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Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

In 1720, Bach was very, very spoiled. He worked for a dream employer (passionate music lover with bottomless pot of cash, who left Bach free to do pretty well what he wished) and created a stream of marvelous instrumental works for the superb court band he directed. All good things come to an end, though, and in 1721, that dream employer became engaged to a woman who did not share his expensive musical tastes. Moreover, war loomed, and money became less readily available. The writing was on the wall for the musicians at court — and Bach was not slow to read it. He started looking for a new job.

It is a sign of just how spoiled he had become, though, that he badly misjudged one effort at securing a new post. He remembered how his playing had so impressed the Margrave of Brandenburg that he asked for some music for his library. Bach had never responded, and now decided that an extravagant gift of wonderful pieces might just move the margrave to offer him a position. Out of touch with the wider world of German court establishments, he didn’t realize that the margrave’s resources did not stretch beyond a meager and mediocre ensemble. Imagine Brandenburg’s dismay at opening Bach’s beautifully copied and bound volume of concertos, only to find them all incredibly demanding. Worse yet, they called for instruments he simply could not afford. Perhaps it is no surprise that he never responded, and that the book lay undisturbed in his library for many a year.

The good margrave may well have not looked beyond this first concerto, as it is the most lavishly scored and extensive of them all. It is the only one of the six to have four movements, and ends with an extended sequence of dances. In addition to strings, it requires three oboes, bassoon, a violino piccolo (like a modern violin but tuned higher) and a pair of horns. At this time, fine horn players were in such short supply that they tended to travel in pairs — and they were expensive.

Ultimately the margrave’s loss was the world’s gain. That book of concertos lay undisturbed for decades and survived beautifully intact. Meanwhile, the music found its way into other pieces. Finally, in 1723, Bach accepted a coveted position at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, remained there for the rest of his life, and created the magnificent sacred works of his later years.

Svend-Einar Brown ©2007

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

The Third Brandenburg Concerto (see the above note for the origin of Bach’s six “Brandenburg” works) departs from the usual concerto grosso construct of a solo group set apart from the orchestra, and instead treats all members of the ensemble as independent solo voices: three violins, three violas and three cellos, supported by a continuo group of bass and harpsichord. The central theme of the opening movement revolves around a three-note figure that drops to the lower neighbor note and then returns to the starting pitch. This musical cell cascades through the string parts, highlighting the inherent equality among the voices in Bach’s scoring. The central Adagio movement consists simply of two linking chords, sometimes elaborated by an improvised cadenza, or even the insertion of another slow movement, an accepted practice in Bach’s time. The concerto closes with a barreling Allegro finale in 12/8 meter, its character not unlike the reeling gigues that conclude most of Bach’s dance suites.

Aaron Grad ©2013

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4

One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s greatest qualities was his mental agility. He could execute complicated feats of concentration and invention — improvising intricate fugues on command, or writing the same tune against itself at two different speeds. Not only did his music make sense, it was meltingly lovely at the same time.

He was also enviably unfettered when it came to imagining instrumental colors and combinations. Take the line-up for this piece: a solo group of violin and two recorders (or flutes) and an accompanying string band of two violins, viola, violone, cello and continuo. Not hugely promising. Yet, in his hands, they sound at once robust and feather light. For long stretches, the solo violin is the lowest instrument playing — a high bass line if there ever was one! Its sound world gives this concerto a delightful freshness that is outstanding, even among the glories of the Bach’s output as a whole.

All the Brandenburg Concertos date from around 1720 — we do not have exact dates, but it seems certain they were not written for the Margrave of Brandenburg. His name ends up on them almost by accident.

Bach’s days as a Kapellmeister to the music-loving prince of Anhalt-Cöthen were coming to an end in the early 1720s, so he started looking for a new job. The wealthy Margrave of Brandenburg seemed a promising prospect, and he sent him a beautifully produced set of six concertos — the Brandenburg Concertos. What should have happened is that the margrave, overwhelmed by the gift, should have offered Bach the job of a lifetime. However, Bach seems to have misjudged things. The margrave never responded at all; instead, he packed Bach’s lavish gift away in his library.

In any case, the margrave’s loss is our good fortune — and Bach’s, too. It seems that the margrave’s band was mediocre, a pale shadow of Bach’s ensemble at Anhalt-Cöthen, for whom the concerto was almost certainly written. In time, Bach secured a far better job with far better musicians. His magnificent gift was preserved safe and sound in the margrave’s library, and it is now the only surviving source for the six marvelous concertos that stand head and shoulders above pretty well any similar works of the period.

Svend-Einar Brown ©2008

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

Enter the name Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg, into any Internet search engine today, and what you get is page after page that would surely have enraged the man. He was a powerful, if undistinguished, nobleman, heir to a great family of soldiers and politicians that traced its lineage into the mists of antiquity. Yet, if this margrave came back to life today, he would discover he had gone down in history solely as a footnote to someone else’s story. Worse, this other man was little more than a servant in the margrave’s eyes — a musician, J.S. Bach. Worse yet, the margrave is known as the man to whom Bach presented some of the most sublime music ever written — and he never knew what he had. For all we can tell, Bach’s music lay untouched in his library until, sometime after his death, it was sold as part of a job lot.

Admittedly, Bach had an ulterior motive for his gift. His obsequious dedication on the title page (“Six Concertos with Several Instruments, Dedicated to His Royal Highness, Monseigneur Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg &. &. &. by His very humble and obedient servant, Johann Sebastian Bach, Kapellmeister of His Most Serene Highness the Reigning Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen”) was little more than a thinly disguised job application.

Bach had been happily employed by Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen for many years. But in 1721 Leopold became engaged to a woman who was not inclined to spend the vast sums on music that Leopold customarily dispensed — and Bach seems to have seen the writing on the wall. He had played for the margrave of Brandenburg in 1719, and the nobleman was impressed enough to ask him to send some compositions for his Kapelle. The margrave’s musical establishment was nowhere near as marvelous as Anhalt-Cöthen — when he died there were only six players — but beggars cannot be choosers and Bach had a large family to feed.

In 1721 Bach seems to have picked six of his finest concertos, painstakingly copied them out, and had them expensively bound. He topped them off with that dedication, and sent the scores to the margrave. Bach’s gift was not even acknowledged. Posterity has benefited in the long run, though. In 1723 Bach landed his dream job at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he stayed for the rest of his life, creating the magnificent sacred works of his later years.

Each of the Brandenburg Concertos is a unique showpiece with its own distinctive instrumental line-up. The Sixth Concerto is perhaps the most unusual of all, scored exclusively for low string instruments and harpsichord. The strings are in two trios: two violas with cello and two viole da gamba with violone. With so many instruments occupying similar ranges, the music could have sounded murky and dense, but Bach loved challenges of this kind. He lightened up the central movement by using only the violas and cello, but elsewhere he has all the instruments fully engaged for long stretches. Even at the busiest points of the outer movements, this music has such clarity and brilliance, the instrumentation feels simply natural — and you never pause to think how poorly a lesser talent may have fared with it.

Svend-Einar Brown ©2006

Johann Sebastian Bach

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

About This Program

Continuing our annual holiday tradition, the SPCO presents Bach’s most cherished set of orchestral works, the Brandenburg Concertos. These cornerstones of the Baroque literature have been praised by generations of music lovers for their profound inventiveness and dazzling instrumental virtuosity. Join us for these musician-led concerts that showcase the individual and collective talents of the SPCO musicians on core works of the chamber music repertoire.

Please note: The Saturday, December 14 performance at Saint Paul's UCC and the Sunday, December 15 performance at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are now SOLD OUT. Please select a different performance from the list above.

These concerts are not part of our regular subscription series and are not eligible for voucher redemption, season ticket exchanges, or concert membership redemption and cannot be included as part of a Create-Your-Own Series.