Finding the faith in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos

Posted on: December 20, 2018

“One of the most persistent myths about Bach is that his work is marked by a fundamental conflict between the sacred and the secular,” writes Michael Marissen in Thursday’s (12/20) New York Times. “According to this view, Bach’s ideal appointment was his stint from 1717 to ’23 as Kapellmeister (director of music) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Leopold’s court observed the Calvinist faith, a liturgically austere branch of Protestantism that prohibited elaborate music in its church services. So … Bach was freed from having to continually oblige the church. He could focus instead on ‘pure’ instrumental music, like the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, today’s holiday-season standbys. But was that truly his goal? Listeners and scholars who speak of Bach’s works as ‘sacred’ versus ‘secular’ generally understand these terms to mean ‘religious’ as opposed to ‘nonreligious.’ Bach and most of his contemporaries, however, don’t seem to have understood sacred and secular to be mutually exclusive categories.… Secular and liturgical works were both religious: A central purpose of all serious-minded music, wherever performed, was to honor God…. Accepting the idea that the “Brandenburg” Concertos harbor social and religious designs needn’t involve downplaying the magnificence of Bach’s artistic gifts.” The article includes several music clips.

Posted December 20, 2018