestral instruments—play brilliant solo parts, and the violas da gamba—prestigious, solo, chamber instruments—play routine, violalike accompanimental parts.

Scholars have for a long time been puzzled by such scorings. the usual approach has been to argue that special biographical circumstances must account for them. Alfred Dürr observes that since the idea of a trumpet obbligato seems obviously rather ill-suited to Bach's aria text in cantata 77, there may have been external factors to ac-

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