What does Johann Sebastian Bach have to do with West Africa? The short answer is: nothing.
A more detailed look at history, however, is quite revealing — both in terms of the structure of patronage for the arts in late Baroque Europe and as a chapter in West African history. In 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach compiled a collection of concertos , entitled Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments (Six Concertos for several instruments) which he presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. These “Brandenburg Concertos,” as they became known, have been regarded as some of the finest of the late Baroque masterpieces of musical composition, and they have been presented ever since by the world’s greatest orchestras.
In the late 17th century during the period just prior to the composition of these six concertos by Bach, the Brandenburg family had established a fort on the Gold Coast of West Africa to take part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Christian Ludwig (24 May 1677 – 3 September 1734) to whom Bach had presented the concertos was a military officer of the Prussian Army. Born in Berlin, Christian Ludwig was the youngest son of the “Great Elector” Frederick William (1620–1688), ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia, and his second wife Princess Sophia Dorothea of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (1636–1689).
In 1682 Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, at the suggestion of the Dutch merchant and privateer Benjamin Raule, granted a charter to the Brandenburg Africa Company (BAC), marking the first organized and sustained attempt by a German state to take part in the Atlantic slave trade. This Brandenburg colony existed for 39 years from 1682 to 1721, when King Frederick William I of Prussia sold it for 7,200 ducats and 12 Black slaves to the Dutch West India Company.
It would seem, then, that J. S. Bach presented his now famous Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in the same year that the Brandenburg royal family — and specifically, King Frederick William I of Prussia — sold their slaving fortress at Prince’s Town on the Gold Coast to the Dutch West India Company.
For more detail on the Brandenburg connection to the trade on the Gold Coast see:
- Rote Adler an Afrikas Küste: Die brandenburgisch-preussische Kolonie Grossfriedrichsburg an der westafrikanischen Küste by Ulrich Van Der Heyden: (1993)
- Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg
- Frederick William I of Prussia
- Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt
- Brandenburger Gold Coast
- Brandenburg Concertos
- Slavery Hinterland: Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680-1850
To view a recent German production of this concerto performed in Italy see: “Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 | Claudio Abbado & the Orchestra Mozart ”
See related resources:
- Introduction to the BU African Studies/Afriterra “Mapping Africa” Workshop
- The Africa Map Circle – Introduction & Digital Resource Directory
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