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  • Writer's pictureJohannes Pramsohler

A travel concerto for the Bach family

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

Johannes Pramsohler puts the first version of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in a cosmopolitan context of travelling virtuosos

© Julien Benhamou

To make it clear from the start, a “travel concerto” genre does not exist. However, what one can observe time and again are certain characteristics that indicate that many a baroque solo concerto was conceived especially for journeys. The epoch of internationally touring virtuosos indeed first came into full bloom with Paganini and Liszt, and yet even a century earlier there were already opportunities for guest appearances for which soloists had to have suitable works in their baggage. And suitable was that with which one could shine to best advantage in a foreign place, and also make the task as easy as possible for the local “accompanists” (and thus also for oneself). Paganini, by the way, traveled with his own performing parts, distributing them shortly before the concert and collecting them again immediately afterward.

The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is in many respects such a “travel concerto.” In the original version recorded here, it could very well have served as a showpiece for the harpsichordist Bach at the debut concert during his visit to Dresden in 1717. In the second movement, Bach treated a theme by the French organist Louis Marchand, with whom a competition was planned in Dresden, which however never came about. In the outer movements can be recognized indirect quotations from violin concertos by Vivaldi, which had a strong tradition in Dresden. One can well imagine that the relatively simple parts for flute and violin were managed without difficulty by the Dresden soloists Buffardin and Pisendel, playing at sight, for a spontaneous concert even without a rehearsal.

It was also eminently suitable as a bravura piece for the spa sojourns in Karlsbad by Bach’s princely employer. Prince Leopold traveled on a regular basis during the high season to the noble spa town, which served not only as a chic meeting place of the high nobility, but also as a platform for artists. Invoices show that during his second journey in 1718, the prince spent considerably more money than during the first stay a year earlier. The new Kapellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach and his musicians undoubtedly contributed to a splendid representation. Thus, on 9 May, one traveled to Karlsbad and probably noticed only upon arrival that a suitable instrument was not available, and for this reason the elaborate and costly conveyance was organized for the “Prince’s ClaviCymbel,” which then arrived on 28 May.

In 1719 Bach personally ordered a new instrument from Michael Mietke and later traveled again to Berlin to pick it up – had the other one been damaged on the return journey from Karlsbad? As can be seen from a comparison of the original version with the later autograph score, Bach continually undertook revisions of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Thus, not only was the violoncello part rewritten and a Violone-grosso part added, but above all the original eighteen-measure cadenza was formed into the famous sixty-four-measure cadenza – presumably to highlight the likewise musical prince and his new, wickedly expensive harpsichord.

The last few bars of Bach's original short cadenza for the harpsichord

It is very likely that the later version also belonged to the Bach family’s travel baggage, with Johann Sebastian himself on the harpsichord, Wilhelm Friedemann as violinist, and Carl Philipp Emanuel as flutist. Moreover, it is to be assumed that the Bachs’ music trunk also contained cantatas such as Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen – with Anna Magdalena Bach as professionally trained singer and her brother Johann Caspar on trumpet, the family was well equipped for small-scale concerts.

A feature of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is the simple orchestral accompaniment in the form of Violino grosso – a ripieno violin part (in place of the usual two) that can also be played satisfactorily by a single violin – to keep the traveling ensemble, and with that the expenses, relatively small, without forfeiting the solo-tutti effect, on the one hand and, on the other, because one never knows what to expect in terms of orchestral musicians at a guest appearance.

For our recording, we decided to play the concerto without a double bass as we know that around 1718 there was still no 16-foot instrument in Cöthen. We also carefully kept all the original slurs and articulations which in some places give the piece an entirely different feel than the famous second version. The fact that Bach slurs so much in this first version inspired us to opt for slurs elsewhere as well.


Listen / Stream / Buy album here.

Listen / Stream / Buy album here.

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Smith Joel
Smith Joel
Mar 07

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