Hear Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Played on Original Baroque Instruments

“Sub­tle and bril­liant at the same time, they are a micro­cosm of Baroque music, with an aston­ish­ing­ly vast sam­ple of that era’s emo­tion­al uni­verse.” — Ted Libbey 

The port­fo­lio, the demo, the head shot, the resume…. These are not mate­ri­als made for gen­er­al con­sump­tion, much less the praise and admi­ra­tion of pos­ter­i­ty. But not every appli­cant is Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, who wrote his six Bran­den­burg con­cer­tos, in essence, “because, like pret­ty much every­one through­out his­to­ry, Bach need­ed a job,” notes String Ova­tion. In 1721, he applied for a posi­tion with the Mar­grave of Bran­den­burg, younger broth­er of King Fred­er­ick Wil­helm I of Prus­sia, by send­ing the music: “It’s one of the few man­u­scripts that Bach wrote out him­self, rather than give to a copy­ist…. At the time, Bach was the Kapellmeis­ter in the small town of Cöthen. Work­ing for His Roy­al High­ness would have been a seri­ous­ly upward move.”

He didn’t get the job. Indeed, it seems his appli­ca­tion was ignored, and near­ly lost sev­er­al times through­out his­to­ry. Now, Bach’s call­ing cards are some of the most vir­tu­oso com­po­si­tions of Baroque music we know. “Each con­cer­to is a con­cer­to grosso, a con­cer­to that’s a con­tin­u­ous inter­play of small groups of soloists and full orches­tra…. The range of instru­ments with solos through­out the six con­cer­tos was designed to give oppor­tu­ni­ties to show the poten­tial of near­ly every instru­ment in the orches­tra. Even the recorder got a solo.” The six togeth­er present them­selves as an anthol­o­gy of sorts, “a Baroque musi­cal trav­el­ogue mov­ing through ‘the court­ly ele­gance of the French suite, the exu­ber­ance of the Ital­ian solo con­cer­to and the grav­i­ty of Ger­man coun­ter­point.’”

These pieces do not only demon­strate Bach’s com­po­si­tion­al mas­tery; they also rep­re­sent his “ulti­mate view,” as the Nether­lands Bach Soci­ety points out, “of the most impor­tant large-scale instru­men­tal genre of his day: the con­cer­to.” In the third of these works, for exam­ple, he makes the “sur­pris­ing” choice to com­pose for “three vio­lins, three vio­las, three cel­los and bas­so con­tin­uo. In oth­er words, 3x3, which is a ratio­nal choice you would expect from a mod­ernist like Pierre Boulez, rather than a Baroque com­pos­er like Bach.” In order to play these pieces the way Bach intend­ed them to be heard, Ted Libbey writes at NPR, they must be played on the orig­i­nal instru­ments for which he com­posed, some­thing a grow­ing num­ber of ensem­bles have been doing.

Voic­es of Music, one of the most promi­nent ensem­bles recov­er­ing the orig­i­nal sounds of Bach’s time, per­forms Con­cer­to Num­ber Three in G Major at the top and Con­cer­to Num­ber Six in B Flat just above, anoth­er sur­pris­ing arrange­ment for the time. The final Bran­den­burg Con­cer­to also upsets the musi­cal order of things again: “Vio­lins — usu­al­ly the gold­en boys of the orches­tra,” writes the Nether­lands Bach Soci­ety, “are con­spic­u­ous by their absence! Instead, two vio­las play the lead­ing role. As the high­est parts, they ‘play first fid­dle’ as soloists, sup­port­ed by two vio­la da gam­bas, a cel­lo, dou­ble bass and harp­si­chord.” The Mar­grave of Bran­den­burg, it seems had lit­tle time or inter­est, and nev­er had these pieces per­formed by his ensem­ble, which may have lacked the skill and instru­men­ta­tion. After hear­ing this music in its orig­i­nal glo­ry, we can be grate­ful Bach’s hand­writ­ten resume sur­vived the neglect.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear 10 of Bach’s Pieces Played on Orig­i­nal Baroque Instru­ments

The Authen­tic Vivaldi’s The Four Sea­sons: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on Orig­i­nal Man­u­scripts & Played with 18th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

Watch J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String” Played on the Actu­al Instru­ments from His Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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