Brandenburg Concerto #3

—Johann Sebastian Bach (1721)

The Nine Muses and the Harmony of the Spheres

Brandenburg III is scored for 3 groups of 3 violins, 3 violas and 3 cellos; the tuttis are written in 3 parts, each of these subdividing into 3 in the first movement; the form of the first movement is basically tripartite, and its principal musical figure consists of three notes supported by quavers moving in thirds. The work has often been described as a fanatical obsession with numbers or a reflection or meditation on the Trinity. But it seems more likely that the first movement of the concerto was conceived as an all-embracing musical portrayal of the speculative series of three octaves which, to the music theorists and philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries, represented the nine orders of Angels in the Empyrean Heaven, the nine Spheres of the Ethereal Heaven and the nine regions of the Elemental World. Corresponding to these in microcosm were the three major divisions of Man into the intellectual or mental, the vital or spiritual, and the elemental or corporeal – Intellect, Soul and Body. The Angels themselves were grouped into three hierarchies – Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones (surrounding God in perpetual adoration); Dominations, Virtues and Powers (governing the stars and the elements); and Princedoms (protecting the kingdoms of the earth), Archangels and Angels (divine messengers). It was also believed that the way in which harmony was established in the Angelic choirs was by threes.

It would have been impractical for Bach to write for 27 instruments – 9 are symbolic enough, and the three octaves (and the various hierarchic subdivisions) are represented by violins, violas and cellos. The universe was traditionally depicted by means of Apollo’s lyre or a cosmic monochord, so Bach would naturally write for a string ensemble. Perhaps the movement was written for a ballet, or to accompany an allegorical tableau.

Boethius, Gaffurius, Kircher, Fludd and others supplied scales for the celestial spheres, and many of the figures in the first movement of Brandenburg III are built on or around scales. But I am sure that the movement symbolises the structure of the cosmos rather than the movement of the spheres – the hierarchy of existence expressed through the hierarchy of music. Kepler described a cosmic harmony produced by the angular velocities of the planets through their eliptical orbits, and showed that each of the planets produced a “song” – a sliding pitch- change over a given interval rather than a steady note. He could not accurately notate this, but his verbal explanations are clear enough – Mars, for example, produced a glissando scale from F to C and back again! Each of Kepler’s planets sounded a variety of notes, and the musical possibilities of the various sliding scales were inexhaustable. Most of the chords produced were dissonant, but once in many years the notes sounded by the planets combined to form a consonance.

The second movement of Brandenburg III is based on a rapidly rising and falling figure reminiscent of Kepler’s planetary “song” accompanied by a series of broken triads (consonances); the three cellos play in unison throughout, effectively reducing the number of moving parts to seven; and it is the only concerto movement by Bach to use the binary dance form of two sections, each repeated. I believe that the movement represents planetary motion, or the dance of the heavens. If so, then we may have at last not just one but two possible explanations for the problem of the “missing” middle movement of this concerto.

Firstly, the harmony of the spheres derives directly from the perfection in form, proportion and number of the cosmic design, so the motion of the seven planets would follow immediately after Bach’s (God’s?) burst of creative activity on the number 3 in the first movement. Perhaps the two chords marked Adagio which separate the movements were meant to suggest the concept of duality, essential to cosmic manifestation – Alpha and Omega: God is the beginning, and the beginning is the end; God is the end, and the end is the beginning. Such statements commonly appear with the numerous charts, lyres and cosmic monochords used by the theorists to illustrate the correspondences between music and the hierarchy of existence.

Secondly, the gyrating (astrological) bodies of the second movement could also represent Fortune – who bestowed her favours by chance, interrupting the normal pattern of events at random. This could also explain the sudden and unprecedented disruption of the anticipated three-movement concerto form.

What has all this to do with the Margrave? Since Capella’s De nuptiis the nine spheres had been linked with the nine Muses, who in turn were regarded as the very same beings as the Angels of monotheism. Interestingly, the Greek angelos translates as “messenger”. The Muses appeared as messengers who accosted chosen human beings such as poets or musicians, charging them with a divine mission. The fact that the Margrave was well-known as a patron of the arts and invited Bach to send him some compositions would liken him to one of the Muses. Furthermore, the Muses were particularly popular in 17th-century German processions, and the movement of the heavens (cosmic harmony) symbolised the peace and prosperity brought by the Prince’s rule.

There is evidence to suggest that the two concerto movements originally existed separately and were brought together especially for the Margrave. Bach might well have incorporated this newly-constructed “astrological” concerto into the Brandenburg set as both a compliment and a subtle warning to the Margrave to remember that, for all his greatness, he was only a man, dwarfed by the grand design of the cosmos and subject to the caprices of Fortune like any other.

—Philip Pickett


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