Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Notes by TŌN violist Celia Daggy
One thing I love about classical music is the blending of tradition with innovation. Johann Sebastian Bach, considered “The Master of Masters” by Beethoven, is indeed a master at combining the two. Born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, Bach was mostly known throughout his career as an organist and Kapellmeister (music director) working in Leipzig, and much of his fame as a composer came posthumously. While many of his compositions are sacred, the Brandenburg Concertos are among his most popular secular works.
There are six Brandenburg Concertos total, each written for a different set of instruments. Today, we will perform Number 3, for strings in G major. Here, we find the tradition/innovation blend. A concerto is typically a soloist “versus” orchestra, but in Brandenburg 3, there is no individual soloist. Instead, each instrument is a soloist AND part of the orchestra. Another twist on convention is the instrumentation itself. While a typical string orchestra is made of 1st/2nd violins, violas, cellos, and basses, Brandenburg 3 features a first, second, and third part each of violins, violas, and cellos, accompanied by bass and harpsichord for a total of 11 unique parts. When listening to this piece I picture a machine in a factory; each part functions individually, yet seamlessly cooperates with the rest. Specific voices pop out of the texture like a concerto soloist, then happily fall back into the conglomerate while the next voice has their moment.
A Personal History
Personally, I have a lengthy history with and deep affection for Bach, and Brandenburg 3 in particular. My father is also an organist and Kapellmeister, so Bach was as much a part of my life growing up as my favorite snacks or cartoons. Having previously played violin before switching to viola, I have performed Brandenburg 3 a number of times, yet never played the same part twice! I guess in that way it feels like I get to blend my own tradition of knowing the piece with the innovation of learning new parts. That is the beauty of this work: no matter how many times I perform it there is always something new to be discovered, and I treasure that journey each and every time. I hope you enjoy one of my all-time favorites.