The Unity of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Idea of the Musical Work

by Peter Tracy

Dedication of the Brandenburg Concertos in Bachs hand

“It is not implausible to view the history of Western music as a struggle on the part of musicians to have their practice regarded as a bona fi de part of whatever at a given time counted as good, serious, or civilized living.”
 – Lydia Goehr, from The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works[1]

Like many of his other works, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have spawned a myriad of arguments as to their backgrounds, intentions, and meanings. The many articles, books, and theses written on these Concertos range from analysis of the music’s formal symmetry to hypotheses about how Bach’s life at the time may have influenced their structure, orchestration, or performance. In historical terms, the Brandenburg Concertos are something of a chimera, a set of works cobbled together as a gift to a potential patron, and it is not clear that Bach himself would have singled them out from his oeuvre for such extensive comment. Their rather plain original title, Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments (Six Concertos for several instruments) as well as Bach’s self-effacing language in his dedication of the set to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, reveal his intention for these celebrated works to be presented with a humble, unassuming air which is hard to square with the contemporary perception of the Brandenburg Concertos as timeless masterworks.

In fact, the music of the Brandenburg Concertos has humble origins as well. Much of the music of these six concertos was likely written in the course of Bach’s daily duties as music director in Köthen  and Weimar. The First Concerto, for instance, exists in an alternate version (without the third movement) as Sinfonia BWV 1046.1, composed much earlier during his time at the Weimar court and reworked for the Brandenburg Concertos as late as 1721. Musical material from many movements of the Brandenburg Concertos can also be found reworked in pieces which Bach wrote at a later date, such as the first movement of the Third Concerto, to which parts were added in 1729 to form the cantata Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174. This dizzying cloud of earlier and later versions complicates the idea of the Brandenburg Concertos as a finished, stable work and as a meaningful set of six, connected pieces. What these pieces “mean” is thus also unstable: twenty-first century reception of the work will not only be missing important context as to the details of eighteenth century performance practice, music theory, and aesthetics, but will also be influenced by the centuries of subsequent musical history which have seen Johann Sebastian Bach become a household name and the idea of a musical work become a deeply entrenched category.

one of the two residences of Bach and his family in Köthen now features a 19th century monument to the composer

If the meaning and perception of the Brandenburg Concertos has changed over time and if their existence as a set is tenuous and arbitrary, however, how can writers and commentators concerned with the Brandenburg Concertos all be talking about the same “thing”? That is, if the definition of what the Brandenburg Concertos are is in flux, what are we to make of them? Do they constitute a meaningful set despite their disparate origins and tenuous boundaries? Is there a one, true Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major in existence somewhere, independent of individual performances, scores, versions, and audiences? If the Brandenburg Concertos sound radically different today than they did even in the nineteenth century, can they even be thought of as the same music?

One approach to these questions would be to look at the concertos analytically, searching their form, orchestration, and structure for answers without reference to historical circumstances. In his book The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Michael Marissen lays out this type of argument as it relates to the idea of the concertos as a meaningful set:

“The concertos are considered to be linked thematically, since the first movements of all six pieces employ the three notes of the tonic triad in their opening theme. They are also linked stylistically; three of the concertos close with dance movements (the first, third, and sixth), and three close with fugues (the second, fourth, and fifth). And, finally, as Rudolf Eller first pointed out, they are linked tonally by the four keys employed (F major, G major, D major, and B major) to form the two kinds of dominants and double-dominants on either side of C major. These factors all contribute to the unity in diversity said to characterize the collection as a meaningful set.”[2]

Thus, there is a purely musical argument to be made for the concertos as a set, and thereby for their existence as a unified whole. Yet, notwithstanding a historical rebuttal of such an argument, (which might point out, among other things, that many, many Baroque concertos end with dancelike or fugal finales), there are still important problems with considering the Brandenburg Concertos as a complete “work”. While broad musical similarities might be expected between six works written by the same composer using the same general form, one could just as easily emphasize the odd and unpredictable differences between the concertos, such as the famously difficult trumpet part from the Second Concerto or the inclusion of two “fiauti d’echo” (usually interpreted as referring to alto recorders) in the Fourth Concerto. The scoring and orchestration of the concertos does in fact differ quite wildly: while the First Concerto showcases two natural horns as soloists and features oboes and bassoon, the Third Concerto features only three violins, three violas, three cellos, and harpsichord. The Sixth Concerto, by way of contrast, features two viole da braccio, two viole da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord.

There are also important differences in form between the six concertos. For one thing, the First Concerto is the only of the six to consist of four movements rather than three. The Third Concerto also features an odd second movement consisting of only a single measure, with two chords forming a cadence. This gesture, in keeping with the instability of the concertos’ musical meaning, has been variously interpreted in performances as an invitation to a cadenza by a chosen soloist or as something of a musical semicolon, giving a brief pause between the two main movements. In some performances, the concerto’s second movement can pass by almost without notice, while in others this middle “adagio” can take on a lengthy and unpredictable new life in the hands of skilled improvisers. Where one falls on the question of the Brandenburg Concertos’ unity, then, is largely a matter of which similarities and differences one chooses to emphasize and which performance one is referencing.

Prince Leopold by an unknown painter c. 1725

To argue that the Brandenburg Concertos constitute both a meaningful set of six pieces and a unified work that can be reproduced, one would have to assume that there is some essence, musical or otherwise, which permeates and connects these six concertos and turns them into a stable object. Because this would be difficult to argue in a more metaphysical sense, many assume that the unifying force which connects the six concertos is Bach himself. That is, one might assume that Bach thought of the concertos as a set after he selected them as such, thus lending them a unity of thought and purpose that they have carried onward into the present day.

Another approach to these questions of unity and meaning in musical works would thus be to approach them historically, searching the record for Bach’s intentions and the conscious and unconscious views of his contemporaries concerning the concept of a musical work. At the outset of such an argument, one must acknowledge the fact that there is no evidence of the complete set of Brandenburg Concertos being performed during Bach’s lifetime. In fact, the manuscript for  Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments was sold for a pittance after the Margrave of Brandenburg’s death in 1734, only resurfacing in the mid-19th century and only being musically realized shortly after. Thus, whether the Brandenburg Concertos properly existed before the mid-19th century depends on where one chooses to locate the essence of a musical work: is the score at the heart of a piece, or is a work only realized in performance? Does the music exist outside of its being heard aloud, having been fixed in place by the composer, or do scores and individual performances have a more fluid relationship to each other?

After sending his compilation to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, Bach moved on, in 1723, to a new job as Kapellmeister at Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It is likely that he rarely thought of the concertos afterwards unless he needed musical material for some other occasion, yet there is some evidence that Bach did think of them as a unified set. As Lydia Goehr explains,

“When ‘his very humble and very obedient servant’ Bach wrote a letter of dedication to ‘his Royal Highness Monseigneur Christian Ludwig’ , to accompany the manuscript of his Six concerts avec plusiers instruments (the Brandenburgs), he arguably indicated something important. Speaking of some ‘pieces of my Composition’ , he perhaps indicated that he thought   of them as constituting a single or total compositional work, despite his having constructed and perfected each piece independently of any other. For the phrase ‘pieces of my Composition’ could have referred to the fact that they were pieces constituting a total composition — a set of pieces — as well as the fact that they were pieces composed by Bach.”[3]

Christian Ludwig Margrave of Brandenburg by Antoine Pesne around 1710

Aside from speculation about Bach’s meaning in this passage, much has also been made of the impact which Bach’s surroundings at the court in Köthen might have had on the music of the concertos. For instance, Bach’s employer at the time, Prince Leopold, was an amateur musician and is thought to have wanted to take part in the music making. According to Marissen, “Bach knew how to write a piece in such a way that no excessively demanding passages were assigned to the prince, who was thus spared the embarrassment of exposing his technical limitations to his chamber musicians.”[4] Thus, the oddly basic viola da gamba part and strikingly soloistic viola lines of the Sixth Concerto as well as other oddities of scoring that result in some of the more heterogeneous aspects of the concertos can be explained away as being a result of the constraints Bach faced in Köthen. Being beholden to the whims of his employer, Bach was required to produce music for a variety of different occasions and for a variety of different instrumentalists at a rather brusque pace, such that he might also be forgiven for occasionally reusing older musical material to meet a deadline.

If one considers Bach as the unifying force behind the Brandenburg Concertos, then they can be thought of as a set simply because Bach compiled them as such, thereby leaving them with a personal artistic touch that has fixed these previously individual pieces together into a set. By this logic, the only evidence which one might need to establish the validity of the Brandenburg Concertos as a stable category is that one man was behind it all, and that he, in some either physical or abstract way, bequeathed , in 1721, the unshakable object known as the Brandenburg Concertos to posterity rather than to the Margrave of Brandenburg.

Contrary to this view, Lydia Goehr argues that musical “works” are more akin to categories than objects, and that they change meaning overtime much like words and phrases do. In her view, the idea of music as being contained in certain “works” with hard boundaries is a historically-bounded concept that originated in eighteenth century Europe. On the other hand, it seems as if most music gets along fine without such a concept of individual ownership or universality. As Goehr explains,

“Most of us tend… to see works as objectified expressions of composers that prior to compositional activity did not exist. We do not treat works as objects just made or put together, like tables and chairs, but as original, unique products of a special, creative activity. We assume, further, that the tonal, rhythmic, and instrumental properties of works are constitutive of structurally integrated wholes that are symbolically represented by composers in scores. Once created, we treat works as existing after their creators have died, and whether or not they are performed or listened to at any given time. We treat them as artefacts existing in the public realm, accessible in principle to anyone who cares to listen to them.”[5]

While this view is certainly easier to maintain given the ready access to recordings afforded by twenty-first century technology, it is certainly true that there are musical contexts in which this mindset would seem very odd indeed. Goehr argues that the musical milleu of Bach’s time was one such sphere, and that he and his contemporaries would not have thought of his own works as fixed sound objects existing outside of performance. Having been composed in a world in which concert music was created and discarded largely based on the occasion, Bach’s works were picked up again during an era in which the individual artist and their oeuvre were of paramount importance and in which certain musical works were beginning to be thought of as timeless masterpieces. In some sense, Bach’s works found themselves in the right place at the right time, and his subsequent fame would likely have made little sense to a man accustomed to a life somewhere in the middle of his own time’s social hierarchy.

There is danger, therefore, in leaning too heavily on either the analytical or the historical approach to the question of musical works. By extension, there is no concrete answer to the riddle of the Brandenburg Concertos. One can easily slide into an essentialist position from either side, arguing that the Brandenburg Concertos exist as a unified object outside of history or, from the other angle, arguing that they have an absolute and correct historically-grounded interpretation which is the “true” and ideal version. It is also true that, at the end of the day, a musical work is a category people agree on in common, an idea that is useful but which, like many other such generalizations, reveals many paradoxes under closer scrutiny. While the idea that the Brandenburg Concertos are a musical category which the listener fills with their own meaning might seem frightening in its implications, it might not have been for Bach, and it need not be for the twenty-first century listener. Bach likely thought of his music as a product of his job, but also as a part of a spiritual and cultural sphere which he thought of as good and just. In the twenty-first century, it is difficult for many to share what we assume to be his views on the nature of religious music making and the purpose of music. But in rejecting Bach’s interpretation of his own work, one might feel freed to bring to the Brandenburg Concertos their own conceptions of unity, harmony, goodness, and meaning. In my own view, the meaning of the Brandenburg Concertos is something we create together over time, and this, to me, is a project worth continuing.



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Dequevauviller, Vincent. “Le Secret des Concertos Brandebourgeois: Une Hypothèse.” Musurgia 4, no. 2 (1997): 39–56.

Elbon, Virginia Elizabeth. Symmetry and Proportion: Generative and Formative Procedures of J. S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3”, 2001.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works an Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford [England] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1992.

Leonard, Michael F. Bach as Humanist: The Influences of the Classics and Court Aesthetics on the Design of the Six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051, 2015.

Linde, Hans A. “‘Clear and Present Danger’ Reexamined: Dissonance in the Brandenburg Concerto.” Stanford Law Review 22, no. 6 (1970): 1163–86.

Marissen, Michael. The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Marissen, Michael. “J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as a Meaningful Set.” The Musical Quarterly 77, no. 2 (1993): 193–235.

Michael Kennedy ; Tim Rutherford-Johnson ; Joyce Kennedy. “Brandenburg Concertos.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2012, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2012-01-01.

Spitzer, John. “Metaphors of the Orchestra–The Orchestra as a Metaphor.” The Musical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (1996): 234–64.

Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Oxford History of Western Music. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[1]     Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works an Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford [England] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1992), 120.

[2]     Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 82.

[3]     Goehr, 201.

[4]     Marissen 2007, 4.

[5]     Goehr, 2.