Watch party ideas for Bach in Brandenburg

Looking for ideas to make your Bach in Brandenburg viewing experience an extra special night in? We’ve pulled together some culinary treats for you to try! While there are many fantastic recipes from the area where Bach spent most of his life, we thought we would concentrate on one of the things Bach loved most… … Read more

Bach in Books!

This spring we’re doing lots of great Bach related activities including Bach in Brandenburg and the online class On Bach’s Time – so we thought we’d give you some recommendations for books to fill your spring with even more Bach.

There’s lots of great books about JS, but these are ones folks at the SSO have read and recommended!


Music in the Castle of Heaven

by John Eliot Gardiner

Lifelong fans of Bach’s music will be thrilled to add this academic and richly illustrated volume to their shelves. Peppered with musical analyses and covering a wide spectrum of Bach’s life as a composer, this text is a deep dive into all things Bach. At times scholarly and at others subtle, this book provides the reader with the opportunity to familiarize themselves more fully with the period in which Bach created. Clocking in at almost seven hundred pages in length, this book is an ideal read for those seeking total immersion in the life and music of this legendary composer.



Harmony & Discord: 

by Julian Shuckburgh

Have you ever wondered what sort of mischief Bach got up to as a youngster? If so, then this book (which was carefully researched over a period of ten years) is definitely for you! One of the more impressive features of this text is its chronology of Bach’s compositions, the first definitive version to see publication. The biography itself has been described as “an impassioned, controversial, and personal portrait of the man who composed some of the most sublime music ever written, in spite of—or perhaps because of—a life blighted by tragedy.”




The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin

Easily the most unique book on the list, The Cello Suites was written after the author finished a ten-year career as a music journalist for the Montreal Gazette. Eric Siblin creates a narrative described as “part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery.” Chronicling Bach’s cello suites from the disappearance of their manuscript in the 1700s to their eventual reappearance in Barcelona, Spain, The Cello Suites will captivate classical music devotees and historical fiction lovers alike. The author’s passion for Bach’s suites for cello shine through the text’s insightful prose, establishing The Cello Suites as a must-read for anyone who delights in orchestral music and history. 

Bach and the Plague

The spring of 1694 was a time of upheaval for the young Johann Sebastian Bach. His elder cousin, Johann Christoph, had been sent for to repair the organ of St. George’s church near Sebastian’s family home. As J.C. tinkered with the organ and the young Sebastian Bach looked on in wonder, a messenger arrived at the church to deliver news to the two Bachs: Sebastian’s mother had suddenly taken ill and could not be revived.

Johann Christian Bach

Within days, Bach’s father Ambrosius would fall ill in a similar fashion to his wife, without even a hope of recovery. The following weeks were chaos for the orphaned Bach children. Their family’s home was put up for sale, and Sebastian Bach was sent to live with his elder brother of 14 years, (also named Johann Christoph) in Ohrdurf. Although Sebastian would have much preferred to become a music apprentice to the cousin who was with him on that terrible day, Johann Christoph lived in what was quickly becoming a quarantined region of Eisenach.

In those days, the bubonic plague was known to surface in certain Thuringian towns before receding once sanitation precautions were put into effect. A particularly deadly variant was sweeping over J.C.’s home right at the time that Bach’s parents were taken by illness. Had he been old enough to decide for himself, a young Sebastian Bach traveling home with J.C. would have surely run the risk of contracting this variant…and one of the most influential composers of the Baroque era may have succumbed to devastating illness before the greatest musical works of his life were penned.

The memory of losing both parents to illness travelled with Bach as he matured into an outstanding composer. At the age of thirty-eight Bach composed his twenty-fifth cantata, “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe“ (There is Nothing Sound in my Body“) following the dreadful outbreak of plague in Marseilles, France. Conditions had been so poor in the areas hardest hit that an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives to the deadly disease. The text Bach chose for his cantata is particularly moving in light of our world’s current pandemic scenario, as Johann Jacob Rambach’s poetry describes a people stricken with sickness that stubbornly refuses to leave them.

Turning to his music as a fortress of comfort during times of uncertainty throughout Europe, Johann Sebastian Bach marched ever onward in his ambitions as a composer. Giving the beauty of his music back to a world which had unjustly torn him away from his parents far too soon, Bach turned the tragedy of a youth touched by pandemic into endless compositional achievement. Perhaps Bach’s faith in the healing power of music is what inspired him to choose Rambach’s poem for Cantata No. 25, the most poignant line of which reads “My plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment, other than the balm of Gilead.” In all we have to face as the pandemic rages on, we must remember the cleansing effect that music has for our collective soul.

Where is Brandenburg exactly…

You might have heard about Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, but how much do we know about the city that inspired their namesake? What happened before Bach presented the concerti to the city’s Margrave? What is a “Margrave”, anyway? Let’s delve into the historic past of this great city, from its founding to the 20th century…

In the beginning, Brandenburg was part of a region traditionally inhabited by an ancient people known as the Semnones. They lived there peacefully before being ousted in the 7th century by Slavic peoples who had settled to the East (themselves fleeing the influence of invading Huns and Avars who were in the midst of ransacking their country). These Slavic colonizers (known as Wends) had three hundred years of relative prosperity before a German king (referred to as Henry the Fowler) captured the capitol of Branibor during the 10th century.

In the years following occupation by German forces, the name of the capitol morphed from Branibor into Brennabor, finally becoming Brennaburg. An uprising allowed the Wends to drive the Germans out of Brennaburg, but soon after a new player joined the fight for conquest of the area: Lothar, duke of Saxony. He regained during a fierce thirty year campaign those areas lost by the troops of Henry the Fowler during the uprising. Lothar was eventually named German Emperor, and put a man named Albert the Bear in charge of Brennaburg and the surrounding area (the entirety of which was now referred to as the Northern March).

The descendants of Albert the Bear (known as the Ascanians) assisted in the founding of Berlin (then just a small township) and divided the Northern March into three sections: Old March (Altmark), Middle March (Mittelmark), and New March (Neumark). Each section of the Northern March was ruled by a specific dignitary, known as a margrave. These margraves steadily grew in power until 1356, when their titles received major a boost in influence: they were established as prince-electors, and were allowed to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. So Brennaburg became the Electorate of Brandenburg, and would hold that title for years afterward.   

The death of the last descendant of Albert the Bear brought about a period of chaos in the 1360s, and King Wenceslas of Luxembourg (yes, the same good king referenced in the winter carol) tried to keep the Northern March together. But the local nobility were growing in power, and the poorer were growing poorer by the day. Perhaps this is why King Wenceslas journeys out on a winter’s evening to bring alms to the poor in the holiday carol which bears his name.   

The year was 1415, and the Hohenzollern clan arrived to join the fray! Frederick of Hohenzollern was appointed elector by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to the Electorate of Brandenburg. Frederick’s son, known by his troops as Iron Tooth, got the nobles sorted out and kept peace in the towns while fighting off warring Pomeranians (the people, not the dogs).

Things really started developing in the Electorate of Brandenburg after Iron Tooth’s brother (Albert III Achilles) got the Pomeranians to settle down a bit. Roman law was introduced by Elector Joachim I, and hi son Joachim II made a daring deal with the Duke of Prussia which promised half of Prussia’s resources to Brandenburg if the Duke’s family tree should topple over. The Duke’s daughter Anna married Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg, and the streets of the Electorate ran with Prussian gold upon Sigismund’s receipt of inheritance in 1618.   

And then it was the Thirty Years War, here to shake things up once again. Elector George William tried for neutrality, but failed. Invading Swedes held Brandenburg for several years before Williams’ son Frederick (who was known as the “Great Elector”) took back control. He then decided to try his hand at gathering as many local territories as possible. Minden, Kammin, Halberstadt, east Pomerania, and Magdeburg all joined the state of Brandenburg in quick succession.

As the leader of one of the most powerful states in Germany (rivalled only by Prussia and Austria), passed quite the legacy on to his son (also named Frederick). A military man from head to toe, young Freddy made quite a career for himself on the field of battle. He allied himself with other German princes to battle Louis XIV of France, and helped William of Orange out in his march on England in 1688.

As the year 1700 loomed, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I had a major problem on his hands: there was far too much competition for the throne of Spain, competition which was growing nastier by the day. Leopold I couldn’t intervene without more soldiers, so he decided to name Frederick III King of Prussia in exchange for the aid of 8,000 soldiers. Prussia couldn’t refuse this deal, as their dominion wasn’t technically a part of the Empire like Brandenburg was. So 1701 saw Frederick III crowned King in Prussia, and after this event Brandenburg added few territories and turned its attention towards supporting education and developing infrastructure.

Two centuries passed, and Brandenburg continued to flourish as a powerful independent state until being absorbed as a province of German Prussia after World War I. Prussia dissolved after World War II, which meant that every part of Brandenburg to the west of the mighty Oder River became a different part of Germany. When Germany became partitioned into East and West, Brandenburg was fractured into districts (similar to the days of the Northern March). Brandenburg was ultimately able to make a comeback in 1990 just before the toppling of the Berlin Wall. The reunification of East and West signaled a new era of prosperity for the city, which has continued right up to the present day.

The Nearly Lost Brandenburg Concertos

The Brandenburg Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach were originally titled “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments” and composed as a set of six works for concerto grosso. Presented by the composer to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, they are lauded as some of the finest examples of Baroque music, and have a fascinating history.

Margrave Christian Ludwig

Wanting to make a good impression on the Margrave Ludwig, and foregoing the use of a copyist, Bach hand-wrote the music himself. Speculations abound whether or not Bach actually composed the concerti prior to 1721, and its certainly possible that the great composer had bits and pieces worked out before he set his mind to the task of creating these colossal works. Direct comparison between the Brandenburg concerti and works composed while Bach served as the Kapellmeister at Köthen reveal an eerie similarity.

Bach wrote a French dedication for the concerti to Margrave Ludwig, dated the 24th of March, 1721, and which read as follows:  

“As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.”

It would seem that Bach had a way with words as well as with music. For the time in which they were composed, the Brandenburg Concerti presented avant-garde combinations of instruments, a decision on Bach’s part which created new harmonic textures and ensured that this set of compositions would remain relevant long after the Baroque period waned. As your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra will be rendering the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th concerti, respectively, let’s take a look at what makes each so special…   

Concerto No. 2 in F major, although written without a firm indication of tempo, is usually performed at Allegro. Beginning with the spirited Andante in D minor, the orchestra builds to dive into the Allegro assai. The energy of this second movement is sustained into the Concertino, the jewel of the entire concerto, in which a natural trumpet in F is supported by oboe and violin. The Ripieno (a fancy name for the instruments accompanying the body of a Baroque Concertino) within the final movement of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto are two violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord.

There are no two ways to slice it, the trumpet part in this third movement continues to be regarded as unparalleled in its difficulty. During Bach’s time, the trumpet was still evolving into the instrument we recognize today and possessed no valves. This primitive trumpet was referred to as a “clarino”, and music historians maintain that there was only one clarino specialist Bach felt could do justice to the solo of his third movement: Johann Ludwig Schreiber.

Having met Schreiber when the former served as court trumpeter in Köthen, Bach may well have written the part as a sort of challenge to Schreiber’s embouchure. Unfortunately, the clarino was not destined for the sort of popularity Bach had hoped for. With its instrumental technique falling into obscurity during the 18th century, it was not uncommon moving forward for the solo of movement three to be played by the valved trumpet, French Horn, and piccolo trumpet.

Bach would have included more opportunities for a musician like Schreiber to demonstrate their proficiency on the clarino in the second movement, but this instrument only had the capability to play in major keys. As a master of the concerto grosso form, Bach was not willing to sacrifice the transition from the first movement’s major key to the contrasting minor of the second for the benefit of a single instrument. Musicologists recently confirmed that the melodies found in Concerto No. 2 were inspired by a previous composition of Bach’s now lost to time. The piece, originally composed for chamber music quintet, was called “Concerto da camera in Fa Maggiore” (Chamber Concerto in F major).

The next concerto in the set of six, Concerto No. 3 in G major, is usually performed at Allegro moderato during the first movement, contrasted by the slow majesty into the second movement (Adagio in E minor). The rich harmonic textures of this second movement gives way to a stunning and vivacious Allegro to round out the concerto. Both Allegro movements utilize the ritornello form, a type of musical architecture which retained significant popularity throughout the Baroque period. Concerto No. 3 is string-dominant, featuring three violins, three violas, and three cellos. A harpsichord is present is also featured to provide a supportive bassline. A special feature of this concerto, the Phrygian half cadence in the second movement provides the orchestra with an opportunity to insert movements from other Bach works or simply improvised cadenzas by the violinists or cellists. The shortest of the six concerti, No.3 is the perfect musical appetizer before the main course is served: Concerto No. 5.

Concerto No.5 in D major features an Affetuoso in B minor framed by two enervating Allegro movements (the first of which contains an opportunity for a dazzling harpsichord cadenza). As the largest and most complex of the concerti, this is truly the piece de resistance of the entire set. Bach outdoes himself with a delightful Concertino in which violin and flute create brilliant dynamic contrasts supported by the harpsichord. The ripieno of violin, viola, cello, and bass paint a captivating portrait of passion and joy throughout.

Manuscript of Brandenburg Concerto 5

Rumors have swirled through the centuries since Bach’s passing that the great composer wrote the beginnings of this concerto in 1719 to demonstrate his latest purchase from Berlin: a brand new harpsichord designed by Michael Mietke for use at the Köthen court. Some music historians insist that Concerto No. 5 was originally developed for a Dresden music competition, for which the French composer and organist Louis Marchand had entered. Upon hearing Concerto No. 5, Marchand recognized that Bach borrowed one of his themes in the central movement and rendered it far more effectively than he did originally. This was enough to intimidate Marchand, who reportedly fled before the competition even began. Concerto No. 5 is the first example of a concerto composed for solo keyboard, and indeed the harpsichord shines throughout its solo in the first Allegro movement.

Unfortunately, King Frederick William I of Prussia did not invest a great deal in the arts, and this impacted the number of musicians Margrave Ludwig could afford to populate his Berlin ensemble. The full score for the Brandenburg Concerti would have required musical resources that the Margrave simply did not have access to at the time. And so, the manuscripts lay forgotten in the Margrave’s library until after his death in 1734. The Brandenburg Concerti were sold for something equivalent to thirty Canadian dollars, and were only rediscovered deep in the archives of Brandenburg in 1849 by one Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn. The following year marked the first official publication for this genre-defining set of concerti. Perhaps fate deemed the Brandenburg Concerti too beautiful for the world to appreciate, as the original manuscripts were almost lost once again during World War II. Safe in the compartment of a traveling librarian who had sworn to protect the manuscript with his life, the train carrying the Brandenburg Concerti was subject to an aerial attack as it rocketed towards Prussia. The librarian managed to leap from the still-moving train and took refuge in a nearby forest, cradling Bach’s concerti under his winter cloak.   

So the Brandenburg Concerti beat all the odds, and survived to emerge into the 20th century as a shining example of the best that Bach had to offer the Baroque era. The Brandenburg Concerti were even deemed worthy of inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record, part of the two Voyager space probes and containing some of the most iconic pieces of music from human history. The Voyager Golden Record was sent into outer space in 1977, and somehow we’d like to think that Bach would appreciate his music being catapulted into the heavens in a blaze of light. You can hear your Sasaktoon Symphony Orchestra deliver numbers 2, 3, and 5 of the Brandenburg Concerti at our Bach in Brandenburg concert!