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Home News Classics on Sunday: J S Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No 3, BWV 1048

Classics on Sunday: J S Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No 3, BWV 1048

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THE six Brandenburg Concertos were essentially written as a job application, but astonishingly they did not do the trick and were left to gather dust for well over 100 years. Now they are regarded as supreme works of the Baroque era.

In 1717 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was employed as concert master to Duke Wilhelm Ernst at Weimar. He hoped for promotion to director of music (Kapellmeister) but was overlooked in favour of the slightly older Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). Annoyed, he accepted the post of Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Duke Wilhelm was in turn angry and refused him permission to leave, jailing him for nearly four weeks before dismissing him in disgrace. Bach and his family moved immediately to their new house in Cöthen. There followed several happy and productive years but in 1721 Prince Leopold married. His wife was not interested in music and once again Bach was on the lookout for a job. At this point he wrote out in fair copy six concertos based on work he had already done, and presented the score to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg. He had met the Margrave previously in Berlin and had offered to send him some music. The score was prefaced with an elegant dedication in French. Dated 24 March 1721, this is the first sentence:

‘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 honour me with the command to send Your Highness some 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 rigour 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.’

No doubt Bach hoped that he would be offered a position. However the Margrave’s court orchestra had long since been disbanded and Bach received neither a fee nor a job. The autograph score was shunted unplayed into the Margrave’s library, where it remained until his death 13 years later in 1734. It was sold for 24 groschen (about £20 today). Again it went into obscurity and was not rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives until 1849. The concertos were published in the following year.

The manuscript was nearly lost in World War II when it was being transported for safekeeping to Prussia by train in the care of a librarian. The train came under aerial bombardment, and the librarian escaped from the train to a nearby forest with the music hidden under his coat.

The concertos are all gems but my favourite is the third. Here it is performed in Bach’s original instrumentation of three violins, three violas, three cellos, double bass and harpsichord.

Here is the score:

You can see and hear all six concertos here in a somewhat lusher orchestration conducted by Karl Richter:

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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