Our first set work is the third movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5. You will need to read the notes below to scroll through the four different versions of the piece to locate the starting point for each performance. The final two videos are brief summaries of Bach’s life and work.[Please note some/all of the videos may contain third-party adverts for which Ryedale School cannot accept responsibility for.]
Version 1 lets you follow the music as you listen to it.
Version 2 allows you to watch musicians performing it – this helps with instrument recognition – listen from 16:10.
Version 3 allows you to compare the more modern recordings with this one made in the 1960s – listen from 1:16:38.
Version 4 uses a piano instead of harpsichord – listen from 1:28.
Historically Informed Performance
A performance that is ‘historically informed’ or a ‘period performance’ is one which tries to recreate the sound of the piece when it was originally composed. This involves using authentic instruments, and other historical information to reproduce a performance. The various versions of Bach Brandenburg no. 5 in the playlist explore different approaches to performance:
Version 2 notes
Notice how there is only one person performing each part. Now the concertino group of soloists, well you’d expect them to be the only person playing each instrument. What also happens in this performance (and the recording provided by EDEXCEL) is that in the ripieno group (the accompanying orchestra) there is also only one performer playing each part. This is an example of a historically informed performance, in which research has been done into how Bach and his musicians would have performed the piece. Scholars think that performances of Baroque music like this would have been performed by very small groups.
Also, notice a couple of other things about the instruments – firstly, the flute is a Baroque flute, which is wooden and a lot quieter than the modern equivalent, and it only has one key, played with the right hand little finger. Also the harpsichord has two manuals (keyboards), and if you look carefully, when the bottom manual is played, the top one plays at the same time. As discussed, the harpsichord isn’t touch sensitive, so dynamic contrast is not easily possible. However, the design of the instrument is such that you can couple (join together) both keyboards so when one plays, the second also plays, meaning the instrument is louder than it might have been otherwise. A final minor detail, which is again typical of performers trying to copy the style of Baroque performance, is the way the string players hold the bow. A modern violinist will hold the bow at the heel (bottom end) normally, whereas here they hold it about four inches up the bow.
Version 3 notes
Karl Richter, the harpsichordist in this recording, was one of the best-known conductors and performers of Baroque music of the mid-C20th. The performance, all on modern instruments, is much louder and heavier in style because the ensemble is bigger (and by implication more unwieldy too). This style of performance is not generally copied in the modern day.
Version 4 notes
However, it is possible to hear the concertos played with piano instead of harpsichord. This is Sviatoslav Richter (no relation, Russian and not German, like Karl, and one of the most famous pianists of the C20th)
This is obviously not historically correct – Bach didn’t write any music for the harpsichord. However, if you look in your score, you will notice that the harpsichord part actually says ‘cembalo’, and that cembalo is the Italian word for keyboard. A piano is a keyboard, therefore you could interpret it that a piano could play the ‘cembalo’ part. As mentioned already though, Bach didn’t intend this at all.
What this does all show is that different interpretations of the music are possible. What you will be expected to know for the exam is that different interpretations are possible, but specifically about historically informed or accurate performances. Sometimes these are also referred to as ‘period performance’ (i.e. of the period in which they were originally written.
Who was Bach?
There are many famous quotes about Bach, but this one from Douglas Adams (author of ‘A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Universe’) sums up his importance:
‘I don’t think a greater genius has walked the earth. Of the 3 great composers Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.’
This BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music programme (42 minutes long), is a brilliant starting-point to explain what the Brandenburg Concertos are. All of this might give you some idea as to the importance of these pieces – they really are incredibly important pieces of music.
The playlist below contains a scrolling version of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, first movement, and a live performance by Daniel Barenboim. There are then two short and more general videos about Beethoven’s life and work. [Please note some/all of the videos may contain third-party adverts for which Ryedale School cannot accept responsibility for.]
Now, just as lively in the way it is delivered, but try this BBC Radio 3 video presented by Tom Service about Beethoven.
For an exhaustive list of 50 really significant pieces of music, explore The Story of Music, presented by Suzi Klein and Howard Goodall (composer of the theme tune to ‘Blackadder’ and ‘QI’).
BBC Radio 3 Beethoven Playlist – discover a wide range of Beethoven’s music.
The playlist below contains a video about different keyboard instruments from the C16th tho the present day, some harpsichord music by Bach, movements 2 and 3 from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, and EDEXCEL’s recommended further listening, some Haydn and Mozart.[Please note some/all of the videos may contain third-party adverts for which Ryedale School cannot accept responsibility for.]