BACH’S bRANDENBURG 5
live BROADCAST on FRIday, decEMBER 18 AT 6:30 P.M.
BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major
Syrinx for solo flute was composed in 1913 by French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The three-minute work, originally titled La flûte de Pan, was intended to be performed in a scene from Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché. Syrinx refers to the name of a Greek mythological nymph and is also the Greek word for “pan pipes”, which both tie in with the story of Psyché. Syrinx was first premiered by Louis Fleury in Mourey’s original production and since then has become one of the most important unaccompanied solos in the entire flute repertoire.
This episode of Close Quarters features Music Director Jaime Martín performing Syrinx, the first time this piece is on a LACO program. Before turning to conducting full-time in 2013, Jaime was former Principal Flute of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, English National Opera, Academy of St Martin in the Fields and London Philharmonic Orchestra. Fall 2019 marked Jaime’s first season as LACO’s sixth Music Director
In the spring of 1721, JS Bach was working as Kapellmeister in the city of Cöthen. In running the musical activity of the court, Bach’s duties included composing music for different occasions, leading performances and possibly teaching, as well. His employer, Prince Leopold, was a music lover, and Bach always had work to do and find musicians at his disposal. Bach and his family were getting along very well in the city until two things changed Bach’s fortune: the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara, and Prince Leopold’s marriage to a woman who didn’t care for music. In light of these changes, Bach began searching for employment elsewhere. His thoughts turned to Brandenburg. In the years prior, Bach had had a chance encounter with the Margrave of Brandenburg, who had asked Bach for some music. The composer may have thought he could capitalize on their serendipitous meeting.
Bach sent a set of six concertos as a response to the Margrave’s request, and probably as a bid for a new job. He had not written these pieces specifically for this purpose; he almost certainly began these concertos while working in Cöthen (and Weimar before that), since his orchestrations match the musicians he had at his disposal during that time. Bach copied the six works into a set and sent them off to Brandenburg. The dedication was a bit more obsequious than was probably necessary, but Bach was nothing if not humble. Part of the first sentence reads: “[I beg] Your Highness most humbly not to judge [the concertos’] 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.”
The Margrave appears never to have had the works performed, and the set collected dust in the Margrave’s library until his death in 1734. The pieces were subsequently sold—the concertos apparently went for about $20 in today’s currency—and were found in the Brandenburg archives in the mid-19th century. Setting aside taste as a factor in the Margrave’s decision not to produce them, he simply may not have had enough musicians up to the challenge. There are at least two solo instruments in nearly every concerto, and a presentation of all of them in a single evening requires a performing group of incredible depth. Individual musicians must be comfortable as both featured soloists and ensemble players. That the set was ultimately found is incredibly fortuitous.
The solo instruments of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 are flute, violin and harpsichord. The flute of Bach’s time would have been made of wood with a mixture of finger holes and keys similar to the ones you would find on the modern, metal flute. Also, in the Baroque period, the shape of the inside of the instrument, called a “bore,” changed from cylindrical to conical. This difference in bore shape increased the range of the instrument and made it more expressive. This concerto is particularly notable for the interesting role played by the harpsichord. Usually relegated to a background part, as the keyboard continuo, the harpsichord here actually becomes one of the solo instruments, playing the spectacular cadenza of the first movement. It is thought that Bach designed the concerto specifically to show off his own considerable skills at the keyboard. The harpsichord player steps out of the shadows to shine as a virtuoso, displaying not just his or her own talent, but the clarity and timbre of the instrument. There is also speculation that Bach was interested in demonstrating the new Mietke harpsichord he acquired in Berlin—the same instrument he bought when he met up with the Margrave.
Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD