Analysis of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach concertos are a unique collection of essential Baroque music compositions. Compositionally and instrumentally virtuosic, the Concerto No. 4 of Bach’s Brandenburg is a stunning, formally intuitive and intellectually spirited composition (Reese 2013, n.p). The piece combines an exceedingly animated and specific rhythmic language blending well with a crafted melodic language that is immediately pervaded and highly transferable with charm. The composition stands as Bach’s remarkable testament with respect to his exceptional skills as a musical architect and craftsman. Additionally, the intricate structure of the 4th movement is revealed by this unique analysis. Notably, Bach’s work delves into the ritornello and a series of repeated structural blocks, which act as musical waypoints. The ritornelli are attributed to harmonic and melodic features through which this analysis untangles the intricacies of Bach’s method of composition. The sections of the ritornello are entwined with freer episodes or passages in which the soloist’s virtuoso skills display a progressively increasing level of artistry (Reese 2013, n.p). Moreover, each episode is crafted distinctly by a series of critical changes as Bach deftly molds the motif exposed in the ritornelli. Bach’s 4th concerto in G major is a Grosso concerto, a genre created in the Baroque period by prominent composers such as Arcangelo Corelli. Considering the variety of soloists employed in the work, the concerto is notable with respect to the violin and bassoon in No.1, a high oboe, violin, and piccolo trumpet in No.2, the virtuosity in violin No. 4 and harpsichord in No.5 and the intensity of artistry evident in all Bach’s compositions.

The score of the fourth Brandenburg concerto settles for two flutes, violin, strings and continuo, which according to Bach are “fiauti d’echo” that most likely indicates a recorder in F was intended although there is more to just specifying the recorders to be used (The Bach Choir of Bethlehem 2018, n.p). Ideally, the violin in the fourth Brandenburg occasionally echo each other, but it may create the uneasiness as to whether Bach thought of them as imitative passages or merely as softer echoes that are often found in Baroque music. Accordingly, the composition is in most cases considered a solo concerto for violin given the long stanzas for solo violin alone with the orchestral strings offering limited support in absentia of the flutes. Nevertheless, the flutes play a vital role that makes the concerto appear as a solo concertino in the concerto grosso format. Unlike the other five concertos where the middle movements have reduced instrumentation, the fourth Brandenburg concerto is unique because all instruments are utilized in all the movements. The Allegro, or rather the 1st

movement employs both an ABA form and a ritornello as expected in a da capo aria, which resumes in numerous guises that include an in shortened form at the end of the movement (Reese 2013, n.p). Presented by the solo violin and the flutes but without orchestral strings of the ripieno, the work is a perfect epitome of Vivaldi ritornello forms, one of Bach’s models for the concerto grosso and Baroque concerto.  

Source: (The Bach Choir of Bethlehem 2018, n.p)

            According to the excerpt above, indeed the orchestral strings play a minimal role, which is typical of Bach’s orchestral compositions. Arguably, one may consider this concerto a solo violin given that the flutes and not the solo violin plays a leading role at the beginning and that the flutes are part of the ripieno- the accompanying orchestra and not part of the concertino. On the other hand, Bach may be trying out something distinct with his composition. In order to keep the tempo, Bach ensures that the orchestral strings punctuate cadences and downbeats while developing a secondary theme that comes out of the ritornello.

Source: (The Bach Choir of Bethlehem 2018, n.p)

The starting theme of the fourth Brandenburg concerto just like in the fifth Brandenburg is an epitome of the type of theme referred to as Fortspinnungtypus that normally contains three parts: 1) the tonality that elaborates the G major triad; 2) continuation that uses sequence and moves away from establishing the tonality as seen in the repeated note (arpeggiated) above; and 3) a clear, strong concluding cadence (Bach et al. 2009). The solo violin part frequently contains repeated note figure as part of extended passage composition as well as in sequences and fragments in the orchestral violins. A clear way for Bach to help propel the music into a new key or establish the impression of the music accelerating towards a cadential goal is achieved through the sequential passages. Throughout the work, the infusion of the repeated-note or arpeggiated motive into other phrases and themes of the 1st movement aids in creating a sense of cohesion (Bach et al. 2009). The starting ritornello statement is more than eighty measures, exceptionally long since it includes both musical excerpts illustrated above. Additionally, this is unique because it preserves the solo violin out of the musical forefront to achieve an approximately one-fifth of the way into the movement. At this juncture, the ritornello theme is heard once in G major, then once in D major and finally back to the G major making it the most protracted and most apparent move to the dominant key.

Performance Circumstance

Markedly, while Bach was the Director of Music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-cothen in Germany in 1717 and 1721, he composed the six Brandenburg Concerti. The composition is attributed to the fact that the Prince was at this time an excellent violinist and a lover of music himself in most cases playing in the orchestra of approximately eighteen players employed to impress and entertain guests to the court. In addition to other duties, Bach was mandated to write and perform music for a specific series of Sunday evening concerts thereby attracting to his orchestra, talented instrumentalists as visitors or as permanent members. Later, Bach redrafted the six concerti in a move to persuade and impress the Margrave of Brandenburg to be given a more prestigious post than the previous one. Nevertheless, Bach failed to get a new post and further redrafted the concerti making the 4th

concerto a harpsichord concerto in G.

Forces of Performance

            Initially, Bach’s score requested for two fiauti d’echo in the concertino, solo violin and 1st and 2nd violins, cello, viola, cembalo and violine in the ripieno (Pearson 2018, n.p). The difference between a ‘period instrument’ recording such as a ‘modern’ one heard on the NAM CD by the Northern Sinfonia and that by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner is worth considering. As opposed to the ‘modern’ performance, the typical ‘period’ performance tends to differ in:

i) the utilization of recorders different from transverse flutes

ii) the usage of violone instead of double basses

iii) production of a chamber music sound due to the presence of relatively few players

iv) rather than a conductor, the performance is directed from the harpsichord

v) as opposed to the modern 440, the pitch of the concert tends to be set at c.415

vi) the use of authentic instruments. Importantly, the modern and authentic instruments differ significantly:





stronger tone produced with metal strings

less brilliant sound produced by cat gut strings

bigger pitch range created by a longer fingerboard and neck

smaller range pitch of up to sixth position due to shorter fingerboard and neck

higher vibrato causing a more varied and colorful sound with more highly sustainable power for longer notes.

lower vibrato and light phrasing

straight bows that are long to offer more robust sound

curved bows that are shorter offering less tension in the hair



metallic and have strong sound projection

wooden creating limited sound

Double bass


fuller sound, 4 strings although it needs extensions for notes below E

less vibrant sound, 6 string but possess a larger range such as bar 23

            During the Baroque period, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 was the most celebrated musical composition offering a platform for soloists to showcase their virtuosity in the context of an orchestral work (Pearson 2018, n.p). Notably, apart from the pp in the ripieno violin parts, there are no dynamic markings. To achieve balance and contrast, Bach uses judicious passages for all the instruments. With the only exceptions being the imitation in bars 285-289 and short sections of interplay in bars 257-263, the two flute parts always play as a pair together and are invariably positioned at the top of the texture to be easily heard above the strings. On the contrary, the primary violin often opens in a solo as well as in trio with the flutes in the elaborate dazzling non-stop demisemiquavers of bars 187-208, the string-crossing of bars 83-124, and the triple-stopping of bars 215-228. To offer harmonic support, dynamic contrast when reinforcing the soloists and to add textural contrast, Bach utilized the ripieno players. Throughout, the double bass and the violoncello offers a bass line.


            The violoncello, double bass, and continuo, bottom staves are closely related giving a bass line that underpins the texture all through (Pearson 2018, n.p). Although the double bass sounds an octave lower, the three play the same line together and supports the texture when the ripieno plays. In bar 243 of the passages, the bass plays an octave above and in other areas it plays in unison with the violoncello bars 244-250. Moreover, the bars 364-366 are heterophonic textures, which is a simplified version of the bass line played by the double bass and sometimes the passages have the continuo playing a more florid bass line as opposed to the violoncello on bars 304-309. Occasionally, the continuo and viola take the bass line thus, lightening the texture on bars 32-34.

Homophonic texture

Bars 1-3: under an inverted dominant pedal, the composition gives a recorder melody through 4 note chords

Bars 4-6: offers a loud melody in thirds via continuo creating a polarized texture

Bars 7-9: similar to 1-3 although gives an inner pedal

Bars 10-12: identical to 4-6 although in parallel sixths

Monophonic texture

Bars 84, 86, and 88 and many more

Contrapuntal texture

Bars 13-22: three melodic voices via a supporting bass line forming a 4-part counterpoint

Bars 35-56: in thirds and sixths, they have high recorders via an independent violin.

Bars 235-240, 251-256: three violin parts in stretto imitation at a similar pitch

Antiphonal texture

Bars 257-262: viola in sixths and recorder I in antiphonal exchanges between cello and recorder II in tenths, supporting the primary violin solo.  


            The 1st movement of Bach’s Brandenburg concerto is in ritornello form and the way he integrates the tutti and solo sections is the most significant feature of this work (Pearson 2018, n.p) (Pearson 2018, n.p (Pearson 2018, n.p).

Ritornello form

Bars 1-83: starting ritornello Gmajor

Bars 84-136: violin solo

Bars 137-157: 2nd ritornello Eminor

Bars 157-208: flute duet accompanied by violin bravura episode

Bars 209-234: 3rd ritornello Cmajor

Bars 235-322: three part stretto imitation

Bars 323-344: 4th ritornello Bminor

Bars 345-427: 5th ritornello Gmajor.

Opening ritornello

Bars 1-22: tonic (C major) to dominant (G major)

Bars 22-56: subdominant (D to C major) followed by Gmajor.

Bars 57-83: Gmajor.

2nd ritornello

Bars 137-157: Eminor, only has an opening and closing motifs thus very short.

3rd ritornello

Bars 209-235: Cmajor attributed to violinist’s double stoppage in parallel sixths. Also has the opening and closing motifs like in the 2nd




Bars 323-344: B minor with switched instrumentation though almost similar to the second ritornello.



Bars 345-427: exact repetition of the starting ritornello in G.


            Bach reinforces tonality with the use of pedal points and cadences (Pearson 2018, n.p). As earlier observed in the structure section, there is a modulation of the music from relative minors of tonic, dominant to the subdominant, D, E, B and A minors.


            The harmony in Bach’s composition is functional, with consistent excellent cadences (Pearson 2018, n.p). The harmonic sequences noted are in bars 13-18, with the dissonance of 7th

chords at bars 35 and 4-3 suspensions at bars 69-70 as well as 7-6 suspensions at bars 44-47 and circles of 5ths occur at bars 175-178. Except for the diminished 7th at bar 195 and the Neapolitan chord appearing only twice at bar 155, the harmony is diatonic. At the opening, the harmonic rhythm is one chord per bar but integrates towards cadences at each end, for instance at bars 79-83.


            The composition is created mainly on groups of motifs, which through fortspinnung is subjected to constant elaboration primarily sequence, repetition and inversion:  

i) arpeggios in bars 1-2 with rising and falling three-note scalic figures in bars 4-6

ii) conjunct figure at bars 35-36

iii) semiquaver increasing scalic figure accompanied by decreasing thirds at bars 13-14

iv) closing figure at bars 79-83.

Further extension of these motifs is achieved through inversion of recorder I at bar 21, the sequence of solo violin with two bar sequence at bars 13-18 and a one bar sequence at bars 18-22, and repetition such that bars 1-6 are repeated through bars 7-12 (Pearson 2018, n.p).


            Bach’s Brandenburg concerto has a unique rhythm. The 3/8-time signature proposes 3 quavers in a bar although the music effectively turns out as a one-dotted crotchet bear per bar creating a joyful buoyancy to the flow of the rhythm (Pearson 2018, n.p). The composition has consistent semiquavers in parts of the melody in the whole movement over a slow encroaching bass in rhythmic counterpoint. The semiquavers occurring in all parts such as at bar 38 further increases the vitality of the composition. The rhythm ties across the bar lines 43-46 creating syncopation that adds direction and energy to the melodic shapes. As the sense of meter shifts to duple from triple time in the end bars (such as bars 79-80) of each ritornello section, a hemiola effect is created.  The combination of melodic decoration with textural and harmonic change throws the accent on to the 2nd

beat of the bar when further subtle changes of stress occur in bars 162 and 164.


The Bach Choir of Bethlehem. (2018, January 10). BWV 1049 - The Bach Choir of Bethlehem. Retrieved from

Bach, J. S., Bach, W. F., Duff, C., Huggett, M., Irish Baroque Orchestra, & Naxos Digital Services. (2009). BACH, J.S: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. (Naxos Music Library.) Hong Kong: Naxos Digital Services Ltd.

Pearson. (2018). 1. J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G: movement I (Developing Musical Understanding). Retrieved from

Reese, E. (2013, October 7). Learning to Listen: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos 4, 5 and 6. Retrieved from

August 01, 2023


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