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

So many, in recent years, have been the symbolical and numerological readings of Bach's. works, especially of those formed into sets, that one no longer expects anything by Bach to be discussed critically without, at the very least, an attempt to uncover its hidden meaning. It is almost as if the onus of proof rested with the sceptic, not the believer. Michael Marissen's study, which it is fair to describe as a spin-off from his 1991 doctoral thesis (whose existence the book surprisingly fails to mention) as well as from a number of related articles, offers such a reading for the Brandenburg Concertos.

The book is not a comprehensive survey comparable with Malcolm Boyd's recent study (for instance, it neglects the third concerto badly in comparison with its fellows). True, it is full of important and closely argued discussions of individual aspects of chronology, source criticism, musical structure and the biographical background, but everything has a direct bearing on what the title describes as Bach's 'social and religious designs'. This is a study that seems to want to live or die by its ideas, not its facts.

Marissen arranges the book in three chapters preceded by a shortish introduction and followed by appendices containing observations on early copies of the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto and Bach's notation of the bass viol parts in the dedication score of the same concerto. Chapter 1 explores at length the relationship between scoring and structure in the first, fourth and sixth concertos; Chapter 2 examines the organization of the concertos as a set; Chapter 3, very brief, relates Lutheran belief to Bach's musical practices.

At this stage I must declare a parti pris. In my view, esoteric explanations for musical features should not be preferred to everyday ones when the latter lie conveniently to hand. This may be heresy to some Bach experts and to devotees of hermeneutics, but will be found reasonable by the great majority. I subscribe to another assumption: the fact that Bach in some works makes extra-musical (in the modern sense of that word) allusions is not, of itself, sufficient reason for believing that he does so in all.

It surprises me that Bach scholars, including Marissen, perennially show more interest in the early - Leipzig or Cothen - versions of the Brandenburgs in existence before 1721 (agonizing over such minute matters as which member of the Cothen Kapelle played which instrument in which movement) than in the purpose for which the set of six as we know it today was copied out and sent to Berlin. Bach's dedication is really quite informative. It tells us that, on taking leave of Christian Ludwig, in 1719, the composer elicited from him an agreement to accept 'quelques pieces de ma Composition'. The vagueness of the works' description is significant: this is not a real commission but a non-prescriptive invitation. Consequently, Bach has no specific brief to fill. He need not trouble himself with whether the pieces are performable or not at the margrave's court and can instead give priority to the aim of demonstrating his skill and versatility as a 'jobbing' composer, hoping for - who knows? - first a gratuity, then perhaps a proper commission and eventually even the offer of a post. Bach's description 'a plusieurs Instruments' is a wonderful understatement (but, of course, letters of dedication are as natural a home for understatement as its opposite), whether one takes the phrase to refer to the number of contrapuntal parts or to the variety of instruments employed.

Like all sets assembled from a mixture of works already composed but not quite suitable as they stand, works already composed and suitable without alteration, and works tailor-made for the occasion (a category to which at least the second concerto may belong), the Brandenburgs are what I would call 'half-organized'. Because not all, but only some, of the pre-existing works that are candidates for possible inclusion in the set have been picked by the composer, he is able to use their degree of congruence (tonal, structural, instrumentational etc.) in their new context as a criterion for selection. But, unlike in a series of works planned as members of a set from the outset (such as Bach's keyboard partitas), the level of organization resulting from a selection - as opposed to creation - process is likely to remain very basic: superficial and partial instead of thoroughgoing and total. All over Europe dozens of composers contemporary with Bach put together collections - printed or manuscript, for one person or for general circulation, written to one formula or to several - of (usually) six or twelve works. The ways in which they formed these collections do not noticeably differ from Bach's. Ironically, the insistence by modern scholars on the derivation of the Brandenburgs from diverse earlier sinfonias or concertos subverts the intention to view them as a set with an ambitious metaphysical or other exterior purpose.

Marissen's first major thesis is that the concertos exhibit attenuation or reversal of natural hierarchies and in so doing covertly reflect Lutheran belief that in the afterlife worldly hierarchies (regarded as right and proper during life on earth) yield to the equality of all believers - a parallel to the verse of the Magnificat that speaks of putting down and exalting, which Marissen uses as a motto for his book. In the opening movement of the first concerto, the horns, identified by Marlssen as high-status instruments, progressively come to forfeit their exalted rank by participating in the general motivic discourse. In the same concerto, the ostensible soloist, the violino piccolo, fails to make the expected impression, and his counterpart in the fourth concerto, the principal violin, is rivalled so successfully by the two recorders as to be (to use the author's word) 'snubbed'. In the opening movement of the sixth concerto, ritornello and episode functions and characteristics are reversed. The same concerto employs what are typical ripieno instruments, violas, in a solo capacity, while the bass viols, normally associated with virtuoso performance, are reduced to inner-part status for much of the time.

I would contest all these interpretations. For a start, it makes no sense to begin talking about a hierarchy of instruments (with horns and bass viols high and recorders and violas low) independently of a hierarchy of players. This is a quite separate, but no less important, variable. A concertmaster who puts down his normal instrument and takes up a viola ipso facto converts the latter, if only for the duration of his performance, into a high-status instrument. Similarly, a horn played by a touring virtuoso is not the same as that played by a valet. A famous oboist such as Dresden's J. C. Richter is no Stadtpfeifer. Instrumental hierarchies are therefore at best provisional and hardly a suitable peg on which to hang grand metaphysical statements.

Bach's drive for structural integration, which allows for the merger or exchange of ritornello (or tutti) and episodic (or solo) functions should be seen from the outset in the context of his music as a whole. If he breaks down traditional categories, it is always in the interest of a more complete, more rational exploitation of resources. The equalized parts and the interchanged functions that result could be likened to the organization of a modern enterprise with its 'flat' hierarchy and insistence on operational flexibility. In any keyboard piece by Bach the left hand is likely to be worked as hard as the right and to have an equal share in the presentation of important thematic material - both highly unusual features for his period. I believe that he does this not in order to 'put down' the right hand or 'exalt' the left but, rather, in obedience to something resembling Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, which abhors the under-utilization of resources. If Bach chooses, as he usually does, to visit in the course of a movement the full set of closely related keys (differing from the home key by not more than one accidental in their modern key-signatures) instead of just a selection from them, as Vivaldi prefers, this must be because not to do so would seem a waste. When ritornello and episode functions 'leak' (to borrow Salman Rushdie's marvellous word) into one another - Peter Ahnsehl has shown that, in a weak form, this is a characteristic of German Baroque concertos as a whole - a greater thematic economy is achieved. Bach's attack on hierarchy - not just in the Brandenburgs but in the whole of his oeuvre - is as managerial in inspiration as it may (or may not) be theological.

Even more far-fetched are Marissen's arguments for the 'plan' - tonal and otherwise - of the set as a whole. First, to dwell on the special mystical or theological connotations (relating to perfection) of the number six is fruitless, whatever Zarlino and other theorists may have written. Duodecimalism, from which our practice of packing concertos (and eggs) in dozens and half-dozens stems, is a lot older than its post factum rationalizations. The attempt to relate the keyplan (F, F, G, G, D, B flat) of the Brandenburgs to hexachords is equally pointless - not because hexachords cannot be found but because of the near-certainty that they will be found (by hook or by crook) when the number of units, six, is so low. Whenever composers choose to give each of six works in a set a different keynote - a very common practice among Bach's contemporaries - they cannot avoid, collectively, forming a hexachord, since any six notes leave only one gap in a set of seven (the note above the gap provides the 'base' of the hexachord). In whatever way the six notes are arranged, the likelihood is that by some criterion chosen by the commentator a pattern can be formed, whether or not the composer was aware of it. When Vinaccesi organized the keys of his six Op. 1 sonatas (1687) in a series, C-d-e-F-g-A, I think he knew exactly what he was doing: after all, the hexachord runs in a straight line. But was Albinoni being deliberately inventive when he chose the scheme C-B flat-F-D-G-A for a set of trio sonatas preserved in a Vienna manuscript? The arrangement turns out to be chiastic: the central F and D move outwards symmetrically, first rising a perfect fourth and then rising a major second. Despite this, no reasonable person can be certain that the symmetry was intentional. What one must guard against is to view an arrangement as the more ingenious (and, by extension, deliberate) the less straightforward it is. Where Bach duplicates two keys, F and G, and thereby sacrifices the chance to have a complete hexachord, is it sensible still to refer to hexachords, as Marissen does, with much talk of skipping over missing notes? The pragmatic explanation of the ordering of the works provided by Boyd (speculative, but at least based on criteria familiar to any Baroque composer) is not so inadequate that one needs to find something better.

Hexachorditis also affects the author's related discussion of the key scheme of the first two parts of the Clavierubung: the six partitas and the paired overture and concerto. He fails to draw attention to something much simpler: the correspondence of the eight different keys to the eight (rather than seven) letter-names employed in German nomenclature, which has both 'B' and 'H'. Bach's wish to complete the series of letter-names (which perhaps replaced an earlier intention to cover a simple heptachord, continuing the 'scissors' movement outwards to F and then stopping) must be the reason for the transposition of the overture from its original key of C minor. I am also unhappy about the use of Vivaldi's Op. 3, L'estro armonico, as a comparator of the Brandenburgs in relation to the choice and sequence of keys. No wonder Vivaldi comes off worse: other things being equal, any set of twelve works selected from a finite pool of 'possibles' (rather than composed specially for the purpose) is going to appear less tightly organized than one of only six.

Viewing the Brandenburg Concertos not as a Bachian but as a specialist in Baroque concertos, I can see something that I think most commentators have missed. It is Bach's attraction to jeux d'esprit, to Spielfreudigkeit gone mad. Each of the concertos contains a number of exaggerated or experimental features (some of these are the 'reversals' of which Marissen writes) that may say nothing about his social and political views but speak volumes about his musical imagination and love of self-imposed challenge. In the opening movement of the first concerto the virtually unstylized horn calls, jarring both rhythmically and harmonically against everything else, create an effect of distancing comparable with, say, the bitonality in bars 50-51 of Smetana's Blanik. The violino piccolo creates the extraordinary sensation of D major sonority (and technical facility) in an F major context. The minuet, its two trios and the enclosed polonaise all achieve, in their distinct ways, a 'refined uncouthness'. The second concerto chooses as its concertino a top-heavy cluster of four treble instruments, each with a different method of sound-production and individual dynamic characteristics, and then proceeds to treat them as interchangeably - making light of their differences - as it is possible to imagine. The first movement of the same concerto is almost comically rigid in its adherence to quadratic phrase-structure. The third concerto is a unique celebration of threesomes and, by extension, of triads in close position. Its Adagio bar separating the two Allegros (one will not call it a movement for fear of begging the question) is a reductio ad absurdum of the bridging slow passages seen in concertos from Torelli's Op. 6 onwards. In the fourth concerto the asymmetry of the concertino group (one violin versus two recorders) generates delicious anarchy, while its last movement displays cadence avoidance of Wagnerian virtuosity. The fifth concerto, a pioneer of the use of solo harpsichord in a concerto, rubs the point home with an outrageously long cadenza. The sixth concerto gives us, in its opening movement, two ritornellos for the price of one (the first of them containing a canon as 'silly' as the one in the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony).

Fun plays no part in Marissen's study, which I consider a pity. My review has concentrated on its more problematic arguments, mainly since the author himself clearly regards them as the book's raison d'etre. Elsewhere, he is very informative on analytical and historical points, effectively demolishing many received beliefs, especially regarding chronology and source filiation. He convinces me totally with his argument that the first and sixth concertos are post-Vivaldian rather than pre-Vivaldian. It is only a shame that the index is so brief, making it difficult to chase up points a second time. In the end, however much one may disagree with the author, no student of Bach or of the Baroque concerto will want to be without this book: it stimulates even as it irritates.

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Author:Talbot, Michael
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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