Bach 360°: The Many Forms of Bach

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Much of Johann Sebastian Bach’s mystique arises from his lack of one.

In a world where composer are often thought to be touched by angels, Bach was more like God’s work horse, turning out sonatas, cantatas, concertos and so much else – 1,100 pieces in all – and probably doing so with the scrowl so often seen in his iconography, reflecting the strain of writing so much music that speaks on so many levels.

In life and art, Bach exuded toughness. As a young man, he was a street brawler. As a church employee, he challenged authority. As a mature composer, he wrote an aria melody that supported an exhaustive series of 30 permutations known as The Goldberg Variations. So solid is his music that it survives most transcriptions. And it needed to amid the frequent re-purposing that was necessary in his high-velocity musical world.

During his 1685-1750 lifetime spent employed by Lutheran churches in the German capitals of Cothen, Weimar and Leipzig, Sunday services lasted four hours. They kept Bach so busy with music – heard but not seen since the congregation was looking away from the choir loft – that he had to take Communion on Thursdays. Instrumental works were written for coffee houses and pleasure gardens. Collections of music once thought to be mere practice exercises are among Bach’s most profound.

From this almost unimaginably different world, Bach speaks clearly over the centuries, though the perception of what he accomplished is constantly morphing. The popular notion that Bach summed up the previous 150 years of music doesn’t entirely hold up upon hearing his musical ancestors and contemporaries. Nobody sounded like him. And though Bach was so immersed in his liturgical world that he literally blended in with the architecture – the web-like ceiling beams at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church are a visual counterpart to Bach’s musical counterpoint – his religious contemporaries criticized him for too much bombast and intricacy.

How odd – considering the divine simplicity Bach achieves while spinning out of a mere C-major arpeggio in his Well-Tempered Clavier (where the science, mechanics and expression of music are one and the same) or his descriptive vision of a world crying out for redemption in the St. John Passion. Scholars have also discovered a “Da Vinci Code” element: Certain hymns can be superimposed perfectly over instrumental works previously thought to have no religious meaning. So rich and vast is Bach’s music that you can find pretty much anything if you look hard enough.

The 1970s historically-informed performance revolution – that brought Bach closer to the modern ear but away from the modern concert hall – had to happen. Large choruses rendered the music partly cloudy, obscuring its inner workings and dictating slow-motion tempos. While the St. Matthew Passion took 222 minutes in the 1962 Otto Klemperer recording on EMI, more modern performances come in at 160 minutes. Fewer musicians – sometimes 32 singers and 34 instrumentalists for the Matthew passion – yield more Bach.

Now, the big works are played with awareness of what needs to be heard but with modern concert-hall practicality. At the New York Philharmonic’s recent performance of the Mass in B minor, Alan Gilbert used 60 choristers and 47 instrumentalists. Though he once conducted super-slim Bach, Yannick Nezet-Seguin is living large in his forthcoming Philadelphia Orchestra performance of the St. Matthew Passion with 80 choristers and 64 instrumentalists.

"You find ways to convey the same message," he said recently. As has each generation before him.

AUDIO (BELOW): The Many Forms of Bach as heard on WQXR

Free Download: Pablo Casals plays the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prelude*
From "The Sound of Pablo Casals" (EMI Classics)
Throughout the Bach 360° festival, we will offer a daily download from a new Bach recording. First up is a 4-CD set featuring reissues of performances from the 1920s through the '50s. The Bach suite was recorded in Paris in 1938.
Available at

Listening Highlights for Thursday, March 21 (all times are approximate)

6 am  Sleepers awake, BWV 645 (“Wachet auf” chorale from Cantata BWV 140)

8 am  Orchestral Suite No. 4, BWV 1069

9 am  Solo Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006

10 am  Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Ascension Oratorio), BWV 11

11 am  Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

12 pm  Keyboard Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056

1 pm  Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582

2 pm  Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971

3 pm  Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046

5 pm  Cantata BWV 147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (features the “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” chorale)

8 pm Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043

9 pm Sheep May Safely Graze (“ Schafe konnen sichen wieder”chorale from Cantata BWV 208)

→ View the full day's playlist


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Comments [32]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner

Frankly, as a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor with a three octave range which even on my acuti, highest pitches, remains masculine, even heroic, I am not obsessed by the timbre of thre voice so much as the musicianship and beauty of the toine quality. BACH has been transposed to many formats, including the MOOG and other electronic representations. BACH's music is universal and appreciated by the most unlikely panorama of chamber music enthusiasts, punk rock singers and their fans and everyone in between in terms of style or format appreciation. WAGNER's DIE MEISTERSINGER owes much in its composition to WAGNER's amazement at the contrapuntal schematic of BACH's music. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download, free, my singing of 37 out of the 100 selections that I have sung in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to Recorded Selections on;, and
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan, Federico, Eleazar. and Judas Maccabaeus.

Apr. 02 2013 02:17 PM
Kathy of Aragon from NYC

This was the best. As good as it gets. Thank you!

Apr. 01 2013 03:10 PM
Frederick Schmid from Los Angeles CA

Thank goodness this exercise in elitism is over. Snobbery at its best. And QXR wonders why classical music is losing its audience. Simple -- QXR. Your programing decisions are not to be trusted. Enjoyed listening to WFMT from Chicago.

Apr. 01 2013 10:01 AM

Counting the days until Teleman-360

Mar. 30 2013 10:51 AM
Paul Martin

This entire project is in many ways a much more stylish and satisfying improvement on WKCR's wonderful yearly BachFest, and I actually appreciate it more than the November Beethoven run that WQXR has done - partly because so much Beethoven is played on a regular basis so that to devote a month to him seemed overkill... but the same cannot be said for Bach, since he certainly has many more riches to offer than Beethoven. A major challenge for listeners however is one of coming to terms with Bach as a spiritually motivated composer, and not just a musical genius. It's a difficulty which I believe many have with Arvo Part as well... In any case I certainly hope WQXR will do this EVERY year, and the week leading up to Easter is much the perfect occasion. Vielen Dank! Now, if you could this with Mozart... that would really be something!

Mar. 28 2013 01:16 AM
Oliver from Brooklyn

I love the Bach 360.
Sure, it's excessive, but at least in the right direction for a change.

Mar. 26 2013 11:08 PM
JKUU from NJ

I gather enjoyment of Bach is an acquired taste that so far has eluded me. Ten days of nothing but Bach is a cruel and inhumane punishment. My annual contribution to WQXR will be decreased as an expression of my displeasure.

Mar. 24 2013 12:00 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Meant to write main meal and not mail mail.

Mar. 24 2013 09:08 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

What arrogance on the part of the powers that decided to give us all this Bach for ten days. His music should be a condiment and not the main mail.
Thank God for the opera broadcast today. Sometimes the elites go too far. Yes, I do contribute. It would be poor form for me to complain and not donate. Poor form on the part of WQXR to have this marathon without thinking of the listeners who are not that enthused about Bach. Small doses OK. Large doses are OVERKILL. SEE YA IN 10 DAYS.

Mar. 23 2013 01:55 PM
Donna from Asbury Park

Anyone care to guess what the "after dinner mint" (or "antidote") will be for this lengthy Bachanalia?

Beethoven's Ninth, perhaps?

Mar. 23 2013 06:54 AM
Chris from Brooklyn

I thought I left a comment, but perhaps not on the proper string...please, please this IS really too much! I have had to put in extremely long days at work and always have your invaluable station on softly. But after about 6 hours I turned it way down. By the second day I have had my radio off much of the time. Tomorrow I bring my CD's of other composers to play instead. I can't stand it any more.

Mar. 23 2013 06:49 AM
John S Clark from New Jersey

I think it's kind of perverse that in an important anniversary year for Wagner, Verdi and Britten you're playing every note of Bach. The rationale is lost on me.

Mar. 21 2013 11:50 PM

I must ask; are you including the works discovered in 1984 and 1994? I must agree with an earlier poster that there are well over 1100 works, sadly many not found. One cantata was found used as wrapping paper for fish! One of the pieces found in 1994 was written for organ and trumpet, although literature of Bach and his sons mention other solo instruments with organ. Of course, Bach must've accompanied soloists in church without putting it down on paper.

Mar. 21 2013 09:32 PM
Olivia from NYC

I've had WQXR on today from 7am till 8pm (and still going strong), as usual. I can't count how many times I've found myself listening with a big grin on my face. Exaltation is what I'm feeling. There is nothing closer to the divine on Earth than the music of Bach. Thank you, WQXR!!!

Mar. 21 2013 08:02 PM
Bernie from UWS

I'm not sure I get the "free" part of the "Divine, Glorious, Free" slogan above. Does that mean that most programming costs listeners money somehow but this doesn't? Or you won't be featuring it on your next fundraiser? I hear a sponsor's name mentioned so it must not be entirely free...

Mar. 21 2013 07:46 PM

10 days of Bach is not enough! Why not go for 100 days?

Mar. 21 2013 06:16 PM
josh from New London

Not to quibble or anything, but while Bach wrote rapidly, he was far from the most productive composer of his time. And he was no mere workhorse. Evidence abounds of his devotion to the highest in art, his belief that works should be lasting, and his pain at the rejection of his works by those of lesser musical understanding.

He also wrote more than 1100 works: many are lost, including three of his five passions and by the evidence concerti of the quality of the Brandenburges.

That scowl, if that's what you call it, is only in the "official" portraits. See the recently rediscovered family scene with his young sons -- we see a very different man:

Bach could be tough, yes, in his official role, but there are many examples of his general kindness, gentleness, humor, and humility. In every case in which he did hang tough, it was over threats to the quality of music -- being forced to use an incompetent conductor, being told that his harmonies confounded the congregation and that he played too long (after which he was criticized for playing too short!), overstaying his leave so he could study with Buxtehude, insisting that the St. Matthew Passion be performed at a church without broken keyboard instruments, and so forth.

Mar. 21 2013 05:07 PM
Dorothy from 07030

See you in ten days! Toooooo much!

Mar. 21 2013 04:36 PM

To Carol-
I wouldn't say they are not being "honored", but I agree there may be a significant time lag between the request and when a particular piece may programed. Keep the faith, and keep requesting!

Mar. 21 2013 03:48 PM
Sandy from New Hampshire

This Bach 360 is a great idea. It's WQXR going back to its roots - educating listeners about the music they are hearing. When I was 10 years old in the mid-1950s and first started listening to WQXR, I learned so much about the music, the composers, and the performers.

Mar. 21 2013 03:36 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

To bklynbug:
Unfortunately, the requests are not always honored!

Mar. 21 2013 02:06 PM

Bach is glorius!!! I cannot thank you enough for this "festival" of music. Any chance Haydn could be next.... pretty please?!?!

(and for those who enjoy other music not sampled often enough, you can always use the "request music" tab to hear anyone/anything your heart desires)

Ahhhhh, Bach!

Mar. 21 2013 01:56 PM
EA from LI from Long Island

I'm a little worried about this too. I don't like to carp because I love and value the station and want everything you do to go well, but I like a lot of different classical music--that's why I listen!--and when you tune in all day every day as I do, 10 days of the same composer is going to feel like a really long time. It's a good effort--I just wonder whether it could have been planned to take half as long, or only during certain hours for 10 days. It will be interesting to read listener comments on days 9 and 10 . . .

Mar. 21 2013 01:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Too much. Please, not all day for 10 days. Will not be listening.

Mar. 21 2013 12:40 PM
P. Manzon from New Jersey

While I do enjoy Bach's music and other composers very much, 360 degrees of Bach for 10 days? Really? I think it is overkill. Unfortunately, I will be turning WQXR off for the next ten days. I think it is a bad idea.

Mar. 21 2013 12:30 PM
gg from Syosset

The very best ever ! :). I love Bach, everything that he wrote, he is my number one composer and perhaps one of the best music educators who ever lived.

And the best thing - the presentation of Bach 360 is stunning - thank you ! WQXR

Mar. 21 2013 11:43 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Hmmm...Let's see - we've had a month devoted to Beethoven (twice), 10 days devoted to Bach, and a day devoted to Mozart's music (not to mention that hardly an hour goes by that his music is not played anyway). These are all great ideas, but how about some fairness? I eagerly look forward to your all Tchaikovsky and Brahms Day on May 7, your all Mahler Day on July 7, and since I am not so delusional to think that you would ever give Anton Bruckner a day of his own on September 4, I would hope that you would at least play one of his symphonies in the afternoon (is that too much to ask?)

Mar. 21 2013 10:42 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Hmmm...Let's see - we've had a month devoted to Beethoven (twice), 10 days devoted to Bach, and a day devoted to Mozart's music (not to mention that hardly an hour goes by that his music is not played anyway). These are all great ideas, but how about some fairness? I eagerly look forward to your all Tchaikovsky and Brahms Day on May 7, your all Mahler Day on July 7, and since I am not so delusional to think that you would ever give Anton Bruckner a day of his own on September 4, I would hope that you would at least play one of his symphonies in the afternoon (is that too much to ask?)

Mar. 21 2013 10:42 AM
David from Flushing

I suppose this will be a rather unpopular post, but here it is. My favorite music is that of the Baroque Era with Handel being my hero. I also enjoy most of the lesser composers, though I miss the woodwinds in the work of the Italians.

However, I have developed over the years a great aversion to the music of J. S. Bach. Indeed I find myself turning off the radio when it comes on (sorry WQXR). If I were to play a word association game, my response to Bach would be logarithm tables. The tediousness of much of his writing is unenjoyable to me. Then there is the whining quality of many of his pieces. Give me Handel any day, but please, no more days of Bach.

Mar. 21 2013 09:07 AM
Sari from Manhattan's Upper West Side

All Bach - great idea. A Bach Fest, that's what the Columbia University radio station (WKCR) has been doing at the Christmas holidays for the past several years. Let's hear it for Bach!

Mar. 21 2013 08:24 AM
Melanie Keenan from New York City

Why I adore Bach:
I had the privilege of hearing Rosyln Tureck play the Goldberg Variations on both harpsichord and piano at Carnegie Hall, it must have been around 1974 or 75. She was magnificent and the music of course is haunting. Then, I had the great good fortune to hear her play the same program in London in the early 80's. My then-husband introduced me to Glenn Gould and we used to listen to his recordings and his distinctive humming in the background. Many years later, I saw the documentary about Gould--a blessing and a curse, because I saw that he was human and had had 'issues' like any other person, but whenever he played, especially Bach, I was always transported to another dimension, certainly a heavenly one. What a genius! I used to play Bach, when I could still in fact play piano. I practiced the Inventions, but it was the Partitas that captivated me the most. I'm scouring your program and waiting anxiously to hear Partita VI, my favorite.

Mar. 21 2013 08:19 AM


Mar. 21 2013 08:15 AM

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