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A 300th(!) Anniversary

Brandenburger_Tor_nachts.jpeg
Thomas Wolf
/
Wikimedia Commons
Brandenburg Gate

A special anniversary took place on March 24th of this year. I noticed because it involves a set of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach that I have always enjoyed immensely.

Up to that point in his life Bach, had been perfectly happy working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. The Prince loved music, had great instrumentalists at his disposal, and wanted to create a music and culture haven in his court such that he had seen in the royal courts in Italy. Bach was appointed Kappelmeister by the Prince in 1717 and was paid well for his work.

Everything changed in 1720 when Bach returned from a visit to Karlsbad only to discover that his wife had died suddenly. With four sons and a sad memory of his wife’s death, it must have been an agonizing time. And it’s also possible that this sad episode may have contributed to Bach’s decision to consider a change of scenery and job in a city where there would be greater prospects for him and better educational opportunities for his boys.

The story goes that Bach compiled his 6 Pieces for Many Instruments as a job application with the court of Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. They were most likely pieces he had written in previous years, given a ‘spit and polish,’ and then sent off in the hopes he’d become court composer. Considering the era, and that he was submitting it to royalty, it would not have been enough to simply dash off a quick cover letter with the music. Look at just the first sentence of his dedication:

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 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.

But wait – there’s more!

He concludes his dedication, in French, with I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly…to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service – I, who without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, Your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant – Jean Sebastien Bach.

Wow.

So, what happened next? Did Bach get an immediate response with a hefty payment for those incredible works? And a letter begging him to come work for the royal court? No! In fact, to this day, there has not been any sign that the Margrave responded at all!

It turns out that he didn’t have enough musicians at his court to perform those pieces as Bach’s music required. In his enthusiasm to give the Margrave his best effort, Bach had actually given him a gift he couldn’t use. Sadly, the music was filed away in the Margrave’s library and stayed there until his death 13 years later. They were then sold, and the autograph manuscript wasn’t seen again until 1849. They were published the following year – 100 years after Bach died.

As if that weren’t enough drama for these pieces that today we consider to be the pinnacle of Baroque-era composition, there’s a famous story from World War II concerning their almost-demise. A Berlin librarian was given the pieces to transport to a Prussian castle to keep them safe when his train came under aerial attack. The librarian escaped from the train with the set of music stashed under his coat, and then hid in the nearby woods until the bombing ended, thus saving it for posterity.

Happy 300th anniversary, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as they are now known. Long may you delight royalty and the average Joe, and even extraterrestrials (see below!), for centuries to come.

Coda: When the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 it carried two Golden Records with sounds and images meant to show the variety of life and culture on Earth (you know, in case it ever met up with any extraterrestrial life curious about our planet). There are three Bach pieces on those recordings, the first of which is the opening movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. Here’s Boston Baroque playing it: