Johann Sebastian Bach: a spectacular failure and an ultimate success

April 20, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writing.

It was the greatest letter of application for a job in the history of letters.

It was also a spectacular failure. The applicant didn’t get the job.

The year was 1721 and the 36-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach, whose wife had died the year before leaving him with small children to raise, was looking for a job. He was working in Kolten for Prince Leopold at the time, and his working situation wasn’t all that bad.

But the hard-working Bach was always looking for ways to improve himself. On one of his trips around the province, he met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, and thinking that he might have a position for an ambitious musician such himself wrote him a letter that to 21-century eyes might see a bit obsequious:

. . . . I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their 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.

It is not the letter that we remember. It is the attachments.

Bach included six concertos as part of the application, asking that the Margrave not just their “imperfections” too harshly.

There is no evidence that the Margrave ever judged them at all, that he ever had them played, or that he even acknowledged the letter or the applicant. The letter and the concertos were packed away and forgotten by all concerned. They remained in that state for more than 125 years until they were discovered in 1849 by a German music teacher. The musical scores were published the next year, and today we know them as the Brandenburg Concertos, a set of compositions that demonstrate the genius of the composer and are the essence of what baroque music is all about.

If you know little or nothing about baroque music (my personal favorite genre), start with the Brandenburg Concertos. From there, get into Bach’s Art of the Fugue or The Well-Tempered Clavier. Don’t try to understand or analyze any of it. Just listen.

We celebrated Bach’s 335th birthday in March (either the 21st or the 31st depending on what calendar you use). Our gratitude for his genius is beyond measure.

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