Brandenburg Concerto #1

—Johann Sebastian Bach (1721)

The Triumph of Caesar

Horace Fitzpatrick suggested that the size and grandeur of a nobleman’s hunt became a symbol of his wealth and social status because of the enormous expense of horses, hounds, hunters, musicians and horns. The mounted hunt ceremony also reflected worldly virtue in the Baroque – a mixture of chivalry, bravery and industry – and the ceremonial and signalling functions of the hunting-horn came to symbolise aristocratic values. So the sound of the horn would have represented the very essence of nobility to an 18th-century listener.

This is all very plausible and probably true, but performers and scholars searching for extra- musical significance in the Brandenburg set took the interpretation at face value and assumed that Concerto I was an evocation of the Margrave’s nobility and his prowess in the hunt, which led in turn to the conclusion that the set simply dealt with the virtues or qualities associated with Princes – including the hunt, the waging of war, sentiment and pastoral benevolence. The piccolo violin of Concerto I was explained away as a French dancing- master’s fiddle and the unnecessary (for a concerto) series of French dance movements and Polacca were seen to represent the Margrave’s “courtliness” and “modernity”. Then the little fiddle was connected with the Polacca via Telemann’s brief description of music-making in Polish taverns until someone pointed out that it is actually silent during the very movement it should be leading. In fact, the instrument only really has anything special to do in the third movement. A number of other puzzles and anomolies remain (and not just in the first Concerto) which normal analytical scholarship has so far failed to address.

I believe that the larger signalling horn was developed and introduced into the hunt in the first place because of old associations with the Roman triumphal entry – the hunt being regarded as a kind of triumphal progress. Ancient brass instruments (the curved cornu and buccina and the straight tuba) were well known from bas-reliefs of Roman military processions and triumphs. In Renaissance and Baroque art Fame’s trumpet was always depicted as long and straight, so “fantastic stage-versions of the cornu or buccina often led the triumphal entries and processions which formed such an important part of 16th- and 17th-century court spectacle and celebration.

Roman reliefs and Renaissance paintings of the cornu in particular (often confused with the buccina in literary sources) show instruments which must have looked to Bach and his contemporaries remarkably similar to the large, hoop-like Baroque hunting horns with which they were familiar, so it is not surprising that horns were used to represent triumphal entries and worldly pomp and glory. Bach himself symbolises God’s entry into the world as Jesus Christ in the Quoniam of the B-minor Mass with a horn obliggato. Fitzpatrick also points out that the horn fanfare at the beginning of the first movement of Brandenburg I is almost the same as an early 18th-century Saxon huntsman’s greeting-call (unfortunately he does not cite a source). Bach uses the same fanfare again, this time played by a trumpet, in the aria Grosser Herr und starker K”nig from Part I of the Oratorium tempore Nativitatis Christi; and though the trumpet symbolises royalty the use of this particular fanfare figure probably represents God’s entry into the world. Written low in the trumpet’s range, it suggests the horn register in which the call would more normally have been heard. So the first movement of Brandenburg I probably portrays a triumphal entry with two “modern” representations of the Roman cornu blaring out fanfares at the head of the procession.

Concerto I existed first in a version containing only the opening movement, slow movement and minuet and trios – even the Polacca was missing. I believe that the original three- movement work may have been written as a functional accompaniment to an allegorical courtly triumphal entry (generally the Triumph of Caesar – Julius, Augustus or Trajan), possibly as part of an actual procession – in which case the orchestra would have been deployed on a pageant-wagon.

A Roman triumph started on the Campus Martius and slowly processed to the Temple of Jupiter where prayers were offered and sacrifices made. After the rowdy processional of the first movement (complete with turning chariot wheels and paeans of praise from the crowds) the second could well represent some kind of pagan religious ceremony. Bach may be symbolising pagan prayer by the use of a slow tremolo effect (bow/breath vibrato) in both the strings and oboes, a common Baroque device also used by Biber in his Pauern Kirchfahrt to suggest prayer accompanied by a soft tremulant organ. The following minuet and trios might then have been danced by the Prince and the courtiers who took part in the action.

It is of course possible that the work was conceived as a purely musical representation of the Triumph of Caesar. The minuet and trios would need some explanation, but this is easily found in the rhetorical process. Bach, considering ways of representing his locus topicus, might well have thought of Johann Melchior Caesar, court and cathedral Kapellmeister at Breslau, Wrzburg and from 1683 Kapellmeister of Augsburg Cathedral. Caesar was a greatly respected composer and his music went on being popular well into the 18th century. His secular works consist mainly of dance suites, many of which contain pieces in the French style. Bach may have included the dance movements simply as a play on Caesar’s name, and the minuet does provide a perfect opportunity for the horns to imitate the kind of simple parts the Roman cornu could probably play.

When Bach began to make his selection for the Brandenburg set this work would have been an obvious choice for the opening concerto – except that it could hardly be called a concerto! So Bach added a new third movement for concertato piccolo violin with horns, oboes, bassoon and strings, and extracted a solo part for the piccolo violin from the first violin part of the other movements. The new third movement seems to have existed already as a chorus (now lost, but rearranged again later as a chorus in the praise serenata BWV 207); in the Brandenburg arrangement the piccolo violin must attempt to play the vocal parts, with some difficult double-stopping. According to Malcolm Boyd the original chorus was probably written in D major but transposed up a minor third into F major to fit with the other movements. The new key would have made the necessary double-stopping more difficult on a normal violin, so Bach specified a small instrument tuned a minor third higher to make it easier.

Having constructed a three-movement concerto there was no longer any reason for Bach to retain the minuet and trios – but he did, including the piccolo violin in the minuet and adding a Polacca exactly at the centre of the dance-suite. He also rescored the second trio, replacing the tutti violins with tutti oboes. In suggesting why I must admit to some trepidation as my explanation is without doubt the most controversial and unsubstantiated part of this whole essay – but it is at least a logical argument which provides plausible answers to the many questions.

I believe that Bach, playing the rhetoric game again, came up with a different Caesar – this time Nero, who despite his many offences against humanity had the dubious merit of a passionate interest in music. He was also an easy prey for flatterers. Suetonius tells us that he had a husky voice which lacked body, and that he played the lyre and the bagpipe. Just before the end he made a vow to play the latter in a public music festival if he managed to keep his throne. He also arranged many musical victories for himself, both in Rome and Greece.

Bach would naturally have chosen a violin to represent Nero’s lyre because of the symbolic tradition: Ancient lyre = Renaissance lira da braccio = Baroque violin. Is it an accident that the little fiddle sounds less refined than an ordinary one? Is it an accident that the solo part written for it always sounds difficult – even manic at times, however well-played? Is it an accident that, at the point where the soloist is given the opportunity for a cadenza, the other instruments hardly pause before interrupting? Nero was known to have employed his own claque, who would have been directed to applaud at the slightest opportunity. Having been victorious in the games in Greece Nero awarded himself a triumph, entering Rome in Augustus’ triumphal chariot. His claque followed in the triumphal procession, shouting that they were “Augustus’ men” celebrating his triumph.

Is it an accident that Bach retained the dance suite, so was able to insert a piece of “bagpipe” music (the Polacca) near the end of the concerto? Is it an accident that the “lyre” is silent when the “bagpipe” is playing? And perhaps the rescoring of the second trio for horns and oboes is a fanciful but humorous touch representing the unlikely combination of Roman cornu and Greek aulos – the brash Roman dabbling with the arts of Ancient Greece.

In most depictions of Roman triumphs there is a small figure riding with Caesar and whispering in his ear: “Remember, you are only mortal, all this will pass.” By including references to someone as despicable as Nero, Bach seems to be pointing a moral of his own: “See how power and glory can corrupt a mortal. Remember that you will die”. And there are plenty of obvious Vanitas symbols in the work.

So, what do you think?

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