A gift forgotten for 150 years: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos

J.S. Bach was not always the celebrated composer that he is today. His career had ups and downs, and he changed jobs several times in his life. During his youth, he repeatedly ran away from school, picked fights with people.  At one point, he intended to quit his job knowing his well-deserved promotion was taken by someone else, as a result, he was sent to jail for a month. In our eyes today, his music seems quite advanced.  But at the time, while opera was popular and flourishing, he wrote no opera and he was more famous as a keyboardist rather than a composer.  His writing style at that time was considered old fashioned and academic.  His music was almost forgotten until a Bach revival occurred in 19th century, thanks to Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

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Musicians from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Merit School School of Music play alongside Nicholas Kraemer, harpsichord, and Yo-Yo Ma, cello, at the Fourth Annual Bach Marathon at Fourth Presbyterian Church on November 30, 2017. | Photo by Brian Kersey

The story of the Brandenburg Concerto starts in early 1719.  Bach traveled to Berlin to finalize an arrangement for the purchase of a new harpsichord built by Michael Mietke for Prince Leopold, his employer at the time in Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig.  During that trip, Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, heard his performance and felt quite impressed, later commissioning Bach to create a few works.  However, Bach put off the project for a few years due to a family incident: his wife passed away the following year in 1720.  When Prince Leopold got engaged and decided to cut the budget for musicians in order to increase his military expenses, Bach feared the potential loss of his job, and therefore began to look for a new position.  He sent his six Brandenburg concertos to Margrave of Brandenburg as his artistic resume, hoping to work for the court.  Ironically, the Margrave never thanked Bach, nor paid him or gave him a position. The manuscript was kept in the Brandenburg’s library, and it was later sold for merely a few cents!  But luckily, they were bought by one of Bach’s pupils, named Johann Philipp Kirnberger, and preserved in the Royal Library of Berlin. The fact that the manuscript was kept in such great condition makes it seem very likely that the six cheerful concertos were never played live until more than 100 years later.  Published in 1850, they received the name “Brandenburg Concertos” from Bach scholar and biographer Philipp Spitta in 1873.

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The Bach Marathon performs at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza.|  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Six seemed to be a good number for Bach to constitute a set of music as six represents the number of days for the creation of the world. He wrote six French suites, six English suites, six Partitas, six cello suites, six violin suites, six trio sonatas for organ and of course the six Brandenburg concertos. The six concertos are composed for unique and diverse instrument combinations. Some of the combinations seem to push the limits.  The composition is written in two different concerto styles: concerto grosso for a small group of soloists playing as a concertino with a larger ensemble, as seen in Nos. 2, 4, and 5, and ripieno concerto, an ensemble work without a dominant solo faction, as seen in Nos.1, 3, and 6.

Brandenburg No.5 can probably be placed as his earliest keyboard concerto. The writing is so advanced that today, it can be argued, it was the last of the set that was written. It has an impressive passage of extensively written cadenza in the first movement, no doubt showing Bach himself as a virtuoso keyboardist at a time when the harpsichord was at its peak popularity. However, the instrument was largely used for continuo playing.  The harpsichord at the time came in different shapes and styles, both single and double manual; Italian harpsichords had a longer body and more of a plucking sound, while the Flemish style had a fuller volume of sound. It was used a great deal in continuo opera.

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Civic Fellows Pei-yeh Tsai plays Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 at the Civic Orchestra’s Fourth Annual Bach Marathon. | Photo by Brian Kersey

The period instrument’s rebuilt movement was actually started in Boston by William Dowd and Fran Hubbard, two Harvard English majors who became interested in making the harpsichord.  The double manual Dowd instrument, built in 1969, was used for this particular piece on the Civic Orchestra’s Bach Marathon concert that took place in First Presbyterian Church on November 30th. The rest of the Brandenburg concertos were rehearsed with the single manual Flemish style harpsichord, with Nicolas Kramer on the harpsichord and conductor, with Yo-Yo Ma as the special guest.

No.6 was unique in a way that there were no violins; they were instead replaced by the viola as the highest sounding instrument of the ensemble. No. 2 features a unique combination of violin, trumpet and recorder, and probably has the most challenging trumpet parts of the time.  No. 4 shows off the violin virtuoso.

In his book “Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work,” biographer Martin Geck observes in the Brandenburg Concertos that Bach “reveals himself as a composer who is conscious of history, who confronts the present, and at the same time is interested in systematically exploring all the compositional possibilities.” Thank you to everyone who helped celebrate this season’s Civic Orchestra Bach Marathon.

By Civic Fellow and Pianist Pei-yeh Tsai


TOP | Page of a handwritten score from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G (1721)  by J.S. Bach