Several events occurred in Sebastian’s life on this date:
1721 Six Concertos were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt
1729 Schott left his position as director of the Leipzig Collegium musicum to go to Gotha, and Sebastian took over the directorship (see March 20 in Bach Bagatelles)
1742 The third revision of the St. Matthew Passion was first performed (see March 23 in Bach Bagatelles)
It is 1721 that provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: The Brandenburg Concertos.
Christian Ludwig was Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. What and who was he?
A March is a boundary or borderland between two centers of power. The word comes from the Frankish marka, and we see it in the name “Denmark.” The Germanic tribes that the Romans called Marcomanni meant “men of the borderlands.” As a county is ruled by a Count, so a march is ruled by a Marquess, Marquis, or Margrave.
Originating in the middle ages, the northern march, or the Margraviate of Brandenburg, was one of the electoral states of the Holy Roman Empire and, along with Prussia, formed the original core of the first unified German state, with its capital in Berlin. After 1688 the two were combined into Brandenburg-Prussia, ruled by the House of Hohenzollern. These grew to become the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.
Christian Ludwig (1677-1734) was a military officer of Brandenburg-Prussia’s Hohenzollern dynasty, given the title of Margrave of Brandenburg, a title which did not reflect territorial rule.
In 1721 Sebastian faced musical frustration in Cöthen owing to the fact that his patron Prince Leopold’s new wife did not like music. The story is told that while shopping for a new harpsichord Sebastian accidentally met the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave apparently asked for some music and Sebastian, possibly searching for a new job, sent him the six concertos that have become known as the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach’s dedication reads:
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 honor 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.
Sadly, the Margrave never had the works performed. At his death in 1734 they were sold for what today would buy about half a tank of gas, and lay hidden in the Brandenburg archives until rediscovered by Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in 1849 and published in the following year.
Perhaps the Margrave never had them performed because he did not have access to musicians capable of playing them, which often prevents them from being performed as a complete set even today. They are composed in the most complex high Baroque style, with each concerto having at least two solo instruments.
Scholar Heinrich Besseler is certain that Sebastian did not write these specifically for the Margrave, but that he had composed them earlier in Cöthen, since the orchestration matches perfectly the 17 musicians available to him there.
The original title of BWV 1046-1051 was Six Concerts á plusiers instruments. They are widely praised as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque period. In them he uses the widest possible spectrum of instruments in bold, adventurous combinations that demand virtuoso playing. Christoph Wolff says, “Every one of the six concertos set a precedent in scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel.”
Concerto No. 1 is the only one with four movements. It prominently features the horns and oboes. The first movement is an Allegro with a winding melody that features the horns in harmony. The second movement allows the violin and oboe to shine in an expressive, passionate duet. After a lively third movement, the concerto closes with a dance-like section that pauses briefly then pushes through to a dazzling close. Sebastian uses music from the first and third movements BWV 52, 207, and 208.
Concerto No. 2 features violin, flute, oboe and trumpet as the solo instruments. Scholars think the challenging trumpet part was written for a singularly accomplished trumpeter, Joann Ludwig Schreiber of Cöthen. Schreiber was a clarino player, a term that in earlier periods may have referred to either a style of playing in the high register of the trumpet or a distinct type of trumpet, a smaller, treble instrument. By the 18th century, however, it referred to the style of playing in the high register. The extremely high range of this trumpet solo called for uncommon skill. Even today, trumpeters find it difficult, often choosing the smaller, higher piccolo trumpet.
Since Baroque trumpets only allowed the musician to play in major keys, it is often excluded from second movements, usually in minor keys. This exclusion is the case with this concerto. The third movement of the concerto is on the “golden record,” sent to space with the Voyager probe. It was also used by William F. Buckley as the theme song for his Firing Line, and begins each lecture for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series. The thrilling final movement is thought by many to be one of the most ennobling and beautiful pieces Sebastian ever wrote.
Concerto No. 3 contains a string ensemble in which the instruments are equally balanced throughout. Owing to the simplicity of its structure, this is thought to be one of the earliest compositions in the set. The second movement is unusual, however, in that it consists of only two chords, suggesting that the center of the movement was an improvised cadenza (solo improvised passage) for a harpsichord or violin. Modern performers either play it as written, insert movements from other of Sebastian’s works (often BWV 1019 or 1021), or orchestrate a new movement to fit the key and style of the entire concerto, leading to the vibrant and cheerful final movement. Wendy Carlos (see March 26), for example, wrote two quite different versions for Switched-on Bach and Switched-on Bach 2000.
Concerto No. 4 features a violin and two flutes as solo instruments. Sebastian called for “echo flutes,” instruments unknown ever to have existed, suggesting that he intended an effect that sounded as if the instruments were playing at a distance. It is even possible, think some, that recorders were used to create this quality, even though the flute of Sebastian’s time was made of wood. Today, it is most often the custom to use the modern flute. Sebastian adapted this concerto as the last of his set of six harpsichord concertos.
Concerto No. 5 features solo flute, violin and harpsichord, but the virtuoso harpsichord part makes it almost a harpsichord concerto. Scholars speculate that Sebastian may have written this to highlight his well-known improvisatory keyboard skill (specifically for his intended Dresden competition with Frenchman Louis Marchand, since he uses one of Marchand’s themes in the central movement), or that he was demonstrating the new Mietke harpsichord he had acquired in Berlin when he met the Margrave. Although an earlier version of this concerto exists (BWV 1050a), its composition date is believed to be 1720-21.
Concerto No. 6 is curious in that it features violas da gamba but no violins. There are some interesting assumptions about this fact. The viola da gamba was, by 1721 when this work was written, an old-fashioned instrument, but one associated with aristocracy, while the viola da braccio (viola) was typically played by the servant class. One theory holds that Sebastian’s patron, Prince Leopold, played the viola da gamba and the composer wished to honor him. An alternate theory contends that by focusing on the viola rather than violins, thereby upending the balance of musical roles, Sebastian signaled that he wished to end his tenure under Leopold and seek new employment. In either case, the use of the violas creates a richer, warmer sound that sets this concerto apart from the rest of the set. The jaunty gigue in the final movement provides a stirring finish to the piece.