It was about a year ago that I first discovered that the Brandenburg Concertos, surprisingly, make perfect driving music, particularly in sunshine, and best of all if you’re not in a hurry. They’re Bach at his most optimistic, his lightest, and his most exciting, and are some of the most extraordinary pieces of music in history.
Their own history is extraordinary too. They were given to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, in 1721, but after receiving them he realised (or decided) that he couldn’t afford to have them performed, so left them on a bookshelf. There they stayed until his death thirteen years later, when they were sold for a pittance—a little less than $25, in today’s money. They vanished, and were forgotten, until their discovery in the Brandenburg archives in 1849. They were published a year later, and so were first performed a hundred and thirty years after their completion.1
This means that most of the great composers of the late 18th and early 19th century—household names like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—never had a chance to hear them. Even Felix Mendelssohn, the musician probably most responsible for the revival of interest in Bach’s music, died two years before they were rediscovered. Imagine how much he would have loved to conduct the first performance of the great lost works.
If you’ve never had a chance to listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, or if it’s been a while, then take some time out of your Sunday to hear them now. They’re true summer music, as bright and as light-of-touch as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but far more creative. Each one is fairly short: six concertos in all, consisting of six different combinations of instruments, each one showing off its instruments’ strengths.
And they can all be had for free, in a superb performance by the Czech Republic’s Musica Florea, here.
1 Actually, probably a bit longer. It’s very likely that they were completed before 1721 and just collected for the Margrave.⏎