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 Arkivmusic.com
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)