It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.
– J.S. BachCHAPTER AIMS: Getting very acquainted with the opening minute of our Bach piece.
Introducing four instruments: violin, oboe, recorder, and trumpet.
Listen to this music: do you hear it like a rich wash of sound? A cascade of music, rich in texture, that pours out a wave of sound? A full bundle of noise that washes over?
That’s how we listen to music much of the time. Passively.
Which is one of the reasons music gives us so much pleasure. It works at such an instinctive and intuitive level, that we can enjoy it even whilst doing other things, like cooking, waslking. Or even reading this…
But sometimes you want to get your fingers into the cracks, your head under the bonnet. Sometimes you want to peer down, under, through, into the music. To see its form and comprehend its shape. To see the skull under the skin. To get into the engine room, and see how the contraption actually works.
Think of this music like a fabulously rich tapestry. It’s beautiful at a distance. But as we get closer, we begin to see the intricacy and precision, the craft and beauty, the workmanship and industry that has brought these textures to life.
Music also presents us, at a distance, with much beauty. When we get closer, we start to make out those separate strands of sound. Which means we start to identify the different instruments of the orchestra.
So we’re dealing with the instruments that make classical music for this first chapter, as we will for each of the first chapters of all of our six pieces. Music begins with the instruments that make it. The quality of their sound, their range, their tone and timbre. But also the blend of instruments, and how that effects the overall sound.
It really helps to recognise the different instruments making it. And not just the individual instruments, but how they group together.
So we’re going to be able to tell wind instruments from brass ones, eg a flute from a trumpet. But we will also need to distinguish between wind instruments. To tell a flute from an oboe, for example. Or a trumpet from a french horn. Even the first set of violins from a second set of violins…
Let’s crack right on with this music by Bach. What instruments are creating this pleasant noise? Which instruments stand out? There is actually a rather neat order to Bach’s music that makes this an ideal place to look at instrument identification. But which instruments? How do we separate them from the overall mush of sound? If this is an entire orchestra playing, is there any point or value looking for the separate instruments making up the sound?
Well yes there is, and one clue that there is comes in the title of the piece…
“Brandenburg Concerto no 2 in F”
Titles tell us quite a lot with classical music. There’s a lot of specific information in this title, but at the moment we’re only concerned with one word.
It’s not the ‘Brandenburg‘, although that is interesting in itself. It relates to the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach dedicated this work. In fact, Bach wrote six of these concertos, dedicating them all to the Margrave, presumably in the hope of digging up some work or sponsorship. Of those six concertos, this is the second, hence “Brandenburg Concerto No 2”.
Bach’s plan doesn’t seem to have worked.
The Margrave must have ignored Bach’s flirtation, and the six concertos remained gathering dust in the his library for over a hundred years, before they were rediscovered in full – in 1849 – and reintroduced back into the musical world.
But they have survived, indeed they have florished, and are now are now a staple part of the classical repetory.
Back to the title: it’s that word next ‘concerto‘ I want to get to, because that tells us much more about the music, and the instruments playing it. It’s a generic word, it tells us what sort of music this is.
A Concerto is an orchestral piece of music that highlights a particular instrument or instruments. That contrasts the genre straightaway with the Symphony, which features the whole of an orchestra playing together.
Concertos are usually titled by the instrument that is featured by the piece. A ‘Flute Concerto’ for example, means you are going to hear a solo flute player, accompanied by an orchestra. Which means when we get to Gershwin’s piano concerto – our 5th piece on this course – that means we’re going to expect to hear music that features a piano playing with (and against) the rest of the orchestra.
And that’s what we get.
For the record, the symphony as we know it today had not been invented by Bach’s time. He died in 1727, 50 years or so before the Symphony came to life in the hands of Haydn (1732-1809) and Mozart (1756-1791).
Concertos appreared a little earlier on the scene. In fact they were pretty much brand new at the time Bach was composing. Vivaldi (1678-1741) was master of the form, churning them out at an alarming rate. Bach eagrely consumed everything he could from Italy, including many of Vivaldi’s works. These Brandenburg concertos are his response.
And what a response!
So this is a concerto, only concerto for what? There’s no instruments in the title, just the old Margrave’s name. If this is a concerto, which instrument is taking the limelight?
When you see a concerto performed, it’s easy to see who the soloist is, as they usually stand or sit raised on their own. In other words, they physically stand out from the rest of the musicians. But here, we’ve only got our ears to depend on.
Listen to this first minute, and see if you can tell which instrument takes prominence over the rest:
Well…if you’re having trouble hearing any single instrument taking the lead, there isn’t one.
This concerto doesn’t feature a single instrument, but something more like a mini-band within the main orchestra. Traditionally these four soloists would sit or stand together in a group at the centre of the orchestra.
Those instruments are in turn:
These four solo instruments are backed by a small orchestra made up entirely of stringed instruments (violins, violas, cellos and double bass).
That means there is automatically a dual dynamic to this music. Two sets of instruments are playing against one another.
On the one hand, our four soloists. On the other, the accompanying string band of violins, violas, cellos and double bass. That gives us plenty of opportunity for contrast and dialogue.
We’re not going to worry about the rest of the band right now, but concentrate on the four solo instruments. Let’s break down the first minute, and take a look at each of those sections individually.
The First Minute
Firstly, we have an introduction, featuring the whole of the orchestra. This is known as a ‘Tutti’, from the Italian meaning ‘All’. It means everyone plays together…
1 Opening 0.00-0.21
Next up our violinist enters. It’s a short entry:
2 Violin 0.21-0.26
Another burst from the entire orchestra, another Tutti:
3 Tutti 0.26-0.31
Notice how the orchestral tutti act like pillars of sound, support for each of the solo instruments, which play between.
The next solo instrument is the oboe (the following clip includes the next orchestra tutti as well):
4 Oboe (and tutti) 0.31-0.41
The recorder comes in next. Remember, each of these solos is followed by an orchestral ‘Tutti‘, those pillars of orchestral sound.
5 Recorder (and tutti) 0.41-0.51
And finally, and most LOUDLY, the trumpet, followed by a longer orchestral tutti which rounds off our first minute and 12 seconds:
6 Trumpet (and tutti) 0.51-1.12
We can see the musical structure of this piece more clearly now. We have four solo instruments, and we have orcherstral sections. Each introduction of our solo instrument is separated by sections where the rest of the orchestra plays together. Like layers in a cake: orchestra – soloist – orchestra – soloist etc.
Here is that beginning, broken down. It’s worth listening to until you’re comfortable recognising the different instruments:
- 00.00 Orchestral tutti
- 00.21 Violin solo introduced
- 00.26 Tutti
- 00.31 Oboe solo introduced
- 00.36 Tutti
- 00.42 Recorder
- 00.47 Tutti
- 00.51 Trumpet
- 00.57 Tutti to close of section
Flute (& Recorder)
Bach Flute Partita (excerpt)
Flutes and Recorders are very close relatives, close enough to be interchangeable.
The recorder is the older instrument, almost always made of wood. The flute, played sideways through a metal tube, is the more recent cousin. The more modern instrument has a greater range of notes, and can play louder. That common ancestry is given away by the fact that in Bach’s time, the recorder was known as a Flauto.
These are old instruments, in fact their ancestors are about the earliest instruments known to us, going back 40,000 years or more (see here).
Simplicity is no doubt the secret for their long long-life. You essentially make air vibrate through a straight tube, to make a note. Opening or closing different holes in the instrument changes the length of the column of vibrating air inside the instrument, and therefore changes the pitch of the note. The shorter column of air inside the instrument, the higher the note.
The physics are simple, and that simplicity extends to the sound itself. Both recorder and flute produce a simple, pure, innocent-sounding voice. The Oboe (which we’ll cone to next) uses a reed in the mouthpiece, and that gives extra texture and resonance to the sound of the Oboe. But the flute keeps things pure and simple.
That simplicity of sound can some to look down, or even disparague the flute’s tone. Mozart was probably not a huge fan. “What’s worse than a flute?” he once quipped, “Two flutes!”
Bach Cantata BVW 65 excerpt
The Oboe represents a separate arm of the wind instruments, a group of instruments that employ a reed to produce sound. The sound is made by blowing directly onto a double reed in the mouthpiece.
That means the oboe (and its deeper relative the bassoon) has a quality distinctly its own.
That double reed gives the instrument a penetrative quality, and a sense of the exotic and the strange.
There’s also a plaintive texture to the sound, a sense of loss or mourning. An ambiguity. Essentially, this is an instrument with a more complex musical timbre than, for example, the flute or recorder, which produce a purer sound. That means the oboe can have a more complex emotional reach.
Blowing on a reed gives this instrument a distinctive ‘quacking’ sound. No surprises, Prokofiev uses the oboe to orchestrate the Duck in his orchestral work Peter & the Wolf.
Here’s a clip. The oboe’s deeper cousin, the Bassoon, plays underneath, together with a clarinet. But also listen out for the flute chirping in the middle (0.14) and end (0.32), easy to identify with it’s purer reach…
Duck, Peter & the Wolf
That leaves us two remaining two solo instruments: violin and trumpet.
The violin, together with its stringed cousins (principally viola, cello, and double bass), represents a hugely important body of instruments, in fact the most important group of instruments in the entire orchestra.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this family of instruments to classical music. Indeed, it’s impossible to conceive of classical music without the Strings. It’s no coincidence that both classical music and the violin family emerged at the same time and place (16th century Italy).
We’ll get into more detail on the string family itself in the next Mozart chapter.
For now, we are going to treat the violin as it’s own solo instrument, and ignore the string band accompanying it, although as we shall see that is not always easy to do. As a solo instrument, surrounded by a band of similar instruments, the violin can actually be the hardest instrument to distinguish in this particular piece of music. In contrast to the trumpet!
Finally we have the loudest – and easiest to spot – member of the four solo instruments: the trumpet.
The origins of this instrument go further back than the violin, a lot further back. If you unwind one into a single long pipe, you have the instruments angels apparently played. You have the instrument that played fanfares for the arrival of kings, emperors, and even pharaohs. The trumpet is loud and brash. That makes it far and away the most easy instrument to recognise in this whole piece.
Bach’s choice of these four instruments is significant, for we have representatives of each of the main orchestral sections: the violin (strings) the trumpet (Brass) and the wind section divided into the recorder (woodwind) and oboe (Reed) . You might say these solo instruments represent leaders in their respective fields. We explore the orchestra sections in more detail our opening Mozart chapter ().
But now let’s go back over that first minute. For there’s more structure to this music – and the instruments that make it – we’ve yet to discover.
A Second Listen…
Bach is a composer who delights in complexity, and that complexity is not always apparent on the surface. That means if we really want to appreciate the structure behind this music, we need to listen to the music happening behind it.
We’re going to go back over that first minute, this time starting the introduction of the 2nd solo instrument, the oboe.
But this time listen carefully, behind the Oboe:
There’s another solo instrument playing behind the oboe. Can you hear it?
It’s the violin, backing up the main soloist.
Next comes our third musical introduction, the recorder:
Listen behind the recorder, and there’s the oboe, merrily parping away.
And then finally, we have our trumpet:
Behind the trumpet, yes you guessed it…the recorder.
Our first minute ends…
We can see the structure of this opening minute much more clearly now. We have musical introductions of our solo instruments spaced equally between orchestral pillars.
And we can make out this structure in more detail too. Each solo instrument is introduced, takes its bow, then retreats backstage quietly, offering a supporting role to the next instrument’s solo spot. It’s not a structure that’s immediately obvious, you have to listen a little closer to perceive it.
But it adds order and shape to the music.
Structure is essential to Bach’s craft, and it’s no coincidence his music gets constantly described through structural and architectural metaphors. And most common are cathedral metaphors. I’m as guilty as anyone, but it’s inevitable really. Bach creates mighty edifices of sound, built with structural ingenuity and an accumulation of fine detail. Add his undoubted religious convictions, and you’re going to get descriptions of cathedrals of sound.
Which is why we can take it all in as a beautiful building. But we can also look close, and admire up close the sculptured design, together with the aural correspondance, balance, and patterns of design.
Hearing how these different instruments blends together reveals that structure to us. Understanding that structure just makes us appreciate the artistry and skill that has gone into creating it all the better.
Before we leave, a quick quiz to check on your identification skills of the instruments we’ve discussed in the chapter.
Can you distinguish each of the soloists, as they join the third movement of this same concerto:
3rd Movement opening
It’s always very useful seeing classical music played in order to understand it. It instantly grants you a visual reference for the sound, rather is easy to miss in our age of recordings and mp3 players. Watching classical music helps us to see – literally – the structure of the music.
But whereas before the recording age you may have been lucky to hear this Bach concerto more than once or twice in your entire lifetime, now you can hear (or even see) dozens of versions of the same piece with a few clicks of the mouse. This presents us with such wonderful opportunities: take advantage of them!
- Check out for example this youtube link for another accomplished performance of our movement.
- Here is the youtube link for the performance of the 3rd movement, used in the quiz above.
- The Bach cantata clip is performed by Karl Richter and can be heard in its entirety here
- The Bach flute Bourree ecerpt is performed by Aurèle Nicolet