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! 

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