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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 9

In With the Old: ‘New’ Brandenburgs

by Crystal Chan / June 13, 2011

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‘New’ Brandenburgs: Irreverent or Authentic Performance Practice?

Bruce Haynes and Susie Napper of the Montreal Baroque Festival have come up with an audacious offering for the ninth edition of the festival: six ‘new’ Brandenburg concertos.

“The theme for the festival is ‘Deadly Sins,’” explained Napper. “And this is a real sacrilege for some. People think of it as a serious deadly sin to abuse Bach’s music like this. I think it’ll be a lot of fun to hear!”

These so-called Brandenburgs are actually instrumentalized groupings of Bach cantata movements. The original idea was Haynes’s, a Bach expert who had already used Bach cantata movements to score a concerto for oboe and harpsichord obbligato in 1982, almost thirty years before starting this new Brandenburg project last year. Tragically, Haynes passed away on May 17, just over a month before the premiere of what will be the last of his projects.

Of course, there is a long history of classical music pieces that continue to be performed in their ‘finished’ or ‘improved’ form after the death of a composer: Mozart’s Requiem and Puccini’s Turandot are two examples. And whether as a timesaving measure, quick cure for writer’s block, or response to limited available instrumentation, composers have frequently used ideas or whole sections of their own music (and occasionally that of other composers) in several pieces.

Haynes started by creating a list of all the concerto movements that were taken from cantatas by Bach himself. For Bach, the practice turns out to have been a common one.

For instance, the third Brandenburg concerto is found in a Bach cantata. “He was always using his own music for different purposes,” said Napper. “Basically that’s what we’re doing: we’re stealing Bach’s own music and using it for different purposes.”

Why new instrumental concertos, instead of vocal or solo pieces? Because the small number of chamber pieces by Bach that have survived has always frustrated musicologists and musicians. Bach gave his chamber music to Wilhelm Freidemann Bach, his favourite child. Unfortunately, W.F. was also a drunkard and lost most of the music. Compare this to the cantatas, which were bequeathed to another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Those were carefully preserved and indexed. Today, we know of six Brandenburg concertos and a few other Bach concerti. There were probably many more.

It was also a very well known practice in the baroque era to re-score cantatas without singers. “Several composers and writers mention this,” said Napper. She added while laughing, “No singer, no problem!”

“Nowadays we tend to be very Catholic about playing what’s on the page and I think that’s very un-baroque,” she continued, more seriously. “You take what you’ve got and you play the music you can find.”

For the Montreal Baroque, this project was similarly a creative response to limitations. With grants and private donations at a low, the festival was literally “too poor to afford singers this year.”

The six new Brandenburgs correspond to Bach’s six. The first new Brandenburg shares a military feel with the first ‘old’ one; the second ‘new’ one is for four instruments, as was the second ‘old’ one; and so on with each new Brandenburg reflecting its parallel original, often in instrumentation.

The naysayers, according to Napper, are mostly those from the musicological field. Musicians, on the other hand, are thrilled or at least curious. “It’s very exciting to have, as it were, new Bach pieces to play!” she joked—and Napper is sure that audiences will also love the new Brandenburg set.

ATMA is also convinced. They are recording the concert and a disc will be issued most likely in 2012.

To those that are outraged, Napper had this to say: “It was a very common period practice to take vocal works and play them on instruments. And we’ve lost that.”

“We’re so used to reading what is set on the page and trying to be authentic in that sense that we’ve missed being authentic in the other sense of following a common practice, of creating our own music in the same way that they used to do.”

June 24, 7 p.m at the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
» Learn about these concepts in Haynes’s book: A Period Performer's History of Music for the Twenty-First Century
» The festival closes with another recreation of early music: theatrical performances of excerpts from Macbeth accompanied by John Blow and John Eccles’s incidental music for the play interwoven with Henry Purcell’s music; June 26, 7 p.m. at the Marché Bonsecours

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