Strings Music Festival: Bach, in a bind, created 6 daring, unconventional concertos
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Johann Sebastian Bach, without argument the most important composer of the Baroque era in music and, for many musicians, quite simply the most important composer of all time, was in something of a bind. He had accepted a position in the court of a German prince, Leopold, of the little city of Cöthen.
Bach was relieved to land this job when he did, as he had fallen from favor with his previous employer and was only given dishonorable discharge after being thrown in jail for almost a month. His new boss was Calvinist and didn’t require lots of music for weekly worship services.
This allowed Bach to focus on instrumental works. Even better, Prince Leopold was also a good musician himself and would spend evenings playing the viola da gamba — a kind of proto-cello — to Bach’s solicitous accompaniment.
All of this was going very well when, while the prince and his musical entourage were away on holiday one summer, Bach’s wife Maria Barbara took ill and passed away very suddenly. No one even sent a messenger with the news. Bach returned home to find the mother of his first seven children already buried.
This is precisely the period when he wrote out, in his most elaborate penmanship, then had bound with the richest purple velvet and tied with a silk ribbon, a set of six concertos known today as the Brandenburg Concertos. They are the consummation of the greatest baroque composer’s skill in the form of the instrumental concerto, and four of them are featured in Strings Music Festival’s closing classical concert Saturday.
They’re called Brandenburg Concertos because Bach dedicated them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, a German nobleman who presided over what had until recently been one of the top orchestras in Germany.
• 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3, Strings Festival Orchestra Season Finale
• 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 6, Mandolin Orange
• 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, Finnegan Blue
• 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 9, Arturo Sandoval
Tickets are available at http://www.stringsmusicfestival.com or by calling 970-879-5056
On a previous visit to that court, the Margave had casually suggested to Bach that he might send him some of his compositions. Bach took that as an invitation to submit the most impressive job application of all time. He was looking to leave Cöthen, and these concertos, he hoped, were his ticket to a plummier position.
But these concerts weren’t really composed all at once for the occasion. Instead, Bach selected some of his favorite chunks of instrumental music he’d written over the previous few years and re-organized them into six new concertos.
On top of that, to show off his musical imagination, he cast each concerto for a daring and totally new combination of solo instruments: trumpet, flute, oboe and violin all together, for instance. That’s four soloists plus orchestra. All six concertos are equally as daring and unconventional in this sense.
As to his prospects in Brandenburg, Bach never heard a word in response. The concertos, in their deluxe velvet and silk trappings, were slid into a drawer and simply forgotten for 128 years.
Later, during World War II, a librarian tried to hustle them out of Germany. When his train came under Allied bombardment, he fled into the woods with Bach’s manuscript still tucked inside his coat, rescuing these priceless masterpieces for posterity.
And did you know half-price tickets are available for every classical performance. Tickets can be purchased in-person at the Strings box office, 900 Strings Road.
Jamey Lamar is an independent classical recording producer and engineer. He works with artists, ensembles, composers and music festivals around the country and internationally to produce recordings for labels like Naxos and broadcasts such as American Public Media’s Performance Today. He is also a frequent radio host, podcaster, pre-concert lecturer and program annotator. This season marks his 12th with Strings Music Festival.
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