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Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos are now his most popular work and an ideal entr�e to his diverse and vital art. Yet these masterpieces that are so beloved today had an obscure past: Bach himself may never have heard them — nor did anyone else for more than a century after his death. Scholars still struggle to fill the many lapses in our knowledge of so much of Bach’s music, as many of his concertos exist only in later arrangements or spurious copies. But his Brandenburg Concertos survive in his original manuscript, which he had sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg in late March 1721. Bach’s own title was Six Concerts Avec plusieurs Instruments (“Six Concertos with several instruments”); the familiar label adhered after first being applied by Philipp Spitta in an 1880 biography. Bach left a brief but telling account of their origin in his handwritten dedication to the presentation copy of the score, written in awkward, obsequious French. There, he refers to having played for the Margrave, presumably during a visit to Berlin two years earlier to test and bring home a fabulous new harpsichord for his employer, Prince Leopold of C�then. Apparently, the Margrave requested a score to add to his extensive music library. A persistent question is why Bach took so long to respond and then finally did. Bach seemed happy at C�then. His patron not only loved music but was a proficient musician and spent a substantial portion of his income to maintain a private orchestra and to engage traveling artists. A Calvinist, Leopold used no music in religious observances, which freed Bach’s energies for secular instrumental work and performances. Yet, the relationship may have begun to sour, as Bach applied for an organ post in Hamburg in late 1720 but was rejected. Bach’s dedication to the score hints that he intended the Brandenburgs as his resum� for a new job at the Margrave’s court. His attempt was unsuccessful. Common wisdom is that the Margrave never bothered to perform these fabulous works, and perhaps completely ignored them. Indeed, the inventory of his estate included the scores only in a bulk lot, while cataloging presumably more important works by Valentini, Venturini and Brescianello. Despite modern acclaim, during his lifetime Bach was esteemed far more as a performer than as a composer, and his instrumental music was promptly forgotten. The Brandenburgs remained unknown until they were finally published in 1850 in commemoration of the centenary of Bach’s death. Even then, their popularity would have to wait nearly another century for the phonograph. ETERNAL GERMAN TRUTHS It was through a 1935 recording that the Brandenburgs came into prominence. Adolph Busch was one of Germany’s most prominent violinists and its busiest soloist and chamber musician. Although Aryan and thus not personally at risk, he was sickened over the rising tide of repression and emigrated, not quietly but with strident denunciations of the fascist regime, vowing to return only once the Nazi leaders had all been hanged. While he left everything material behind, even his prized Stradivarius violin, he took into exile something far more precious — his heritage. He became a fervent missionary for the eternal truths of German culture and spread the spirit of Bach throughout the free world. As one of his first steps, he formed the Busch Chamber Players, comprised nearly half of women, an extreme rarity at the time. Their recording of the complete Brandenburgs was a hugely successful best seller. It also was one of the most important recordings ever made, as it brought Bach to the attention of a world that had been content to relegate him to academic curiosity.Infused with humanity and spirituality yet purged of romantic sentimentality, the Busch readings present the music in all its integrity and genius. While using modern instruments and a piano rather than a harpsichord, they remain vastly gratifying in their own right as well as a timeless touchstone of selfless devotion to the essence of Bach’s immortal art. ALL FOR ENJOYMENT Since then, the Brandenburgs have been universally praised. Yet, despite the depth of the analyses and the extraordinary variety of Bach’s conception, the Brandenburgs were not intended to dazzle theorists or challenge intellectuals, but rather created for sheer enjoyment. Each concerto follows the convention of a concerto grosso, in which two or more solo instruments are contrasted with a full ensemble. A typical concerto grosso consists of a slow meditative movement bracketed by two rapid movements in ritornello (“return”) form, in which an opening section played by the full ensemble reappears between episodes of display by the soloists. Perhaps to impress the Margrave with his versatility, within that basic structure Bach presents a huge range of creativity. The first of the concertos is for full orchestra and adds a series of dances to the standard three fast-slow-fast movements. Perhaps Bach led with this work to give his set immediate appeal and a strong start for a lazy patron who might judge the collection only by its opening. The Sixth, by contrast, is only for strings but omits violins, thus raising the violas, customarily embedded in the accompaniment, to a position of leadership. That unprecedented gesture highlighted Bach’s own favorite orchestral instrument which, as he put it, placed him “in the middle of the harmony.” Shorn of the violins’ customary brilliance, the dark timbre suggests a harbinger of the mysticism and somber outlook of the Romantic era to come. The Fifth is the most historically important of the Brandenburgs, as it is the earliest known instance in which a keyboard instrument is elevated above the role of continuo accompaniment to solo status, perhaps intended as a vehicle to show off the new C�then harpsichord. Bach may have played the exceptionally demanding solo part himself. A PUZZLE The Brandenburgs present multiple challenges to modern performers. The Third contains a puzzle that still confounds scholars. Its second movement, labeled adagio (“slow”), consists of nothing but a two-chord cadence. It occurs in the middle of a page, so clearly nothing was lost. Yet the remainder of the score is fully detailed and thus was intended as complete guidance to the Margrave’s forces. What to do? When played literally it sounds far too short to serve as a needed respite between the two rollicking neighboring movements. Was this a conventional shorthand instruction that all performers of the time would have understood but whose meaning became lost? Recordings take diverse approaches — playing the unadorned chords, embellishing them, improvising an interlude, or inserting an entire slow movement from another Bach work. Yet none answers the question of what Bach had intended. Two other concertos present a different hurdle. The Second specifies a solo “tromba” and the Fourth two “flauti d’echo.” To this day, scholars haven’t a clue as to what Bach meant by these terms. For the “tromba,” recordings use everything from trumpets and hunting horns to a soprano saxophone (invented over a century later). Speculation for the “flauti d’echo” ranges from standard flutes whose parts imitate or “echo” each other to recorders and even a flageolet, a type of shrill tin whistle that was a popular novelty of the time used to teach birds to sing and which sounds an octave above written notation. Yet these obstacles don’t obscure the splendor of the Brandenburg Concertos. When all is said and done, they are so intrinsically resourceful, inspired and vibrant that any moderately competent performance is bound to impart their essence. Among the dozens I’ve heard, none fails to convey Bach’s dazzling invention and a sense of utter delight. Indeed, their sheer number attests to the prescience of Albert Schweitzer’s prediction years before the Brandenburgs first appeared on record that they “should become popular possessions in the same sense as Beethoven’s symphonies.” Even though Bach toiled as a humble servant whose work was treated as a trivial passing diversion during his lifetime, his brilliantly ingenious Brandenburg Concertos continue to enthrall countless performers and listeners nearly three centuries after he hopefully sent them off to the Margrave and then returned to his duties.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. More information on the Brandenburg Concertos, including reviews of recommended recordings, is available online.

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