Brussels Philharmonic | What was running through Bach’s head?

Atelier Bach

programme notes


Georg Friedrich Händel Concerto grosso B-Dur Nr. 2, op. 3, HWV 313 (1710 - 1718)
Georg Philipp Telemann
Konzert (Septett) für 3 Oboen, 3 Violinen und Basso continuo B-Dur, TWV 44:43 (1730 - 1738)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburgisches Konzert Nr. 3 G-Dur, BWV 1048 (1708 - 1721) / Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174: I. Sinfonia (1729)

[listen to playlist: curated by Reinhard Goebel]
[listen to podcast: Bach Fan-Girling and Tartini]

[listen to podcast: The Baroque Era in 60 Seconds]

[[all programme notes]


19:00 - 01.03.2024 TOUR & TAXIS BRUSSELS
21:00 - 01.03.2024

Brandenburg reflections
What was running through Bach’s head?

Johann Sebastian Bach is thought to have met Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in 1718 in Berlin. Overwhelmed by the music Bach played for him, the margrave asked him to send him some other pieces as soon as possible. It took Johann Sebastian two years to get around to doing so. Ah, anyone who has recently had to write a job application letter knows how tough it can be.

What Bach ultimately sent him was the set of Brandenburg Concertos. An iconic collection with an equally legendary cover letter. Based on music historical sources and musicological essays on the compositions, and on the basis of the (albeit limited) information we have about Bach’s personality, we can try to imagine how the composer approached this famous autograph.

Köthen, 24 March 1721

Drat, I’ve once again put aside for far too long .

The guy has been waiting for my letter for two years. That’s far too long, of course, to send him my portfolio. However, he seemed very impressed when I ran into him in Berlin. As if he took some pleasure in the modest talent for music that the Heavens have bestowed on me – not bad, I can make use of that.

Let’s see, what have I put down on paper since then. The Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann? No, of course I can’t send him that. The margrave would just think that I haven’t taken him seriously as an art connoisseur, if I send him children’s music. Cantatas, I’ve written loads of those. But no, they are not exactly suited to a worldly prince like Christian Ludwig. And my improvisational talent as an organist is hard to put down on paper.

Wait a minute: in Saxony-Weimar, I wrote some other pieces, as well as for Prince Leopold in Köthen. Is there something there that I can recycle? Those pieces are always popular when I play them in the coffee bar! Yes. This may be just the thing. This one, too. And this... six concertos, the margrave can’t be unhappy with these. OK, they may not have much to do with each other. They’re all different in form and orchestration, but I should be able to get away with these. Six concertos à plusieurs instruments. By golly, it doesn’t sound too bad.

Now that I look at them closely, the six pieces are not actually so different from each other. Three with a final fugue, three with dance movements at the end. And the key signatures seem deliberately to fit together. B-flat major, F major, G major and D major. As if it had always been intended to form a circle of fifths around C major. I could even come to believe that it had always been my plan to publish them in this collection. If I were not so busy, I would quickly write one more to make a tonal point of that happy coincidence.

Ah, well, he will have to make due with these. It seems to me an ideal set to challenge his court orchestra, if it still exists. A bit ‘out there’. The hip style from Weimar will no doubt find favour in Berlin, too. I know for sure that Christian Ludwig is up on all the latest cultural trends. The Italian-inspired melodies, the unique combinations of instruments ... He won’t find those in the work of many of my colleagues.

Good, now I’ve just got to thank him for this fine opportunity. How shall I begin? A bit of formality will certainly not go amiss.

To his Royal Highness
My Lord
Christian Ludwig

Is that not a bit much? I have after all met the man once in person. In the end, he is only a margrave, after all. And if I understood correctly, his cousin Frederick William has just put the financial screws on him. So all this fancy stuff may well be inappropriate.

I don't know, a joke about the excesses of princely titles, he is sure to appreciate that.

Margrave of Brandenburg etc. etc. etc.

Good. Then the thing about the talent bestowed by the Heavens ... Compositions to be sent ... taken the liberty... to pay tribute .. With the enclosed Concertos ...

Now for the moment de gloire. Flatter him a bit for his ‘fine and delicate taste which everyone knows You have for musical works’. Whether impoverished or not, princes are sure to be pleased with that. And to close, of course, the matter at hand: I am looking for work. Give me a job. Though of course I have to give it a more elegant turn of phrase. Thank you for your interest in reading this letter is a bit dry. This is heading in the right direction, right?

For the rest, My Lord, I humbly beg Your Royal Highness to be so good as to continue your benevolence to me, and to rest assured that my only wish is for the opportunity to enter Your most esteemed service, with my unparalleled devotion.
From your Royal Highness’
most humble & obedient Servant

Johann Sebastian Bach