I'm spending a lot more time with early music, and as I was studying the score to J. S. Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto, I encountered something unexpected: an entire Adagio movement that's only one measure long (listen here):

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Wikipedia says that

although there is no direct evidence to support it—it was likely that these chords are meant to surround or follow a cadenza improvised by a harpsichord or violin player.

And a page by the Redlands Symphony says

The second movement of the concerto is something of an enigma. It consists of two lone chords, with a fermata (a "hold") over the second. Did Bach intend for the performers simply to play these two chords and then move on to the third movement? Or did he intend for one or more of them to improvise a cadenza elaborating on the transition? Musicologists and performers have expressed varying opinions regarding this question.

Can anyone shed any light on this? Does this correspond to any earlier concerto practice, or is this completely out of left field?

  • 1
    If it's true, JS was well before his time, as hits such as Jambalaya and Just Wanna Dance the Night Away used a very similar technique... – Tim Nov 1 '18 at 19:25
  • This is one of the first pieces of "classical" music I fell in love with... you would think I had spent some time studying it! Anyway, am I reading the harmony right? mv I ends in G major, mv. III starts in G major, but that one adagio bar seems like iv6-V in E minor? – Michael Curtis Nov 1 '18 at 21:05
  • @MichaelCurtis Exactly; odd, right? Perhaps this is one reason to believe it's really to be couched in a cadenza of some kind. – Richard Nov 1 '18 at 21:07
  • I wonder about the manuscript. Is it possible that it was just a sketch placeholder from Bach to be written out later? Or maybe he didn't bother knowing he would improvise at the keyboard? I think back in Bach's time only the individual parts would have been copied out. We are looking at a modern conductor's (?) score. The modern socre may be presenting it in a form that did not exist originally. – Michael Curtis Nov 1 '18 at 22:10
  • @MichaelCurtis I wondered that too, but the two manuscripts available on IMSLP both use this same notation. – Richard Nov 1 '18 at 22:13

This may help a little. An example from Telemann's harpsichord fantasies.

I remember being surprised how short some of the slow middle movements were. (I think I have seen other examples like this in the Baroque style where slow middle movements are very brief. I think I have even seen examples of only 4 bars!)

Back to Telemann's fantasy, each one consists of a fast movement and then a slow movement with a da capo repeat of the fast movement. Here are snippets from No. 9...

1st movement (repeated after the 'grave' 2nd movement)

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2nd movement

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Full score can be found here: https://imslp.org/wiki/36_Fantaisies_pour_le_clavessin,_TWV_33:1-36_(Telemann,_Georg_Philipp)

I never thought about this before, but image we had only the last two bars of the 2nd movement. We would have a 1st movement in A major, then middle slow movement giving iv6-V in F# minor (of course that is a half cadence in the relative minor), and then a return to the first movement and A major.

This is exactly what the Bach concerto does, except it is shifted down to G major.

I know that many baroque pieces have middle, or contrasting, movements that end on a half cadence so as to propel things into the next movement. A lot of Corelli's trio sonatas do it. So the half cadence ending is not a surprise.

I suppose this lends credence to the idea that the one bar adagio in Bach was a kind of short hand indicator to improvise something brief in the relative minor ending on a half cadence.

It's only one example, but it matches nicely.

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  • Wow, terrific answer! It's definitely convincing that the Bach example may just be a shorthand. – Richard Nov 1 '18 at 22:11
  • Off the subject, but what's the repeat sign doing at the beginning of the first example? – Tim Nov 2 '18 at 8:26
  • It's the "dal segno" for the "da capo" at the end of the second movement. – Michael Curtis Nov 2 '18 at 12:49
  • These sonatas are all basic ternary with a da capo repeat of the first movement, like minuet and trio. – Michael Curtis Nov 2 '18 at 12:56

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