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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Johann Sebastian Bach - the Brandenburg concerti

Image via Wikipedia
292 years ago today, J.S. Bach dedicated these six concerti to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt.  And there begins a rather amazing tale.

The Margrave was a Prince of the house of Hohenzollern, half-brother of King Frederick of Prussia.  But Margrave was a title that came with no land, and so in 1721 Christian Ludwig was basically a hanger-onat the court of his nephew King Frederick William I.  The new King was a military martinet, creating the army that Frederick der Große would use to fight off most of Europe, and had fired all the court musicians to fund the army.

There weren't enough musicians in Berlin to perform the new works, and so the scores were filed away in the Margrave's desk.  There they stayed - unperformed - until his death more than a decade later.  His heirs sold the score (containing Bach's handwritten dedication) for 25 silver Groschen  (groats: about $22 in today's money).  Then they descended into historical shadow - we simply don't know where they were for the next century or more, only being discovered in the Brandenburg archives in 1849.

This is astonishing because these concerti are quite simply the apex of baroque music.  Other compositions may approach them, but none surpass them.  And they were unperformed for the first 129 years after they were written.

But unperformed no more.  Their musical importance is demonstrated that Youtube suspended their no more than 10 minutes in a video rule for this performance of all six of the Brandenburg concerti.  Here's 90 minutes of the greatest of the baroque, thanks to Youtube, Bach, and a simply amazing sequence of lucky breaks that kept these from being lost forever.

Concerto I - BWV 1046: 1) 00:10 2) Adagio 04:12 3) Allegro 07:55 4) Menuetto (Trio I, Polacca, Trio II) 12:03 ;
Concerto II -BWV 1047: 1) 19:21 2) Andante 24:17 3) Allegro assai 27:56 ;
Concerto III -BWV 1048: 1) 30:43 2) Adagio36:17 3) Allegro 36:31 ;
Concerto IV -BWV 1049: 1) Allegro 41:22 2) Andante 48:22 3) Presto 52:19 ;
Concerto V -BWV 1050: 1) Allegro 57:07 2) Affettuoso 1:06:03 3) Allegro 1:11:51 ;
Concerto VI -BWV 1051: 1) 1:16:49 2) Adagio ma non tanto 1:22:14 3) Allegro 1:26:41

Bootnote: Bach is often described as "mathematical" in his composition style, and the workings of the music have since his day been compared to clockwork.  Today turns out to also be the birthday of John Harrison, the discoverer of the Longitude and the most important clockmaker who ever lived - born this day in 1693.  In a stroke of coincidence no less astonishing than the circuitous route that Bach's concerti took on their way to the concert hall, and perhaps appropriate for a man who ordered and measured time as none before, Harrison also died on this day in 1776.


libertyman said...

Great class! Great tie in to Harrison.
I did not know the history of the concerti.

Did you feature some of Bach's work shown as colored bars on a black background? I think I saw it on your site as a a performance of his Fugue in D minor. There's your mathematical precision, all right.

Smarter already, and the day is young!

Expatriate Owl said...

It is my understanding that Bach had sent the scores to the Margrave in hopes of employment -- something in the nature of a painter's sample portfolio to accompany an employment application.

Bach was not hired, for reasons which, as you note, may have been more of a reflection upon the budget than upon Bach's talents and abilities.

But today, Bach's Brandenburg Concerti are widely known (and hummed or whistled) by people the world over, while hardly anyone recognizes the name of Margrave Christian Ludwig.

Kansas Scout said...

Thanks for posting this. Perfect music for a snowy sunday morning here in KC.

Borepatch said...

Glad you liked it, Libertyman!

Expatriate Owl, you're correct that he was shopping for a patron.

Kansas Scout, I hope spring comes soon up there.