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Concertos, Cantatas, and Suites


On Friday 11 June Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform a programme some of JS Bach’s greatest orchestral music live at Sage Gateshead. It will be their first concert with a live audience in 2021 and will be streamed too. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know a little bit more about the programme and JS Bach himself. If you’d like to learn more about one of history’s most famous composers, check out our article here. For now though here are some fun nuggets of info about the music on the programme.

Watch RNS: Bach to Bach on Friday 11 June, 7.30pm.

Brandenburg Concerto No.1

  • The Brandenburg’s have been described as a failed musical job application, as Bach sent them on request with the hope of patronage that never came.
  • The original manuscript was nearly lost in World War 2 when the train transporting them to safekeeping was bombed. The librarian carrying them made a narrow escape into a nearby forest with the music tucked in his coat.
  • A recording of the concertos was sent into space in 1977 on the Voyager Golden Record; sounds and images selected to portray the diversity and culture on earth for any intelligent extra-terrestrial life form who may find them.
  • The concertos use a wide range of instrumental combinations as soloists, and No.1 is the only one to have four movements.

Violin Concerto in A minor

  • This is one of only two violin concertos by JS Bach, the other is in E major.
  • It has been arranged into the Clavier Concerto in G minor, for harpsichord.
  • Some writers think that Bach wrote the violin concertos feeling like he had spent enough time writing church music, so he could focus on instrumental pieces to be performed in a local coffee shop concert series. If this is true, it’s also likely he could have performed the solo parts himself.

Sonata from Cantata BWV31

  • The Cantata was first performed as an Easter celebration in 1715.
  • In it’s entirety, the Cantata is scores for three vocal soloists, a five part choir, three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, tenor oboe, bassoon and strings. These forces are larger than would fit in the space Bach was writing in, so the first performance had to take place in a different local church.
  • The C major, unison octave opening across the full orchestra acts as a fanfare, before the music depicts laughter in heaven and joy on earth.
  • Original performances took place in Weimar, where the tuning of the organ was a third higher than in Leipzig where later performances happened. Bach had to rewrite sections or change instrumentation to make it work.

Orchestral Suite No.3

  • There are four Orchestral Suites, but unlike the Brandenburg Concertos it is not thought that Bach wrote them as a group. No.3 is the most famous of the four.
  • Bach called them ouvertures, in part due to the overture style of the opening movements -where the music is fast-slow-fast.
  • The numbering of Suites 1-4 isn’t accurate; they weren’t composed in that order.
  • No.3 is scored for three instrumental ‘choirs’ or groups: two oboes, three trumpets, timpani with strings.
  • The second movement was arranged into the enduringly popular Air on the G String by violinist August Wilhelm.