Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051

Johann Sebastian Bach
Composed 1708-1710

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Library of Congress

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
Bach composed the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto sometime between 1717 and 1721. It is arranged here for harpsichord, two violas and violas, cello and double bass.