Monuments of Music: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos

One of the hidden gems in peeking though the annals of history is discovering the things we take for granted. It was only in the early 1900s that Pablo Casals discovered the Bach cello suites in a second-hand shop. Likewise, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were once long lost, brought back to light a hundred years after the death of the composer.

In the early 18th Century, two figures brought together the circumstances in which the Brandenburg Concertos were created: Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. It was for the former that Bach was a leader of a court chamber ensemble. Bach traveled to Berlin in Brandenburg, to pay for, inspect and collect a new harpsichord for the court. The choice of the diverse instrumental soloists called for in the six concertos reflect the membership of the ensemble, and the use of the harpsichord in a solo role in Concerto No. 5 was likely related to this new acquisition. The concertos are in the customary set of six, and explore a diverse range of instruments.

The prince and the margrave remain much in discussion with the Brandenburg concertos. Though Malcolm Boyd argues that it is unjustified to say that the margrave simply left the scores to gather dust, Bach’s dedicatee has often been blamed for not recognizing the treasure in his hands. Archibald T. Davison quipped, “What sort of man this Christian Ludwig was I cannot say, but I have often thought that it would have been the neatest stroke of poetic justice if he could have known that for posterity his sole distinction would lie in his having possessed the first autograph copy of the immortal Brandenburg Concertos.”

Prince Leopold, on the other hand, has been lauded for providing a conducive atmosphere few composers enjoy. “It was this sort of golden honeymoon period of his life,” Sir John Eliot Gardiner notes. “He was allowed a lot of latitude and freedom by his prince to experiment, and this is the great period when he is focusing on the individual capacities and characteristics of solo instruments.”

In this description then, we indeed can view the concertos not just as tunes we have heard since our childhood, but as experimental works during that era. In the time when Bach composed the Brandenburg works, the concerto genre was only around forty years old. Put another way, to the audiences of the day that kind of music would have been as recent as boy bands – starting with the Jackson 5 and followed later by the Beatles – would be to us.

This in mind, we can see Lewis Lockwood’s reminder that historical sources “force the performer to think of the composition not as fixed in amber but as a work that was once in progress, that was brought into being by an agency of intelligence and artistic vision – and was in fact composed, in the true meaning of the word.”

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