—Johann Sebastian Bach (1721)
The Meeting of the Three Quick and the Three Dead
In the last of the Brandenburg Concertos the lack of violins leads to an overall low pitch and sombre sonority, both traditionally associated with death. Philosophers like Descartes believed that Man experienced feelings of despair due to a depression of the soul or spirits, and 16th- and 17th-century composers expressed this through low-pitched music written for sombre sounding sackbuts, viols and organs.
Bach’s use of viols in similar contexts confirms the symbolism – the Trauer-Ode of 1727 includes two viols and two lutes and shares many musical figures with the first movement of this concerto. The repeated quavers played by the viols here represent the relentless passing of time – clocks are an omnipresent reminder of earthly transience in Vanitas paintings, and the same repeated quavers appear in Biber’s Requiem in F minor and Bach’s own Actus Tragicus.
The idea of the triumph as an allegory was given literary expression by Dante and Petrarch. Illustrations of the latter’s Trionfi began to appear in the 15th century, and from this grew the idea of the triumphal pageant-wagon bearing an allegorical or mythical figure surrounded by appropriate attendants and attributes. The Triumph of Death is normally represented in the illustrations by a skeleton holding a scythe and an hourglass, but some later tableaux were based on other death allegories. In some triumphal processions the figure of Death was followed by that of Eternity, a religious allegory depicting the triumph of the Christian faith. This concerto was probably written in the first place for Prince Leopold of C “then, a keen viol player. I cannot help but see parallels between the work and “The Meeting of the Three Quick and the Three Dead”, a popular allegorical theme in literary and visual sources of the 17th century. Three young Princes (2 violas and cello), returning carefree from the chase, meet three cadavers (2 viols and violone). The death figures warn the Princes to repent, for wealth and beauty vanish – all must eventually succumb to death.
The ecstasy and peace of the second movement must represent the blissful redemption of the souls of the three Princes after repentance. The viols are silent here, and by analogy (according to the allegory) the violone also, which helps to solve one more of the Brandenburg mysteries: there is no indication in Bach’s score that the violone should be silent in the Adagio, but if the continuo bass-part is doubled (whether at 8′ or 16′ pitch) by a bowed bass then a number of unwanted dissonances occur between the continuo and the cello line.
In the final gigue-like movement the Princes (violas and cello) laugh and dance joyfully together, with occasional jerky movements (a suggestion of the Dance of Death?) from the cadavers (viols) – perhaps Bach’s locus topicus was a vision of the lambs of God gambolling in the fields of heaven.