Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and Bach’s Understanding of Social Hierarchy

For a long time I was not a fan of Bach. My distorted impression and negative emotion toward Bach came from bad childhood memory when I had to strenuously memorize Bach’s inventions and fugues for piano grade exams. Therefore, it was almost a cultural shock to me when I entered college where almost everyone loves Bach. Perhaps since then my attitude toward Bach began to change, as I had a chance to gain a more comprehensive view of Bach’s music. This semester I studied the Brandenburg Concertos in Tonal Analysis class and it was an absolutely thrilling moment listening to the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement of the fifth concerto. Alongside musical analysis, the class discussions also touched on probable religious interpretations of the piece but didn’t go further. Therefore, I decided to do some research on this topic.

I started off my research by reading chapters from The social and religious designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos by Michael Marissen. As Marissen demonstrated in his book, baroque writers frequently took orchestra as a metaphor of social hierarchy, while one significant Lutheran viewpoint was that in the heavenly world the earthly hierarchies would no longer be necessary. Therefore, it is arguable that Bach, a devotional Lutheran, metaphorically demolished the idea of social hierarchy by composing iconoclastic orchestral parts in the Brandenburg Concertos, including the thrilling harpsichord cadenza. At the same time, Marissen reiterated the point that the unconventional orchestral arrangements did not symbolize earthly rebellion toward the social hierarchy which Bach in fact relied on for a living, although had many troubles with. Instead, the Brandenburg Concertos are religiously significant because they musically depict the next world where social hierarchy disappears.

Based upon Marissen’s viewpoint, in my own research paper I am going to provide a specific musical analysis on the Brandenburg Concerto No.5, in terms of its form, orchestration, and other musical details, and connect these musical features with further religious interpretations. Through series of musical evidence on the score, I will try to argue that Brandenburg Concerto No.5 reflected Bach’s understanding of the Lutheran theology that visioned the absence of social hierarchy in the next world.

One thought on “Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and Bach’s Understanding of Social Hierarchy

  1. Fabulous! I can’t wait to read this paper.

    It might also be worth looking into how concerti could be used in sacred contexts. So while Bach clearly composed the Brandenburg Concertos for a secular purpose, he may have been drawing on techniques and styles that would be equally at home in church, which might also color your analysis.

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