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The Brandenburg Concerti: An Infinite Variety

The MHS Review 239 Vol.3, no. 5 • May 7, 1979

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David M. Greene


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The two questions that infuriate me most and that I have to field frequently are (1) Who is your favorite composer (novelist, poet, auteur, meatcutter)? and (2) What is your favorite piece of music (fiction, poetry, cinema, pork)? Such inquiries seem to assume some sort of intellectual, spiritual, or emotional atrophy or lapidification. Yet, since people make them repeatedly, appar­ently without fear of being punched out, such atrophy must be a fairly common phenom­enon. Many people must at some point in their lives cry to the passing moment, like Faust in Goethe's Part II, "Stay! Thou art so fair!" and live out the rest of their lives, stuck in it like flies in amber. Indeed sometimes in the classroom I have a horrid sense that the process, for many, begins around puberty. It is reflected in such profundities as "I know what I like and like what I know" or "Listen, dear! They're playing our song." My own inclination is to say, "How the mischief do I know what my 'favorite' is? If I told you now, I'd want to tell you something else tomorrow, and some­thing still different next week, depending on the weather, my mood, my health, and my whereabouts, among other things.''

And yet one is always tempted by the old desert-island game: If you were cast away on a d. i., what ten records would you want to have with you? Actually, I'm not sure I'd want any unless the place were electrified and I had a decent hi-fi rig. Some years ago, while traveling, I discovered that I could go for months without hearing a note of music, and not even miss it! But, given the kind of conditions I posit, I should probably opt for the Brandenburg Concerti as among the essentials. For whatever reason, they are works that I can come back to with pleasure, and I welcome each new performance that comes out, because it always shows me something different about them. But I suspect that even there one would reach a point of diminishing returns. Back in my Tchaikovsky period I lived next door to two Juilliard seniors (or whatever they have there) who spelled each other for eighteen hours daily practising the piano concerto, which both were offering as a graduation exercise. They not only cured me of the

concerto; it was years before I could listen to Tchaikovsky again.

I suppose that the most attractive aspect of the six concerti is their infinite (well, almost!) variety. And that very variety may have been by way of a sort of joke on their dedicatee-a joke that backfired, as we shall see. But first a brief excursion into history. Around 922 Henry the Fowler, who had a wife named Hatburg and a son named Thankmar and later starred in Wagner's Lohengrin, defeated the Hevelli, a gang of Slavs who lived in what is now the Berlin area, and took their chief city Brennibor, which became Brandenburg. (See Smetana's opera, I Branibori v Cechach or "The Brandenburgers in Bohemia") After a good deal of backing and filling over the next century and a half, this border province, which Henry thought he had secured for the Kingdom of the Germans jelled as the Mark (borderland) of Brandenburg with a Mark­graf ( march-count or margrave) called Albert the Bear. (Why does German history always sound as if it had been written by Beatrix Potter?) We skip over several fascinating centuries of expansion and contraction of the Mark, in which margraves became Imperial Electors, until we get to Elector Friedrich Ill, who, in 1701, with the concurrence of the Emperor, Leopold I, was crowned Friedrich I of the Kingdom of Prussia, the combined territories now covering most of the northeast tier of Germany eastward to Memel.

I tell you all this because it has taken me most of the day to find out where Bach found a Margrave of Brandenburg twenty years after the kingdom had become a fact. Well, as you know, big fleas have little fleas, so, as I understand it, there continued to be a province of Brandenburg, at least nominally, in Prussia, and its Margrave was Christian Ludwig, uncle of Friedrich Wilhelm, the then-reigning monarch. Bach seems to have met him in 1719 while still in the employ of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen--though how, or where, no one is sure. Geiringer thinks it may have been at the spa at Carlsbad, or when Bach went up to Berlin to pick up a new harpsichord. Someone (I've lost the reference) suggests that the Margrave visited Cothen. Mark Gantt is sure that the meeting occurred on one of the many tours Bach took with the Cothen orchestra, which last is news to me. At any rate the Margrave heard Bach play, complimented him, and, no doubt, said "You must send me some of your work sometime," to be polite. Shortly afterwards the bottom dropped out at Cothen: Bach came back from vacation to find his wife dead, and a little later the Prince married a flibbertigibbet who kept his mind on other things than music. The Margrave had a house band, and Bach, probably eager to get out, perhaps thought of it as a possible haven. But it was a small band that could not possibly have done justice to the concerti, and considering Bach's accompanying letter with its referen­ces to "my insignificant this" and "your overwhelming that,'' perhaps the whole thing was a subtle effort to puncture a balloon. If it was, it did not work, for the concerti went unplayed in Brandenburg, and were sold for less than a dollar when the Margrave died.

There is little doubt that Bach wrote the concerti for his band at Cothen. They require some crackerjack soloists, and Cothen had profited a few years earlier when Friedrich Wilhelm, to meet a steeply boosted national defense budget economized by letting his court orchestra go. (0 tempora! O mores! ) Each of the six is differently conceived, though we can say that there is in all of them a basis of strings (of some kind) and continua and that they all at least imply a three-movement, fast-slow-fast, structure. Geiringer, in his book on the Bachs, sees three as basically concerto grossi (a small concerto group contending with a large ripieno--Nos. 2, 4, 5) and three following something like the old canzona pattern of contrasting episodes (Nos. 1, 3, 6). But it's hard to make this kind of categorizing stick, as even Geiringer seems to feel in a later utterance. In a sense these works are unclassifiable. As for the variety, let's take the three-movement form. Bach observes it scrupulously in No. 1--and then tacks a miniature dance suite on to the end. In No. 3 he leaves out the slow movement, offering merely two chords--with the implication that if you want more you can fill in between them. As for the instrumentation, it is inventive and formidable. Nos. 1-5 use a regular basis of violins, viola, and cello, but No. 6 drops the fiddles, and adds a viola and two violas da gamba. No. 1 calls for a violino piccolo (a little violin tuned a third higher than normal), two natural horns, three oboes and a bassoon; violin, horns, and first oboe contend for star billing. No. 2 uses regular violin, a single oboe, a recorder, and a trumpet played in the high or mauriceandre register; the trumpet would steal the show, but Bach sends it out to cool off in the slow movement. No. 3, like No. 6, is for strings--three each of violins, violas, and cellos. No. 4 features a solo violin and two recorders. No. 5 has a violin and a flute, but the real hero is the harpsichord, and no one seems to dispute the claim that this is the first original keyboard concerto Finally there's the energy. There are those who argue that Bach is "too mechanical;" they are the people who like music to be a mush of cream of wheat and blueberry syrup. What Bach has is the vital order of a living organism.

When I received notice of this recording, I assumed that M. Paillard, for reasons best known to him, was doing a remake of a set he had long since recorded. To my surprise, I discovered that no such set existed in the MHS catalog (though you can find this one in Schwann in one of those versions where you pay five bucks extra for the pretty scarlet labels). I have no idea whether M. Paillard is "authentic" by the latest rules of the experts. Some of them have been telling me loftily that Andre knows less about True Baroque Style than Harry James; and if you really want to know how wild things can get, go listen to the latest recording of Handel's Water Music by the Concentus Musicus. (Any resemblance to what we've known is coincidental. but there are some lovely Bronx cheers by the horns.) Anyhow, M. Paillard's style is a long way from where we were thirty-forty years ago--Brandenburgs by the 100-men-and-a-girl of Philadelphia under Stokowski, or with flutes, low-range trum­pets, and piano by Busch and Serkin. Even the post-War Casals recording of No. 2 used a soprano sax or "fishhorn" for the high trumpet! With Paillard the instruments are authentic (if one forgets about the guy who says No. 2 was written for horn not trumpet), the readings, if a bit deliberate, highly effective to my ear, and the recording exemplary. (Through my earphones, the "stereophony" told me things I never knew before.) ______________ _

Review of The Brandenburg Concerti pg 3

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