This Day in Music History (March 24)

(Welcome to the latest installment in an intermittent series of blog posts about important, interesting, amusing, or outright random events that happened on… [drum roll]… this day in music history!)

On 24 March, 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach presented the Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt.

The Brandenburgs are arguably Bach’s most famous work, and among the most famous and revered musical compositions in history. Their name is something of an oddity—Bach had no particular connection with Brandenburg—and was actually coined in 1873 by the great man’s biographer, Philipp Spitta.

Bach started writing the six concertos for “plusieurs instruments” in 1718, for his orchestra at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. By the time they were completed in 1721, however, he instead chose to present them to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who he met in Berlin in 1719 and who, quoth the composer, had admired “the small talents which Heaven has given me for music”.

Nobody really knows why he chose to do so, though some speculate he may have been hoping to secure a position at the Brandenburg court in Berlin; if so, the job application failed. Indeed, it’s unknown if the Brandenburg orchestra even played the concertos—the group was actually too small to play the first four concertos without outside assistance.

The six concertos Brandenburg concertos were each (intentionally!) very different, forming a broad survey of a wide-ranging musical genre. No. 1 is scored for three instrumental groups, horns woodwinds and strings, breaking apart and then recombining. No. 2 balances the piercing Baroque trumpet with three rival solo instruments: a violin, an oboe and a recorder. No. 3 is an ensemble strings piece for three violins, three violas and three cellos. No. 4 balances trailblazing virtuoso violin solos with a more traditional “tutti” mingling of instruments. No. 5, the last completed, showcased Bach’s own keyboard ability and is believed to be the first ever harpsichord concerto. No. 6 was specially composed for lower timbres, employing two violas, two violas da gamba and a contrabass.

The concertos remained unknown for well over a century, until they were published in 1850 for the centenary of Bach’s death. Since then, they have become some of the most beloved musical compositions in the world. There have been thousands of recordings, the most widely lauded of which may be the 1982 English Concert version conducted by Trevor Pinnock.

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 rigor 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.

– Johann Sebastian Bach, dedication to the Margrave of Brandenburg, “Six Concertos with Several Instruments”

Also on March 24th:
1949: Born today, pub rocker and influential punk producer Nick Lowe
1958: Elvis Presley reported for induction into the U.S. Army, at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas
1960: Born today, German one-hit wonder Nena, singer of 1984’s “99 Luftballons”
1979: The Bee Gees eighth US number 1, “Tragedy”
1992: A Chicago court settled the Milli Vanilli class action suit, offering rebates to anyone who bought the group’s music before the lip-synching scandal broke.
2001: The stretch of road where Allman Brothers Band guitarist Duane Allman died in 1971 was renamed Duane Allman Boulevard

Blazej Szpakowicz likes music and enjoys writing about it. He can sometimes be found in the basement of CFBX building.