October 17, 2019
The Story of the Brandenburg Concertos
by Johann Sebastian Bach,
Started around 1719, and finished in 1721.
The Golden Record on the Voyager Spacecrafts may, in the long run, be the only evidence that all human beings, animals, plants, trees, oceans, mountains, love – and earth itself – ever existed. And the Brandenburg Concerto is the first music on that record.
“Jazz and the Brandenburg Concertos” will explore selected music written by Bach, Bach-inspired pieces by jazz musicians, and some irresistibly beautiful music recommended by jazz greats during their interviews for this class.
Bach and the Brandenburg Concertos were direct influences on jazz titans because of the moving harmonies from the interaction of melody and counterpoint. And also the driving rhythms and strong bass lines that attracted players from around the world who were masters of traditional as well as conservatory music.
This is the 300th anniversary (2019) of Bach beginning to write the Brandenburg Concertos, a task he would finish two years later. He was also writing the Well-Tempered Clavier during this time, and a number of other important works. These “Köthen Period” works have had a significant influence on jazz and jazz musicians including Wynton Marsalis, Oscar Peterson, Christian McBride, Sones de Mexico Chicago (Victor Pichardo), Dave Brubeck, Kenny Barron, Abdullah Ibrahim, Uri Caine, Mark Helias, Fred Hersch, Charlie Parker, Tiempo Libre, Bud Powell, Bobby McFerrin, John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Keith Jarrett, Regina Carter, Ron Carter, Karl Richter; the Punch Brothers, Hubert Laws, Mike Metheny. Swingle Singers, Wendy Carlos, The Brandenbenburg 300 Project; David Matthews and the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra, the Classical Jazz Quartet; Bobby McFerrin; Dave Brubeck, Aretha Franklin, The Nice, Jacques Loussier, Benny Golson’s New York Orchestra (Art Farmer, Mulgrew Miller), Jonathan Scales, Stephen Pritchard, and many more.
Extensive interviews were conducted for this class. Some of the transcripts and recordings are available on the class website: https://jazzandjazzstories.com/jazz-and-the-brandenburg-concertos/
The website also has extensive links to the music to be played in class, recommended in interviews with jazz luminaries, as well as music and compelling stories I ran across in preparing for the class.
The Story of the Brandenburg
Born in 1685 Bach was orphaned at age 10. By 1719 Bach was working for the Prince of Köthen when he wrote the Brandenburg Concertos as a sort of job application to the Margrave of Brandenburg.
During this time the Calvinist Church had banned instrumental music, freeing Bach to write secular music like the Brandenburg’s, Well-Tempered Clavier, Double Violin Concerto and others, with some of the best musicians in Europe who became available because they had lost those prized Church gigs.
When he started writing the Brandenburgs, Bach – who had the intense feelings of family an orphan often has, lived with his wife Maria Barbara, his brother and 5 of his 7 children – twins having died several years before.
Bach travelled with the Prince to provide music. In 1720 they visited Carlsbad (now Czech Rep) – a playground for royalty. While there his wife, brother and a child died back home. A letter imploring Bach to return was never received – the Prince’s handlers intercepted and destroyed it so the Prince would not be upset.
Bach must have felt intense anger, betrayal, grief – – We can only imagine . . . But he had his orchestra of amazing musicians who helped him with his kids, sustained his spirits, got drunk with him, and encouraged his composition.
Then Ana Magdalena, a soprano, auditioned for his choir. They fell in love as Bach composed the Brandenburg, and married months after he finished it. They worked side-by-side the rest of their lives, and had 13 children.
He must have fallen deeply in love and gratitude at finding the mother and muse he so needed. She loved, inspired and rescued him. After the extreme lows experienced during the first year of writing the Brandenburg, the highs of new love and the recovery of hope must have been spectacular.
This journey from family harmony, to the depths of despair, to the dizzying heights
of new love traverses most important things in life, the Brandenburgs bind us together
through our common experience of life, death and love.
And then 256 years later, in 1977, we launched the first spaceships that would leave our solar system carrying music, images and the sounds of our planet – the Voyager Missions. What was chosen to represent the entirety of earth to an alien peoples we wanted to love and be loved by?
The first music on the Golden Record is the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. It is arguably the single most important piece of music ever.
What do we know 40 years later?
The engineers and scientists at Jet Propulsion Lab tried, and apparently have succeeded in building a spacecraft that will carry a message from earth, for billions of years, outlasting our sun and earth itself.
The Voyager Spacecrafts left our solar system in 2012 and 2018.
The Golden Records each contain 27 pieces of music, 40 sounds, 115 images, and greetings in 55 languages. The records also had the inscription hand-etched on its surface:
“To the makers of music – all worlds, all times.”
Two Golden Records were launched. The record is constructed of gold-plated copper and is 12 inches in diameter. The record’s cover is aluminum and electroplated upon it is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.468 billion years, right around the life of our sun. JPL employees could buy a cassette tape dub for $5 at the gift shop above the hypersonic wind tunnel.
Without authorization or funding, JPL engineers built the Voyager spacecraft to do what it has done and will do – the Grand Tour of the Planets – and fly through interstellar space longer than our sun will be in the sky. They couldn’t tell anyone, or their bosses would have had to shut them down. And the Voyagers would have died when they were less than 5 years old.
That’s all JPL was authorized or funded to do. The extra few billion years, and carrying us beyond ourselves, were bootlegged.
In August of 1989 Voyager explored Neptune, completing its Grand Tour of the outer planets. And began its mission to carry the Golden Record for billions of years through interstellar space.
Voyager may, in the long run, be the only evidence that all human beings, animals, plants, trees, oceans, mountains, love – and earth itself – ever existed. And the Brandenburg Concerto is our outstretched hand.