The epoch of Baroque, which took over one and a half centuries from the early 1600s to the 1750s, was a majestic period for all branches of art. Its bizarre pompous luxury found reflection not only in architecture but also in other arts, such as music. The main genres that characterize musical Baroque are concerto and suite, which demanded new composing and performing techniques. In this paper, two examples of major Baroque genres are reviewed: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (1721) by Johann Sebastian Bach and The Four Seasons (1723) by Antonio Vivaldi. The first concerto is played by Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and the solo violin part in the second piece is performed by Nigel Kennedy.
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Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5
The inspirational source for Baroque composers who worked with the concerto genre was the example provided by Italian composers. From this country, concerto traveled on to the north where it “became one of the defining forms of Baroque music attracting composers and audiences of all nationalities” (Buelow 524). Among composers intrigued by Italian experiments in the genre of the concert was Johan Sebastian Bach who created a most renowned cycle of Baroque concertos called Brandenburg Concertos. Among the six pieces of the collection, the one especially notable for its mature writing style is the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Scored for quite a traditional ensemble of instruments including violin, flute, harpsichord, and strings, the solo harpsichord material of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto suggests that Bach wrote it for advancing the especial virtuosity of the soloist (Ferguson 14). The harpsichordist’s technical perfection becomes especially obvious in the cadenza of the first Allegro movement that is teeming with baffling passages and figurations. This movement also reflects the main idea of a traditional concert: a competition between the soloists and the orchestra. The instruments seem to struggle for melodies among each other, and the outcome of this thrilling struggle is that the soloists quite win the main thematic material.
Since along with concerto, the suite was a leading Baroque genre, its influence is also traced in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto since the last two parts remind of traditional suite dances. The second movement, Affettuoso, proceeds in a stately tread that cannot but bring recollections of the sarabande train. The intimate character of the movement is emphasized by the performing instruments: the accompanying strings are silent and the music is developed only by the group of three soloists. Contrasting to this solemn meditation, the final Allegro bursts through in a stream of vivid triplets that associate with the genre of a gigue. The flute, violin, and harpsichord take turn developing the piece in a series of polyphonic imitations, and in their lively motion create a festive mood unmarred by the technical challenges for the performers.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons
Provided that Bach drew inspiration in Italian concerto samples, it is not surprising that works of Antonio Vivaldi served as models for the German genius. Vivaldi excelled in the genre of the instrumental concerto, with one of the most prominent examples being his series of violin concertos The Four Seasons. To make the performance more entertaining, Vivaldi based his piece on a cycle of sonnets that described times of the year. Each of the three-movement concerts is dedicated to one season and has a description of it, supposedly written by Vivaldi (Everett 70).
As the year starts with spring, so does the cycle of The Four Seasons. Vivaldi employs a whole set of musical means to deliver the joyful mood of Spring: the energetic first movement features trills, staccatos, and glissandos in the solo part, that reminds of birds singing. The second movement of Spring is an expressive and peaceful melody that illustrates a pastoral scene. Finally, the first season ends with a scene of a peasant holiday celebrating the start of the year in a stirring rhythm of Italian tarantella.
The heat of the Summer occurs through the disconnected as if lazy phrases of the violin. They interleave with sudden loud passages of the whole orchestra that are designed to depict the rush of wind that is bringing a future thunderstorm. The latter is also foreseen in the second movement, by thunderous interruptions of the violin’s lyrical melody. The storm finally breaks through in the Presto that astonishes with its endless streams of passages symbolizing the summer thunderstorm.
Autumn starts with another holiday in the country. But to render the fading autumn nature, Vivaldi as if re-colors the thematic material of Spring in minor keys. The peasants fall asleep after their noisy party, and their sleep is interrupted only by several intrusions of the idlers, repeating the festive theme of the preceding movement. The last movement depicts a scene of the hunt using horn imitations.
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The cold chills of Winter occur through the orchestra’s rhythmic repetitions and the violin’s passages as if imitating the howling of flurries. Contrasted to this is the second movement: a peaceful scene of a warm and cozy living room is rendered by the violin’s graceful and conciliating melody. However, winter blizzards return in the final part’s implacable ostinato which reminds of nature’s objectivity and irreversibility.
All in all, the two pieces discussed presently a bright image of Baroque music. The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto by Bach renders the principles of performance virtuosity and the idea of competitiveness between the soloists and the orchestra group. The Four Seasons by Vivaldi implement the Baroque trend to program music that is based on a certain story.
Buelow, George J. A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.
Everett, Paul. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, and Other Concertos, Op. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
Ferguson, Donald Nivison. Masterpieces of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Print.