—Johann Sebastian Bach (1721)
The Choice of Hercules
Pieter Dirksen has recently suggested that this concerto was originally written for performance by Bach himself in Dresden in 1717, where he was to have competed with the French keyboard virtuoso Louis Marchand. This theory is entirely speculative, but as Dirksen points out, a number of unique features of the concerto can be explained by it, including the often-mentioned unidiomatic, reserved treatment of the violin which is so obviously calculated to focus attention on the harpsichord:
- The surprising presence of the flute. The earliest other dateable works by Bach which include flute parts are two praise-Serenadas from around 1722. The French flute virtuoso Buffardin joined the Dresden Hofkapelle in 1715, and he had been the teacher of Bach’s brother Jakob in 1712. The violinist Johann Pisendel was another of Bach’s early Dresden friends. Is it coincidence that the two concertante parts of the concerto require their respective instruments?
- The written out “cadenza”, much shorter in the original version. Vivaldi’s Grosso Mogul concerto was almost certainly the model for this, and a cadenza is also a typical feature of many of Vivaldi’s “Dresden” concertos.
- The mixture of national styles. In the second decade of the 18th century Dresden was at the centre of a musical conflict between the French and Italian styles. Bach’s concerto is perhaps a contribution to this discussion, juxtaposing and combining both French and Italian elements.
- The theme of the slow movement of Brandenburg V is based on a Fugue for organ by Marchand himself. There are still a number of puzzles. What does the Vivaldi-like concitato (agitated, warlike) opening tutti represent? Why the gentle persuasiveness of the flute and violin entries after such an agitated opening? Why was the “cadenza” extended by so many extra bars in the Brandenburg version of the concerto?
Bach later employed a flute in warlike contexts, once to represent the defeat of enemies, but there it probably symbolised the fife. Then again, a flute appears in another cantata accompanying Gratitude. In another cantata a violin plays the obbligato for Pallas Athena (Minerva), and here I began to understand the significance of the Dresden competition and the various Affekts of the music – each protagonist’s entry more desperate to persuade, more insistant than the last. Bach’s locus topicus for this concerto must have been “The Choice of Hercules”, sometimes known as “Hercules at the Cross-roads” and widely popular in Renaissance and Baroque art. The fact that Bach later wrote a secular cantata on the same subject (Hercules auf dem Scheidewege BWV 213) lends some force to the assumption.
The allegory depicts Hercules seated under a tree choosing between Virtue and Vice, each of whom tries to persuade him to follow her. One of the most common attributes of Vice is the satyr’s pipe, represented in the concerto by the flattering, ingratiating flute; Virtue often took the form of Minerva herself, the goddess of war, personification of wisdom and patroness of learning, arts and crafts. Like Apollo, Minerva was regarded as a benevolent and civilising influence, and like Apollo could be represented by a lira or violin. She was generally depicted dressed in armour, with spear, shield and helmet, and like violins and recorders these objects are found in Vanitas paintings. Minerva may be accompanied by a man crowned with laurel and holding a book (more Vanitas symbols) – the poet who will tell of Hercules’ deeds; and overhead Fame blows her trumpet or Time looks down, signifying that Hercules will be remembered for eternity. Hercules might show some slight inclination towards Vice, but of course he chooses Virtue. In some of the paintings the portrait of a Prince or nobleman is substituted for Hercules.
Bach, about to undergo a test, obviously saw himself as a Hercules exploring the possibilities of French and Italian music (not really Vice and Virtue – this is only an allegory, after all). Having chosen Virtue at the end of the first movement he goes on to combine the two styles in a model of stylistic versatility and gouts réunis.
This concerto was yet another obvious choice for the Brandenburg set. It’s another contest piece; the Margrave replaces Hercules (Bach) as the hero who chooses Virtue over Vice (at least at the end of the first movement), and his fame lives for ever; at the same time enough of the Vanitas symbols are present to point the moral. In fact, Hercules himself often appears in paintings, engravings and friezes on the Vanitas theme. Hercules, as the personification of physical strength and courage, came to represent the Christian triumph of good over evil, which in turn led to the popularity of “Hercules at the Crossroads” in Renaissance and Baroque art. The figure of Hercules came to represent virtue, wisdom, knowledge and fame. It is also important to consider the position of this concerto in the set, for the figure of Hercules also symbolises the humanistic side of Memento mori – THE END CROWNS THE WORK. Through his labours, Hercules, by his constancy and fortitude, conquered evil. Virtue overpowered Vice, just as man can conquer vice and obtain virtue by his good works. Thus the spirit of the humanistic artist or scholar can survive through honourable work, and his name will survive on earth after his death through the fame brought by his works. A 17th- century Christian humanist did not have to choose between religion and philosophy, and Hercules embodies this blend perfectly.
The Italian-style concitato ritornello of the first movement symbolises the warlike Minerva, and the “cadenza”, along with most of the harpsichord figuration of the first movement, must represent the disturbed and (very) indecisive state of Hercules’ mind. Perhaps by extending the “cadenza” Bach was not only improving on what Richard Taruskin has called a “conglomeration of shallow fireworks and harmonic barbarities . . . poor music by any standard”, but also suggesting that the worldly Margrave would take much longer to come to a decision!
Note: In the secular cantata mentioned above Vice is represented by flats and Virtue by sharps. In the Brandenburg set the three concertos dealing with earthly concerns (a Roman triumph; the great poets of Antiquity; The Three Quick and the Three Dead) are all written in flat keys. The three concertos based on mythology (the nine Muses; Apollo and Marsyas; Hercules) are written in sharp keys.
Another link: the principal musical figure of the first movements of all the concertos is based on the natural notes of the trumpet’s harmonic series – an expression of heroism.