Program Notes: The 3 B’s – February 6, 2021

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048, G Major

Instrumentation: 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, continuo

Duration: 10 minutes

The Composer

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The History

Bach wrote the Brandenburg Concertos between 1708 and 1723.  He appears to have selected the six pieces from concertos he had composed over a number of years while he was Kapellmeister at Kothen and possibly extending back to his employment at Weimer (1708–17).  The concertos are dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg with whom Bach was seeking employment.  Apparently, the Margrave never had the works performed and weren’t discovered until 1850 when they were discovered in the Brandenburg archives and published.  

Brandenburg #3 is the shortest of these 6 concerto grossos.  A concerto grosso is a work for multiple soloists and orchestra.  Also, each instrument serves as concertino and ripeno (soloist and accompanist).    The work is in 3 movements with the middle movement being only one measure and serving as a bridge between the first and third movements.  This brief movement may have been where the soloists improvised a cadenza, a short solo showing off their virtuosity.  Brandenburg #3 was likely written in Weimer between 1711 and 1713. 

The World – 1721

The deadliest outbreak of small pox in the history of Boston begins when the British ship HMS Sea Horse arrives in Boston Harbor with a crew of sailors who had survived a smallpox epidemic. One of the Seahorse crew who had cleared quarantine develops symptoms the next day and infects other people in a lodging house. Over the next 10 months, 5,759 cases of smallpox are recorded in Boston and 844 people die of the disease.  Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of the Harvard University School of Medicine begins the first public inoculation campaign in order to slow the smallpox epidemic in Boston, giving a vaccine to his own son, and then to his slave and the slave’s infant son.  

Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, D Major (4th and 5th movements)

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Duration: 8 minutes

The Composer

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

The History

The First Serenade was completed in 1858. Originally scored for wind and string octet and then expanded into a longer work for nonet, it was later adapted for orchestra.  Brahms wrote this Serenade under the spell of Mozart’s serenades and divertimentos, the septets of Beethoven and Hummel, the Schubert Octet, and the Octet and Nonet of Louis Spohr.   Brahms completed the final version for large orchestra in December 1859.  For the orchestration of the Serenade Brahms sought the advice of his good friend, violinist Joseph Joachim.  The first performance of the Serenade, in Hanover, on 3 March 1860, “did not go very well” in Brahms’s opinion, but evidently the unusually large audience of 1,200 did not notice any mistake during the performance. At the end, applause “persisted until I came out and down in front.” After every piece in the concert “the audience was shouting.”  

If Brahms had called his enchanting Serenade in D major a symphony—and he almost did—we would be hearing it all the time. After Joachim (who first conducted the premiere) received the full-orchestra version, he began referring to the work as a “Symphony Serenade,” and for a while Brahms adopted this term as well, though in the end he settled for “Serenade in D major for Large Orchestra.” 

The World – 1858

Benito Juarez (1806–1872) becomes constitutional President of Mexico. At the same time, conservatives install Felix Maria Zuloaga (1813–1898) as president.  Zuloaga proclaims the Plan of Tacubava to abolish the reform laws, setting off a three-year civil war (1857–1860). 

Abraham Lincoln accepts the Republican Party nomination for a seat in the United States Senate, delivering the House Divided Speech in Springfield, Illinois.

The United States signs a treaty with the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Concerto for violin and orchestra, Op. 61, D major

The Composer

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Instrumentation: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Duration: 42 minutes

The History

Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto in 1806. Its first performance by Franz Clement was unsuccessful and for some decades the work languished in obscurity, until revived in 1844 by the then 12-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim with the orchestra of the London Philharmonic Society, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. Since then, it has become one of the best-known violin concertos.

Unlike Beethoven’s concertos for piano, which feature thick, dense chords and difficult scalar passages, the violin solo is graceful and lyrical. This warm expressiveness matched Clement’s style of playing, which Beethoven said exemplified “an extremely delightful tenderness and purity.”

The concerto begins with five repeating notes in the timpani, an unconventional opening for any piece of music written in 1806. This simple knocking is repeated, like a gentle but persistent heartbeat, throughout the movement, and becomes a recurring motif. In another distinctive break from tradition, the soloist does not enter for a full three minutes, and then begins a cappella before reiterating the first theme.

The Larghetto’s main melody is stately, intimate, and tranquil, and becomes an orchestral backdrop over which the solo violin traces graceful arabesques in ethereally high registers. The soloist takes center stage in this movement, playing extended cadenzas and other passages with minimal accompaniment.

The final Rondo: Allegro flows seamlessly from the Larghetto; the soloist launches immediately into a rocking melody that suggests a boat bobbing at anchor. Typical rondo format features a primary theme (A), which is interspersed with contrasting sections (B, C, D, etc.). Each of these contrasting sections departs from the (A) theme, sometimes in mood, sometimes by shifting from major to minor, or by changing keys entirely.

The World – 1806

Explorers Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery having reached the Pacific Ocean after traveling through the Louisiana Purchase begin their journey home.  The Expedition reaches St. Louis in September ending a successful exploration of the Louisiana Territory and the Pacific Northwest. According to one historian, their arrival comes “much to the amazement of residents, who had given the travelers up for dead.” 

United States Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike leads an expedition from Fort Bellefontaine, to explore the American West. During his second exploratory expedition, Lieutenant Pike sees a distant mountain peak while near the Colorado foothills, later named Pike’s Peak in his honor.