Bach appeals to our sense of beauty

The Brandenburg Concertos rank among Bach's most elaborate secular works. © Charles Thibo
The Brandenburg Concertos rank among Bach’s most elaborate secular works. © Charles Thibo

“Erst die Fremde lehrt uns, was wir an der Heimath besitzen.“ Only a travel abroad teaches us the value of our homeland – the German writer Theodor Fontane wrote these lines in a foreword to his book “Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg” (Wandering through the county of Brandenburg). Fontane, born 1819, described this area around Berlin in his ballads, novels and travel reports, with much detail and with much love.

Brandenburg landscapes

Some 100 years before Fontane was born, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach met the nobleman Count Christian Ludwig von Brandenburg-Schwed, and it is to him that Bach dedicated his six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046–1051). Whenever I listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, I have to think about Fontane and that landscape, that I know so well, having lived in the region for a decade: a thinly populates rural area, dense pine forests, few roads, lakes and that wind that always seems to blow. Lovely both in the summer and in the winter, when the weather is nice, but oppressing when it rains for days and the mud gets ankle-deep or when the storms are howling or when the fog drowns everything.

Different orchestration, different styles

Bach did not compose the six concerto specifically for that nobleman. He compiled several concertos that he had already composed in Köthen and Leipzig to present them in 1821 to Count Christian Ludwig von Brandenburg-Schwed. Besides the fact that they are dedicated to one man only, there is hardly any link between the different concerts. The orchestration differs from piece to piece as does the style: Just one example: While Bach wrote number 3 and 6 exclusively for strings, numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 were composed for  various combinations of woods, brass, strings and cembalo. Number 3 stands out as it features the whole family of strings: three violins, three violas, three celli, accompanied by the double bass and the cembalo.

What they have also in common is that the melodies all seem to float light as a feather in the air, just waiting to enchant my ears. I like them all, with a slight preference for nos. 1, 4, and 5. The German musicologist Peter Schleuning has published in 2003 a study of the six concertos and I will not make the mistake of explaining details about their structure and their instrumentation, while the US researcher Michael Marissen has written in 1999 a study on the social and religious background of Bach’s works. The Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has published a less detailed, but highly readable analysis of the concertos in his book “The Musical Dialogue”.

Feel the spiritual force

What I will try to do is – again – raise your interest in these compositions as they exude a spiritual force that remains unsurpassed in my opinion. Bach’s music – even his secular works – are divine in the sense that they make the audience forget where they are and who they are as this music transcends space, time and social rank. It appeals to an inborn sense of beauty and illustriousness and to the capacity of human beings to marvel. And I would not be surprised if Bach’s music would appeal as much to children as to grown-ups. His music might be intellectual, but more than this it is emotional – and children are better at marveling than we are.

Staying true to Bach’s intentions

This post would not be complete if I would not mention the differences in the interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos by different conductors. There is an ongoing debate between musicologists and conductors whether works going back to the Baroque age can or should be performed by the typical modern symphony orchestra and in a style heavily influenced by the Romantic period that apparently smoothed the rougher Baroque style. They key word is “historically informed performance“.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt has been one of the voices arguing for a historic approach: He promotes studying the original scores, using historical instruments and taking into account the circumstances under which certain pieces were written. Bach for example often only had small choirs and instrumental ensembles, rehearsing and performing in rooms smaller than today’s concert halls. Baroque musicians used instruments now forgotten and our knowledge of how they might have sounded is limited. The idea is to stay as true as possible to Bach’s intention in order to discover the real splendor of his works.

After hearing the Brandenburg Concertos several times performed by the Munich Bach Orchestra led by Karl Richter, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Concentus Musicus led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt (all three available on Spotify), I am tempted to side with Harnoncourt in the mentioned debate. The differences are striking and I strongly prefer enjoying the Brandenburg Concertos the Baroque way!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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5 thoughts on “Bach appeals to our sense of beauty”

  1. Bach isn’t just beautiful. In my opinion, the mathematical, dispassionate nature of his music suggests the harmony and balance of the universe. Bach reminds me that the world makes sense. Then, with the peaceful bliss of that knowledge, George Gershwin comes and tell me of the joy to be alive in this world.

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