Brandenburg Concerto #4

—Johann Sebastian Bach (1721)

The Musical Contest between Apollo and Marsyas

Apollo, as patron of music and poetry and leader of the Muses, embodied the civilised and rational as opposed to the darker Dionysian aspects of Man’s nature. In the legend of the musical contest between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas (enormously popular after 1500) the former played a lyre and the latter an aulos – so stringed instruments came to represent reason, harmony and order, while winds symbolised passion, drunkeness or amorous pursuits.

Marsyas’ pipes had been invented by Pallas Athena and almost played themselves. For some time the Muses (competition judges) favoured Marsyas, so in order to win Apollo was forced to resort to outrageous tricks – playing his instrument upside down, singing to his own accompaniment and finally flattering the Muses with praise of Olympus and Helicon. In Renaissance and Baroque art the most frequent substitute for the Dionysian aulos (often represented in mythological scenes by instruments which were part of contemporary musical life) was the phallic recorder, sometimes depicted in pairs because the aulos was a double pipe; and the lira da braccio or violin (the latter thought to have been invented by Orpheus) usually replaced the obsolete lyre as the instrument of Apollo.

I would suggest that the locus topicus for this concerto was the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, symbolising the conflict between Reason and Passion. This would certainly explain the unusual choice of instruments and the occasional immoderate virtuosity of the violin writing (Apollo’s tricks); and the way Bach writes for the pair of recorders strongly suggests a double pipe, with scale passages and arpeggios in one part against long notes (drone) in the other, and passages in thirds and in unison.

The idea of two recorders representing Marsyas’ double aulos could also shed some light on the vexed question of Bach’s unique and perplexing demand for fiauti d’Echo which occurs in the title of the concerto (though he calls simply for fiauto 1mo and fiauto 2do in the score).

It is possible that Bach had come across recorder players who, by binding two differently voiced instruments together, could produce an echo effect by playing first on one, then on the other. We know that Drumbleby, the English pipe-maker, showed Pepys such an instrument; Paisible was renowned in London for his performances on the “echo flute”; and Hawkins states that John Banister’s son was famous for playing on two recorders at once.

Marsyas’ aulos was a double pipe, so two recorders joined together would have appeared to an 18th-century onlooker a more convincing and evocative substitute for it than a single instrument – and many 16th- and 17th-century paintings show two recorders, shawms or trumpets being held and even (though only symbolically!) played by one person.

Of course two players are required to perform Brandenburg IV, but the underlying meaning of the work would have been instantly clarified by performance on “double pipes”. And although the outer movements were probably played on the loudest of each joined pair it would have been possible to exaggerate slightly the echo effects of the second movement. Such experiments are more difficult today – few players will tinker with expensive and often irreplaceable instruments – so the concerto is usually performed (as it must also have been frequently in the 18th century) on two normal treble recorders without loss of effect. In any case, it must have been only the “fantastiCö appearance of the instruments that was really important, for when Bach rearranged the concerto for harpsichord and two recorders he no longer specified fiauti d’Echo, though the musical requirements were the same. Apollo’s lira substitute was gone, so there was no longer any need for “double pipes”.

This concerto would have been an obvious candidate for the Brandenburg collection; competitions and tournaments played an important part in court spectacle, Apollo (the Margrave) won and the Muses managed yet another appearance. A violin and one or two recorders were frequently included in Vanitas paintings to represent the opposing forces of Reason and Passion, Virtue and Vice.

With its fountain-like figures and self-indulgent solo episodes in the first movement, echoes and flourishes in the second and fugal writing in the last the concerto is a rhetorical tour de force – and a true contest between virtuoso soloists. The violin definitely wins in the end, but the recorders take the initiative in the passionate second movement.

—Philipp Pickett


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