Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 BWV 1046

Johann Sebastian Bach
Composed 1717

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Library of Congress

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
Bach composed the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 sometime between 1717 and 1721. It is scored for bassoon, harpsichord and strings, and a solo contingent of three oboes, two horns and violin.