Monday, March 31, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 31
            By Linda de Vries

Events occurring on this date in history definitively demarcate the Baroque and Classical musical styles. In 1703 Johann Christoph Bach died, marking the end of the early Baroque period. In 1732 Franz Joseph Haydn was born, a man destined to become one of the two greatest Classical composers. Overlapping both lived Sebastian, the greatest of the Baroque composers.

Our Bach Bagatelle for today is drawn, however, from two additional events on this date: The release of the film The Meaning of Life on March 31, 1983, and the performance on March 31, 2014 in Jordan Hall in Boston of Sebastian’s Mass in B Minor: The Ridiculous and the Sublime—a fitting conclusion to our birth month series.

The Meaning of Life is a Monty Python film (perhaps the epitome of the ridiculous) with a score by Eric Idle and John du Prez. In it they use Sebastian’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This is without doubt the most famous and popularized of his organ works, even used in the Walt Disney film Fantasia. Only it is not his work!

BWV 565, the Toccata and Fugue was first published in 1833 in a collection prepared by Felix Mendelssohn. Since the 1870s, though, musicologists have challenged its authenticity. This piece does not survive in his hand. The earliest source is a copy by Johannes Ringk, which exhibits dynamic markings unusual for German music prior to 1740.

Over the past 150 years there have been many attempts to attribute this piece, none of which is conclusive, other than that most agree it is not Sebastian’s work. He, as well as other of his contemporaries, often created fugues on the themes of other composers, so some have proposed that it might have been inspired by Johann Heinrich Buttstett, Johann Pachelbel, or André Raison.

More recently musicologists have suggested that the composer might have come from the circle of Ringk’s teacher, Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772), who had close ties with the Bach family. Still others have suggested that it might have been a lost solo violin piece, not a composition for organ at all. Lastly, Christoph Wolff ignores all this and says the problems can be explained if it is an early work that reflects the deficiencies of Sebastian’s Arnstadt organ!

If the never-ending examination of this much-recorded piece does not satisfy the definition of “ridiculous,” the Monty Python film certainly exemplifies the term. So, let us turn to the sublime, a second work that is clearly Sebastian’s—a work that he developed over most of his life, and a work that defines the sublime for many.

In aesthetics the sublime refers to a quality of greatness beyond all possibility of measurement or imitation.

The term is first used by Longinus in the first century CE, but as philosophers debated it throughout the succeeding centuries, the term grew to encompass a quality of greater and higher importance than beauty.
Without explicating that full debate, some of the philosophers’ statements prepare us to consider Sebastian’s capstone work. Edmund Burke (1756) stated that the feeling of the sublime is a more complex emotion than our reaction to beauty, containing elements of both pleasure and pain.

Schopenhauer categorized states of the sublime, saying the “fullest feeling” of the sublime was the observer’s knowledge of the immensity of the Universe’s extent and duration and the feeling of pleasure arising from nothingness and oneness with Nature.

Hegel emphasized the viewer’s response to the sublime as an overwhelming aesthetic sense of awe or astonishment.

Victor Hugo defined the experience of the sublime as involving a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might, and is similar to the experience of the tragic. The “tragic consciousness” is the capacity to gain an exalted state of consciousness from the realization of the unavoidable suffering destined for all men and that there are oppositions in life that can never be resolved, most notably that of the “forgiving generosity of deity” subsumed to "inexorable fate.”

Which brings us to the Mass in B Minor, a musical setting of the complete Latin Mass that Sebastian completed in the year before he died. It gave new form to vocal music he had composed throughout his career. It is quite unusual for a Lutheran to have composed a Latin Mass, and the reasons remain an issue debated by scholars.

The most recent scholarship provides this chronology: in 1724 he composed the Sanctus, later revised, for use in the Christmas service; in 1733 he composed the Kyrie and Gloria following the death of Elector Augustus II and presented them to his successor, Augustus III of Poland; in approximately 1743-46 he used two movements from the Gloria and possibly the Sanctus in a Christmas Day cantata, BWV 191; in the last two or three years of his life he composed the Symbolum Nicenum and the remainder of the work.

Sebastian did not title the work, but filed it in four separate folders. In 1790 it was found in the estate of his deceased son, C.P.E. Bach, titled “the Great Catholic Mass.” It appears under that title as well in the estate of his last heir in 1805. The first publication of the Kyrie and Gloria occurred in 1833, and the first full publication in 1845, titled “The High Mass in B Minor.”

The complete Mass was never performed in Sebastian’s lifetime. he conducted the first version of the Sanctus in 1724 and again in the Christmas service in the 1740s; he may or may not have actually performed it in 1733; C.P.E. Bach performed the Symbolum Nicenum under the title “Credo or Nicene Creed” in 1786 in Hamburg; Carl Friedrich Zelter led read-throughs of the “Great Mass” in 1811 and 1813 at the Berlin Singakademie; the Credo was performed in Frankfurt in March 1828; Karl Riedel conducted the first complete performance in Leipzig in 1859. It was first recorded in 1929.

The Mass is praised as one of the greatest compositions in history:

“I don’t think a greater genius has walked the earth. Of the three great composers Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.” (Douglas Adams)

“Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?”
(Michael Torke)

“This monumental work is . . . the most astounding spiritual encounter between the words of Catholic glorification and the Lutheran cult of the cross.” (Alberto Basso)

“The announcement of the greatest music work of all times and all people.” (Hans Georg Nägeli)

And on his entire body of work:

“Not Brook but Ocean should be his name” (Ludwig van Beethoven)

“Study Bach; there you will find everything.” (Johannes Brahms)

“In Bach the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” (Gustav Mahler)

“All modern music owes everything to Bach.” (Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 30
            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 2000, Oxford University Press published Christoph Wolff’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. This biographical study was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

This publication provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Final Composition.

In his book, Wolff talks extensively about a discovery he made in 1999 in a Bach family archive in the State Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. It is a previously unknown arrangement written by Sebastian for his own funeral. It is the last piece of music in his own hand, believed to have been written some time in 1749. How did it get to Kiev?

The Berlin Singakademie inherited C.P.E. Bach’s manuscripts after his death and placed them in safekeeping in Ullersdorf Castle in Silesia, now Poland, during WW II, but the collection ended up in the hands of the Soviets after the war. After the 1999 discovery, Ukraine returned the manuscripts to Germany.

Professor Wolff and the team of researchers studying them expected to find only works by Bach’s two eldest sons, C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann, but they identified this piece by the handwriting. Wolff writes: “The manuscript is the work of an old man who had trouble forming his letters. The writing is uneven, stiff, and disproportionately large.”

The work is not original, however, but based on a 1672 motet by Johann Christoph Bach, titled Lieber Herr Gott, Wecke Uns Auf (Dear Lord God, Awaken Us). There is a recording of the piece credited to Christoph: Motets of the Bach Family, Columns Classics #B55015, sung by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Timothy Brown, Conductor. Other recordings are also extant.

Sebastian had two relatives named Johann Christoph—his elder brother with whom he went to live after his parents died, and his first cousin once removed. Sebastian also had a son similarly named—Johann Christoph Friedrich. It is, however, his cousin who is the composer of this motet.

Christoph (1642-1703) was born in Arnstadt, but became organist at St. George’s and a member of the court orchestra in Eisenach, the town in which Sebastian was born. Christoph was also the uncle of Maria Barbara, Sebastian’s first wife.

During his lifetime Christoph had an excellent reputation as a composer, equaled only by that of Sebastian himself. His influence on his younger cousin was, therefore, profound, and he was the obvious choice to take the orphaned Sebastian into his home as apprentice. Despite his excellence as a musician, however, Christoph fell deeply into debt, and scholars speculate that for this reason he did not become Sebastian’s guardian.

This recently discovered motet is only one of the works that have been identified as written by Christoph. It is reputed to have been sung at Sebastian’s funeral at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig on July 31, 1750. Professor Wolff notes that prior to this we knew little about his funeral, only that he was put in an oak casket and given a free hearse. This music deserves appropriate consideration as we draw near the end of this series on his birth month.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bach Bagatelle

March 29
            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1750 Johann Christoph Altnikol performed BWV 1088 at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Some cite this date as Good Friday, and a Passion is the appropriate music for Good Friday, but in fact, March 29 in 1750 was Easter Sunday.

This event provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Spurious Works of Bach.

BWV 1088, although attributed to Sebastian, was not actually written by him. This work offers us a beginning point for a brief discussion of other composers of the period whose work has often been attributed to Sebastian Bach.

As the Bach Archive in Leipzig continues burrowing through churches, libraries, and homes in the former East Germany, it is likely that more of these spurious works will be revealed.

BWV 1088, called the Passions-Pasticcio, or Arioso aus einem Passions-Pasticcio (Arioso from a Passion pastiche), included in the catalogue of Sebastian’s work, was actually written by several composers, the dominant hand being Carl Heinrich Graun. Other contributions were made by Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Christoph Altnikol, and Johann Kuhnau. Sebastian’s contribution was the opening chorale from his BWV 127.

It began as a Passion cantata Ein lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (A lambkin goes and bears our guilt) by Graun in Brunswick in 1730. After 1743 Sebastian arranged and performed it in Leipzig.

Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759), one of three brothers who were all musicians, gained his fame in the mid-18th century as the primary composer of Italian opera in Germany. He began his career in 1725 singing tenor in Brunswick, but in 1735 Prince Frederick engaged him in Berlin as his music teacher. When Frederick became king in 1740, he appointed Graun director of the Berlin Royal Opera, and sent him to Italy to hire singers. The new opera house opened on December 7, 1742 with Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra.

King Frederick I insisted on inserting his own musical and poetic offerings into Graun’s operas, but Graun managed to create moments of brilliance despite this royal interference. Grant was particularly noted for key-change developments in the da capo aria (an ABA structure). His recitatives reflect the Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style) also adopted by C.P.E. Bach, Sebastian’s second son.

Johann Kuhnah (1660-1722) was Sebastian’s predecessor as Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1701-1722). Born in Saxony, he was a lawyer, a poet, and a non-fiction author. He claimed musical fame as the inventor of the keyboard sonata, with his Sonata in B Flat being the first. He is also now thought to be the true composer of BWV 142.

For the other two composers involved in BWV 1088, see March 14 (Georg Philipp Telemann) and March 19 (Johann Christoph Altnikol). Telemann is also believed to be the composer of BWV 141, 160, 218, 219, 824, and 840.

An additional 23 composers are now credited with having written works previously attributed to Sebastian, most of them with the first name of Johann, and most of them with only one or two pieces to their names, with the exception of Sebastian’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann (11) and Carl Philipp Emanuel (4).

These newly-attributed works include: BWV 15, 53, 95, 189, 222, 224, 241, 242, 246, 508, 553-560, 591,597, 692, 693, 740,745, 746, 748, 751, 759, 760, 761, 771, 835,836, 837, 838, 844, 844a, 924, 924a, 925, 931, 932, 945, 955a, 962, 964, 970, 1020, 1024, 1036, and 1037. An additional 100 works are considered doubtful, but no alternative composers have been assigned.

The two Krebs are of note. Father Johann Tobias Krebs (1690-1762), who studied with Johann Gottfried Walther and Sebastian, is believed to be the composer of the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues previously attributed to Sebastian. Krebs’ son, Johann Ludwig, who studied with Sebastian, was considered to be his equal as an improviser on the organ.

Alas, the younger Krebs (1713-1780) had a difficult time finding work, as the Baroque style (considered to have ended in 1755, five years after Sebastian’s death) was shifting to stil galant

Friday, March 28, 2014

Guest Artists


The 77th Whittier College Bach Festival will conclude on Sunday evening, April 6, at 8:00 with a solo harpsichord recital by alumnus Raymond Erickson, '63, a protégé of Margaretha Lohmann, the founder of the Whittier College Music Department and its Bach Festival. The Festival one of the oldest among nearly forty in the United States.

Although Erickson performed in the Bach Festivals of 1960-63 during his undergraduate years at the College on the piano, on this occasion he is giving the first solo harpsichord recital ever presented at the College, with the theme of “Bach and his Contemporaries.” In addition to works by Bach, François Couperin (“The Great”), Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti, Erickson will also incorporate the lost 18th century tradition of improvisation into the program, a regular feature for many years of his concerts on both piano and harpsichord.

Although born in Minneapolis of Chicagoan parents, Erickson's family moved to Whittier when he was ten, and he attended St. Mary's School and Cantwell High School before coming Whittier on a major national scholarship. While an undergraduate he gave several solo recitals (including the first concert in the Whittier College Chapel), performed the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Whittier College-Community Orchestra (a critic characterizing him as “a performer of power and musical perception”), and participated in the Bach Festivals. Graduating with High Honors, elected to Omicron Delta Kappa, and named “Man of the Year” by the Associated Men's Association of the College, he then went to Yale to pursue the Ph.D. in musicology.

While at Yale, Erickson was accepted by the famous harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick as one of a handful of private students; further private studies with pianist Nadia Reisenberg and harpsichordist Albert Fuller, both Juilliard faculty, followed upon his move to New York, where in 1971 he joined the faculty of Queens College of the City University of New York. There he subsequently became the founding Director of the Aaron Copland School of Music there as well as the College's Dean of Arts and Humanities before retiring in 2008. In 1975 he was elected to the faculty of the new Doctoral Program in Music at the City University's new Graduate Center, and ever since he has taught part-time there; he also has taught at Rutgers University, The Juilliard School, and directs a summer workshop at Queens College, “Rethinking Bach,” that has been invited to Japan in 2014.

Erickson has led a two-pronged career as scholar and performer. Author or editor of four books—one of which, The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach (2009), is dedicated to the memory of Margaretha Lohmann—he is an internationally recognized Bach scholar, but also a popular pre-concert lecturer for Lincoln Center and other New York musical organizations. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As a performer, he has appeared in thirty of the continental United States, Italy, Germany, and Austria, and in 2014 will make his debut in China and Japan. He was soloist in the New York first period-instrument performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (New York Times: “brilliantly played”) and was a participant in the first American recording of the complete Brandenburg Concertos on period instruments. The German press has hailed his improvised piano preluding as “genius in the manner of Clara Schumann,” the great nineteenth-century pianist famous for her improvisations.

Erickson's honors include the Endowed Chair in Music at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), Honorary Membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the William H. Scheide Research Award of the American Bach Society, and decoration by the German government with the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit.

The composers represented on the April 6th program were all contemporary with J.S. Bach, although each has a uniquely distinctive style. Bach respected and communicated with Couperin, harpsichordist to Louis XIV and arguably the greatest French composer for harpsichord, but certain virtuoso techniques Bach occasionally employed may owe more to either Scarlatti or Rameau, both of whom were given to flamboyance and keyboard pyrotechnics in their music.

Destination . . . Chorale Bel Canto

Destination  . . . Chorale Bel Canto
            By Linda de Vries

Love classical choral music? Think Chorale Bel Canto.

Seldom or never listen to classical choral music? Think again.

On April 5 think the City of Whittier, where Chorale Bel Canto is singing with the 77th Annual Whittier Bach Festival (scroll to the right of your screen for a list of all Festival events.)

Think Whittier is too far to drive for just a concert? Think again.

“Destination . . . Chorale Bel Canto” posts several times in advance of each of our concerts, offering ideas for a different day trip to the city in which we’re singing, with a Chorale Bel Canto concert at the center of your experience. These trips appeal to a wide variety of interests and share fascinating, sometimes intricate, connections between the city and the music.

Today, think Asian Serenity.

The population of Whittier is only about 4% Asian, but as the concentric circles around Whittier widen to encompass Rowland Heights and Monterey Park, the Asian population increases to over 50%, as does the number of Asian services—spas, markets, temples, gardens, restaurants, and more. Enjoy a bit of the Far East in and around Whittier before the concert!

Morning. Begin your day in nearby Hacienda Heights at the Hsi Lai Temple, located at 3456 Glenmark Drive, 626-961-6697, Sited atop a hill just off Hacienda Boulevard on 15 acres of land with 102,000 square feet of interior space, this Buddhist monastery is faithful to the Ming (1368-1644 C.E.) and Quing (1644-1911 C.E.) dynastic styles of architecture. Hsi Lai translates as “coming west,” and this temple and monastery were founded by the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order (in the Chinese Mahayana tradition) to spread the teachings of the Buddha to the Western Hemisphere.

You will enter through the Temple’s stunning gateway and enter first in Bodhisattva Hall, dedicated to several enlightened sages, or “Buddhas in training,” and displaying their golden statues. To your left is the Information Center, where bi-lingual volunteers will provide you with a 40-minute self-guided audio tour pack. On your tour you will visit the Arhat Garden; the Avalokitesvara Garden; the elaborate Courtyard with its four lions; the Main Shrine dedicated to Sakyamuni Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism; the Fo Guang Yuan Hsi Lai Art Gallery; the Translation Center; the Auditorium; the Meditation Hall; and the Memorial Pagoda that sits atop the temple grounds.

The Temple runs an after-school enrichment program for K-6 grade students, as well as provides weekend classes and special workshops for adults interested in Chinese culture and Buddhism, meditation, or Dharma instrument instruction. The Temple also boasts the Buddha’s Light Symphony Orchestra, the Buddha’s Light Chorus, and the Hsi Lai Chinese Drum Troupe, as well as hosting special events. Call the Information Office for specific times and dates. The temple is open 9:00-5:00 daily. There is handicapped parking, all levels are wheelchair accessible by elevator, and all areas are traversable by ramps.
Depending upon how much time you’d like to spend in the Temple, you may want to structure your day to include a visit to the 99 Ranch Market, located very near the Temple at 1625 Azusa Avenue, Hacienda Heights, 626-839-2899. This is one of 30 Asian supermarkets founded by the Taiwanese-born American, Roger H. Chen, so-named because the number 99 is considered by the Chinese to be lucky.
Most of the market’s customers are Chinese American, but the chain sells a wide range of imported food products and merchandise from Hong Kong, Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as some domestic products made by Chinese American companies. The language used in the stores is Mandarin Chinese, but some announcements are often made in English as well. You may feel as if you need your passport, but a visit to this market is an amazing experience not to be missed, and you will definitely find that special Asian ingredient you despaired of securing!
Lunch. Just below the Main Shrine in the Hsi Lai Temple is the Dining Hall, where you may enjoy a vegetarian buffet for $7 weekdays from 11:30-1:30 and weekends from 11:30-2:30. Next to the Dining Hall is the Tea Room, serving lighter fare, and the Book Store.

Or, you may wish to journey to Whittier and enjoy a meal with meat. The well-recommended Silver Palace Restaurant, serving Schezuan food, is located at 15326 Whittier Blvd., 562-947-4043. Many like the inexpensive Grand Buffet, an elaborate Chinese buffet at 11885 Whittier Blvd., 562-692-8997. Some swear by the New Canton Restaurant, at 13015 Philadelphia St., 562-698-7315. The latter two are very near the afternoon’s concert venue.

Early Afternoon. If you’ve spent the day at the Hsi Lai Temple, you may wish to head straight to the concert. To deepen your state of serenity before an afternoon of stirring music, though, you may wish to enjoy an Asian spa experience. The Greenleaf Massage Spa, located at 7049 Greenleaf Ave., 562-360-9585 offers a range of massage experiences at extremely reasonable prices in a relaxing setting. It’s a quiet retreat on the busy main street of Uptown Whittier!

4:00 p.m. – The Concert
At the corner of Painter Avenue and Philadelphia Street in Whittier you will find the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts. Just east of the Shannon Center in the Whittier College Memorial Chapel, Chorale Bel Canto will sing two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (based upon Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and Cantata 11, The Ascension Oratorio. Join the singers in a patio reception following the concert.

Evening. Conclude your Asian day in Whittier by dining at one of its Japanese restaurants: Amachi at 6729 Greenleaf Ave., 562-698-1510, or Azabu Sushi at 13119 E. Philadelphia St., 562-789-0881. The Pasadena Star News recently gave Amachi two stars and Azabu three stars. A close friend of mine will only eat salmon at Amachi!

Bach Bagatelles

March 28
            By Linda de Vries

Sometime between March 28 and March 31 of 1750, Sebastian had eye surgery. In 1750 Easter Sunday was March 29, so March 28 seems a likely day for the surgery, although it could have been on the Monday or the Tuesday following Easter.

Sebastian’s eyesight began to fail in the last years of his life. In 1749 the Leipzig Council had begun searching for his successor. In 1750, on the advice of friends, he decided to undergo cataract surgery.

He selected a traveling English oculist and eye “surgeon” named John Taylor, who dubbed himself “Chevalier John Taylor,” suggested that he had been granted some sort of order of merit. Taylor also claimed the title of “Opthalmiater Royal,” personal eye surgeon to King George II and the Pope.

Taylor maintained a flamboyant practice. He traveled from town to town throughout Europe in a coach painted with eyeballs. He sent lackeys in advance to distribute handbills and gather a crowd in the town square to observe his surgery. Before each operation he declaimed long speeches in an idiosyncratic oratorical style. After the surgeries he bandaged the eyes of his patients, instructed them to keep the covering on for seven days, and then left town before the bandages were removed! It is reported that he was completely blind during the last years of his life—poetic justice perhaps.

The writer Samuel Johnson described Taylor’s life and career as an example of “how far impudence may carry ignorance.” Daniel Albert, the author of Men of Vision, a history of ophthalmology, calls Taylor “the poster child for 18th century quackery.”

The procedure Taylor performed on Sebastian (and on his fellow-Thuringian-turned-Brit George Frideric Handel) was called “couching,” an operation dating back to 2000 BCE and still performed in parts of the world today. It involves poking a needle into the cataract-clouded lens and pushing it back into the rear of the eye, out of the field of vision.

As was often the case, the surgery failed and Sebastian required a second surgery a week later. He developed a painful post-operative infection, acute secondary glaucoma, which left him totally blind. He was treated with the most “advanced” practices of the day—bleeding, enemas, and, says Finnish ophthalmologist Ahti Tarkkanen, eye drops made from the blood of dead pigeons mixed with either pulverized sugar or baked salt. For serious inflammation, large doses of mercury were given.

Sebastian spent the last months of his life in a darkened room, revising his chorale preludes (See March 19). Then, it is reported, he awoke on the morning of July 28, 1750, to find that he could again see quite clearly. If this return of sight occurred, it was most likely Charles Bonnet Syndrome, named after a Swiss naturalist who first described the condition in 1769. It was first accepted in English-speaking psychiatry in1982. The patient experiences visual hallucinations in which characters and objects appear smaller than normal. Between 10% and 40% of elderly patients with vision loss experience Bonnet syndrome, thought to result from damage to the optic nerve, macular degeneration, or peripheral vision loss from glaucoma.

Sebastian died later that same day at 9:15 p.m., most probably from a stroke and not as a direct result of the eye surgery. (See March 4 for his burial and entombment.)

Ironically, three years earlier in Paris, ophthalmologist Jacques David conducted the first more modern and successful cataract surgery.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 27
            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1795, Heinrich Andreas Contius, an organ builder, died, and this provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach and the Organ Makers.

Sebastian was both a master of the instrument noted for his virtuosic ability at improvisation and a technician of the organ. He traveled about his area of Germany consulting of the restoration and improvement of organs in town after town. Seven of his detailed reports survive to this day. As he consulted on organ construction, he came to know many of the builders well.

Heinrich Andreas Contius (1708-1795), our impetus for this date, was from Halle, Thuringia, and was much respected by Sebastian. Contius built the first organs in the Baltics in the 1760s and moved his Halle workshop to Volmar, Latvia in about 1780. His most important organs are in St. Jacob’s Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in Riga and in the Liepāja Holy Trinity Cathedral. The latter organ was the largest pipe organ in the world until 1912, is still the largest historical instrument that has not been reconstructed, and is the largest pipe organ in Latvia.

Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), whose life almost perfectly coincides with that of Sebastian, built not only organs, but harpsichords, clavichords, and fortepianos. He was born the son of a carpenter in what is now Saxony, learned that trade from his father, and moved to Strasburg in 1702, where he learned French-Alsatian organ construction from his brother Andreas.

He returned to Saxony in 1710 and built his own organ shop in Freiberg, where his second German project was the organ in the Freiberg Cathedral of St. Mary, completed in 1714. He was honored with the title Honorary Court and State Organ Builder to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony by Frederick I. All of the Silbermann organs were of a consistent style, and tuned to mean tone temperament, which put him at odds with Sebastian, who preferred a more flexible tuning.

Silbermann also played a central role in the development of the piano, by passing on the ideas of the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, to his apprentices, and by inventing the prototype of the damper pedal. Silbermann built his first piano in 1732, a year after Cristofori’s death, and in subsequent years King Frederick the Great bought some say as many as 15 Silbermann pianos.

Sebastian’s initial reaction to Silbermann’s pianos was, according to contemporary Johann Friedrich Agricola, that the tone was weak in the treble and the keys hard to play. Infamously stubborn and proud, Silbermann nevertheless took this criticism to heart, and the improved pianos met with Sebastian’s approval. The composer is recorded as having acted as a sales agent for Silbermann on May 8, 1749. Sebastian also changed his mind about Silbermann’s organs, and played the inaugural concert on one of them in the Church of Our Lady in Dresden on December 1, 1736. Silbermann was godfather to Sebastian’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel.

Silbermann’s influence lives to this day through his students, one of whom perfected the “Viennese action” preferred by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and his “twelve apostles” who fled to England during the Seven Years’ War and eventually evolved the “English action,” further improved by Sébastien Érard and Henri Herz to become the action used in all grand pianos today.

Georg Christoph Stertzing, born in Ohrdruf in 1659, was an organ maker Sebastian knew from childhood, as Stertzing was responsible for the repair of the Eisenach organs and thus worked closely with Sebastian’s second cousin Johann Christoph on the organ at St. George’s Church. Stertzing, who died in Eisenach in 1717, passed on his skills to his son and to his student Johann Georg Fincke.

Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688-1757), born in Silesia, was apprenticed to Silbermann in Freiberg. He first built an organ at St. Nicholas Church in Langhennersdorf, then one in Störmthal near Leipzig, where he became friends with Sebastian. Unfortunately, Silbermann sued him as a rival, and Hildebrandt agreed to take only those orders rejected by Silbermann, working locally in Leipzig and Thuringia.

Johann Nicolaus Bach (1669-1753) was the eldest son of Johann Christoph Bach, Sebastian’s second cousin. He was a musician and composer as well as a builder of harpsichords and organs, although few of his compositions survive. His fame rests on the fact that he is credited with being the inventor of the lute-harpsichord, an instrument made only by two others, Johann Christoph Fleischer of Hamburg and Hildebrandt.

The lute-harpsichord was similar to a harpsichord but with gut rather than metal strings, and an oval resonator in the shape of a lute beneath the sounding board. It produced a rich, mellow tone, but lacked dynamic expression, which led Johann Nicholas Bach to make an instrument with three manuals, whose keys sounded the same strings but with different quills and at different points on the string, thereby providing two or three levels of dynamic and timbre.

The lute-harpsichord was much favored by Sebastian for its combination of softness and strength, and recent research reveals that he played such a double manual harpsichord at Zimmermann’s coffeehouse. At his death he owned two of them, built by Hildebrandt to his specifications.

Although the 18th century specimens have not survived, contemporary Hungarian early music specialist Gergely Sárközy has reconstructed a lute-harpsichord, and the Baroque Music Club has produced a recording entitled Bach’s Domestic Keyboard Instruments, Bach 740 on which they perform some of Sebastian’s keyboard compositions.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Guest Artists

In honor of the 77th Annual Whittier Bach Festival, the Choir of First Friends Church in Whittier, under the director of Russell Litchfield, will perform J.S. Bach's BWV 182 (See post of March 25), on Sunday, March 30, 2014. The Church is located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Philadelphia Street in the City of Whittier.

Scroll to the right of your screen for all Bach Festival events.

Bach Bagatelles

March 26
           By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1969 the film The Illustrated Man was released. This event and many other March events provide our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach on the Moog.

The Illustrated Man is a science fiction film based on a short story by Ray Bradbury starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. The film was a flop, but the soundtrack was a hit. Even Ray Bradbury said he didn’t like the film but loved the score!

The score was by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith (1929-2004) may not be as familiar a name as, say, Henry Mancini, in the world of film scores, but he was a giant! He was also a “hometown boy” born and raised in Los Angeles who knew as a youngster that he wanted to write music for the movies.

He began his career in television in the 50s, with such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and went on to compose for major motion pictures. He won a total of 18 Academy Award nominations, making him one of the most nominated composers in Academy history, although he won only one Oscar, for his score of The Omen (1976). The American Film Institute, however, ranks his score for Chinatown (1974) and Planet of the Apes (1968) as numbers 9 and 18 respectively on its list of the 25 greatest film scores.

His score for The Illustrated Man is highly respected as well: “The Illustrated Man is the most satisfying Goldsmith listening experience for me” (Tone Row 2010). “I love The Illustrated Man. It’s one of Goldsmith’s bona fide masterpieces. . . . I love the electronics too . . . those fantastic Moog fifths with their yawning filters really do it for me!” (Heath 2010).

The latter quotation ties into our Bagatelle for today, for Goldsmith’s score was one of the earliest film scores to use the Moog Synthesizer.

Robert Moog (the vowel pronounced either to rhyme with “moo” or “Moe”—Moog himself prefers the latter), was born in New York City on May 23, 1934 and passed away August 21, 2005.

He earned a BA in physics from Queen’s College, a second BA in electrical engineering from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University. While still a student he began developing his synthesizer. In 1953 he founded his own company (later named Moog Music) to manufacture his invention.

An analogue synthesizer uses analogue circuits and computer techniques to generate sound electronically. Vacuum tube synthesizers had existed since the 1920s, with the RCA version of 1955 being the pre-Moog standard. Moog created a smaller instrument that eliminated patch cords in favor of signal routing systems, used a piano keyboard, and added stereophonic and polyphonic sound that allowed musicians to play multiple musical lines and harmony.

The Moog was first demonstrated at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, but the commercial breakthrough came with the record Switched-On Bach made by Wendy Carlos (under the name Walter Carlos) and released in March of 1968.

Switched-On Bach was one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. It entered the top 40 of the Billboard 200 pop chart on March 1, 1969, climbed to the top ten and stayed there for 17 weeks. So, on March 26 it was still at the top of the charts. The album won three awards in the March 12, 1969 Grammys: Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance, and Best Engineered Classical Recording. Robert Moog was given a Grammy Trustees Award on March 11, 1970. On March 1, 2004, a documentary film entitled Moog was released.

When Jerry Goldsmith used it in The Illustrated Man, the instrument was brand new!

Interestingly, though, Jerry Goldsmith has an earlier tie-in to Sebastian Bach. A film titled Sebastian, with a soundtrack by Goldsmith, was released in March of 1968. Starring Dirk Bogarde, Susanna York, Lili Palmer, and Sir John Gielgud, it tells the story of a British mathematician working on code decryption who unexpectedly falls in love with another decrypter, leading to intrigue among the code breakers.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun Times on March 12, 1968, said, “It is a fascinating time capsule of the late 60s sensibilities and underrated cult classic.”

Goldsmith’s tune in the film titled “The Decoders,” was based on a fugue by J.S. Bach, but the liner notes don’t define which one. Many intent listeners have speculated on the source, but to no avail.

Your mission for today, should you choose to accept it: Name that Tune!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 25
           By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1714 occurred the first performance of BWV 182, and in 1725 the first performance of  BWV 1.

These two church cantatas provide out Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach’s Cantata Cycles.

A cantata (contare, “to sing”) is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment in several movements, usually involving a choir. The cantata form evolved over the centuries, but in the 18th century Sebastian’s cantatas usually require four soloists and a four-part choir (SATB). Often he assigned the voice parts to suit the dramatic situation: soprano for innocence, alto for motherly feelings, tenor often for the Evangelist, and bass for the voice of Jesus, when he was quoted directly.

The orchestra consisted of strings (violins and violas) and basso continuo (cello, double bass and organ or harpsichord), the continuous bass being a regular feature of Baroque music. A single movement might involve winds, brass, or tympani, with special occasions calling for richer instrumentation. In his early compositions he often used instruments that had become old-fashioned, such as the viola da gamba.

Readings were prescribed for every event during the Lutheran church year. Music was expected for all Sundays and Holidays except the “quiet times” of Advent and Lent. The readings consisted of Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Ideally, a cantata text started with an Old Testament quotation related to the readings and reflected both the Epistle and the Gospel. Most of the solo movements were the poetry of writers such as Salomon Franck (Weimar) or Georg Christian Lehms or Picander (Leipzig). The final words were usually a stanza from a chorale (hymn).

The typical structure of a cantata includes:

1. Opening chorus, a polyphonic (multi-voiced) setting in which the orchestra presents the theme
2. Recitative, text sung with the rhythms of ordinary speech and accompanied by the continuo
3. Aria, most typically an aria da capo, in which the first part repeats after a middle section
4. Recitative
5. Aria
6. Chorale, a homophonic (accompanied single melody) setting of a traditional hymn

When he arrived in Leipzig, Sebastian set himself the task of composing a cycle of cantatas for every Sunday and holiday of the church year. Beginning with Trinity of 1723, he composed a new cantata every week. Works from three complete cycles have survived--209 individual compositions. In some instances, he recycled works he had written previously, such as the first one we'll examine today.

On March 2, 1714 in Weimar, he was promoted to Concert Master. His first cantata written after this promotion was BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (King of Heaven, welcome), was for Palm Sunday, which was also the Feast of the Annunciation that year, first performed on March 25, 1714.

In a church setting “quiet time” would have been observed, but in the Court of Weimar, music was permissible. Later in Leipzig, Sebastian was able to use this cantata again on the same date, for the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, 1724. In all, he performed this cantata six times throughout his life.

This cantata celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Although not found in printed editions, biographer Philipp Spitta concluded from stylistic comparisons that the enhancing poetry was written by Salomon Franck, whose language emphasizes the mystical aspects of a similar entry into the heart of the believer. The final chorale is stanza 33 of Paul Stockmann’s “Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod” of 1633. It is arranged in the style of Pachelbel, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner notes that it is “a sprightly choral dance that could have stepped straight out of a comic opera of the period.”

Our second cantata, BWV 1, was actually composed in Leipzig as the last cantata of his second annual cycle. It was performed for the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1725, which was again also Palm Sunday.

The readings for this feast day are Isaiah 7:10-16, the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah, and Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus. The librettist for the arias and recitatives is unknown, but the chorale is based on the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (1599) by Philipp Nicolai. This cantata was chosen by the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) to begin the first publication of Bach’s complete works in 1851, thus its listing as BWV 1.

Bach Bagatelles

March 24

            By Linda de Vries

 As on March 23, several events occurred in Sebastian’s life on this date.

 1715   BWV 80a received its first performance

 1721   Six Concertos were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt

 1729   Schott left his position as director of the Leipzig Collegium musicum to go to Gotha, and  
            Sebastian took over the directorship (see March 20)

 1742  The third revision of the St. Matthew Passion was first performed (see March 23)

We will spend a moment on BWV 80a, but it is 1721 that provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: The Brandenburg Concertos.

Alles, was von Gott geboren (All that is born of God--BWV 80a) is a cantata composed for Occuli Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent. the text by Salomon Franck uses stanza two of Martin Luther's famous hymn in its closing chorale. Alfred Dűrr believes it was first performed on Mach 24, 1715, whereas Klaus Hofmann proposes a performance date of March 15, 1716.

The music for this cantata has been lost, but for Reformation Day in about 1730, Sebastian expanded on it to create BWV 80, Ein feste Burg is unser Gott  (A Mighty Fortress is our God).

This Cantata will be performed by Chorale Bel Canto on April 5, 2014 as part of the 77th annual Whittier Bach Festival, in the Whittier College Memorial Chapel at 4:00 p.m.

The Brandenburg Concertos

Christian Ludwig was Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. What and who was he?

A March is a boundary or borderland between two centers of power. The word comes from the Frankish marka, and we see it in the name “Denmark.” The Germanic tribes that the Romans called Marcomanni meant “men of the borderlands.” As a county is ruled by a Count, so a march is ruled by a Marquess, Marquis, or Margrave.

Originating in the middle ages, the northern march, or the Margraviate of Brandenburg, was one of the electoral states of the Holy Roman Empire and, along with Prussia, formed the original core of the first unified German state, with its capital in Berlin. After 1688 the two were combined into Brandenburg-Prussia, ruled by the House of Hohenzollern. These grew to become the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

Christian Ludwig (1677-1734) was a military officer of Brandenburg-Prussia’s Hohenzollern dynasty, given the title of Margrave of Brandenburg, a title which did not reflect territorial rule.

In 1721 Sebastian faced musical frustration in Cöthen owing to the fact that his patron Prince Leopold’s new wife did not like music. The story is told that while shopping for a new harpsichord Sebastian accidentally met the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave apparently asked for some music and Sebastian, possibly searching for a new job, sent him the six concertos that have become known as the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach’s dedication reads:

            As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness's commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honor me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: 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.

Sadly, the Margrave never had the works performed. At his death in 1734 they were sold for what today would buy about half a tank of gas, and lay hidden in the Brandenburg archives until rediscovered by Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn in 1849 and published in the following year.

 Perhaps the Margrave never had them performed because he did not have access to musicians capable of playing them, which often prevents them from being performed as a complete set even today. They are composed in the most complex high Baroque style, with each concerto having at least two solo instruments.

Scholar Heinrich Besseler is certain that Sebastian did not write these specifically for the Margrave, but that he had composed them earlier in Cöthen, since the orchestration matches perfectly the 17 musicians available to him there.

The original title of BWV 1046-1051 was Six Concerts á plusiers instruments. They are widely praised as some of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque period. In them he uses the widest possible spectrum of instruments in bold, adventurous combinations that demand virtuoso playing. Christoph Wolff says, “Every one of the six concertos set a precedent in scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel.”

Concerto No. 1 is the only one with four movements. It prominently features the horns and oboes. The first movement is an Allegro with a winding melody that features the horns in harmony. The second movement allows the violin and oboe to shine in an expressive, passionate duet. After a lively third movement, the concerto closes with a dance-like section that pauses briefly then pushes through to a dazzling close. Sebastian uses music from the first and third movements BWV 52, 207, and 208.
Concerto No. 2 features violin, flute, oboe and trumpet as the solo instruments. Scholars think the challenging trumpet part was written for a singularly accomplished trumpeter, Joann Ludwig Schreiber of Cöthen. Schreiber was a clarino player, a term that in earlier periods may have referred to either a style of playing in the high register of the trumpet or a distinct type of trumpet, a smaller, treble instrument. By the 18th century, however, it referred to the style of playing in the high register. The extremely high range of this trumpet solo called for uncommon skill. Even today, trumpeters find it difficult, often choosing the smaller, higher piccolo trumpet.

Since Baroque trumpets only allowed the musician to play in major keys, it is often excluded from second movements, usually in minor keys. This exclusion is the case with this concerto. The third movement of the concerto is on the “golden record,” sent to space with the Voyager probe. It was also used by William F. Buckley as the theme song for his Firing Line, and begins each lecture for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series. The thrilling final movement is thought by many to be one of the most ennobling and beautiful pieces Sebastian ever wrote.
Concerto No. 3 contains a string ensemble in which the instruments are equally balanced throughout. Owing to the simplicity of its structure, this is thought to be one of the earliest compositions in the set. The second movement is unusual, however, in that it consists of only two chords, suggesting that the center of the movement was an improvised cadenza (solo improvised passage) for a harpsichord or violin. Modern performers either play it as written, insert movements from other of Sebastian’s works (often BWV 1019 or 1021), or orchestrate a new movement to fit the key and style of the entire concerto, leading to the vibrant and cheerful final movement. Wendy Carlos (see March 26), for example, wrote two quite different versions for Switched-on Bach and Switched-on Bach 2000.

Concerto No. 4 features a violin and two flutes as solo instruments. Sebastian called for “echo flutes,” instruments unknown ever to have existed, suggesting that he intended an effect that sounded as if the instruments were playing at a distance. It is even possible, think some, that recorders were used to create this quality, even though the flute of Sebastian’s time was made of wood. Today, it is most often the custom to use the modern flute. Sebastian adapted this concerto as the last of his set of six harpsichord concertos.
Concerto No. 5 features solo flute, violin and harpsichord, but the virtuoso harpsichord part makes it almost a harpsichord concerto. Scholars speculate that Sebastian may have written this to highlight his well-known improvisatory keyboard skill (specifically for his intended Dresden competition with Frenchman Louis Marchand, since he uses one of Marchand’s themes in the central movement), or that he was demonstrating the new Mietke harpsichord he had acquired in Berlin when he met the Margrave. Although an earlier version of this concerto exists (BWV 1050a), its composition date is believed to be 1720-21.

Concerto No. 6 is curious in that it features violas da gamba but no violins. There are some interesting assumptions about this fact. The viola da gamba was, by 1721 when this work was written, an old-fashioned instrument, but one associated with aristocracy, while the viola da braccio (viola) was typically played by the servant class. One theory holds that Sebastian’s patron, Prince Leopold, played the viola da gamba and the composer wished to honor him. An alternate theory contends that by focusing on the viola rather than violins, thereby upending the balance of musical roles, Sebastian signaled that he wished to end his tenure under Leopold and seek new employment. In either case, the use of the violas creates a richer, warmer sound that sets this concerto apart from the rest of the set. The jaunty gigue in the final movement provides a stirring finish to the piece.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 23
            By Linda de Vries

This was another very busy day in several years.

  • 1685--Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at St. George's Church in Eisenach
  • 1729--Sebastian returned to Cöthen to perform the funeral music for his former patron, Prince Leopold, music drawn from his St. Matthew Passion
  • 1731--BWV 247, the St. Mark Passion, was first performed at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
  • 1742--BWV 244, a revised version of  the St. Matthew Passion, was performed

These events give us our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach's Passions.

In church music, Passion is the term for a musical setting of the Gospels telling of the Passion of Jesus and emphasizing his suffering. As early as the eighth century priests began to intone the gospels rather than just speak them, and this musical tradition evolved throughout the centuries.

At the Reformation Martin Luther wrote, “The Passion of Christ should not be acted out in words and pretense, but in real life.” Despite this, however, Passion performances remained common in Lutheran churches.

In the 17th century “oratorio” passions were developed, using instrumental interludes, interpolated texts, motets, chorale arias, and recitative—basically unstaged musical dramas. The best-known Protestant Passions are by Sebastian Bach, and his 18th century innovations included the double choir, extensive use of chorales as interpolations in arias, and large polyphonic movements.

St. John Passion

Sebastian may have written previous Passions that have been lost, but his St. John Passion (BWV 245) is the earliest extant. The text is Luther’s translation of the Bible, enhanced by an unknown librettist. Composed for the Good Friday Vespers service of April 7, 1724, it was intended for performance in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, but owing to the decision of the town fathers, it was moved to the St. Nicholas Church.

Sebastian revised this Passion several times, perhaps say some because it included material from an earlier, lost Passion. He first revised it in 1725, replacing the first and last choruses, adding three arias, cutting one, and altering the final chorale (BWV 245a). He revised it again in the 1730s, restoring the first and last chorales, removing the three arias and an interpolation from the Gospel of Matthew, composing a new instrumental section, and inserting a new aria in place of the one he had cut in 1725. In 1749 he reverted to the original 1724 version, and that is the version most familiar to us today.

The Gospel he set to music has often been criticized as anti-Semitic, but several modern scholars conclude that this work contains fewer statements derogatory toward Jews than many other contemporary musical settings of this Biblical text, and note that Sebastian used words for the commenting arias and chorales that tended to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from “the Jews” to the congregation.

St. Matthew Passion

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen died in 1728, but it was not until March 23, 1729 that his embalmed body was transported from the Court to St. Jacob’s Church for burial in the crypt. Being a Calvinist church, services at St. Jacob’s did not usually feature elaborate music, and when resident in Cöthen Sebastian and his family belonged to the Lutheran congregation at St. Agnius’s Church.

Nevertheless, he returned and performed the funeral music for the Prince in St. Jacob’, probably for the burial on March 23, but possibly for the memorial on March 24. Sebastian’s wife, Anna Magdalena, sang the soprano part.

The libretto of this cantata, Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt (Cry, children, cry to all the world), also called Cöthener Trauermusik (Cöthen Funeral Music) was written by Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander), Sebastian’s most frequent librettist. Picander’s text survives, but the music (BWV 244a) does not. It is known, however, that Sebastian used music from his St. Matthew Passion.

The St. Matthew Passion was written and performed on April 11, 1727, Good Friday, at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The libretto by Picander augmented Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew in Martin Luther’s German translation. It is regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music.

Sebastian revised it and performed it again on March 30, 1736, using two organs. A second revision on March 23, 1742 used one organ and a harpsichord, possibly because the second organ was undergoing repair. A further revision occurred but with no performance in 1743-46, and this is the score as it is known today.

It was Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of portions of this Passion that brought about the Bach Revival in the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century it has been mounted for the stage by George Balanchine in 1943, Jonatan Miller in 1997, Lindy Hume in 2005, and Peter Sellars in 2010.

St. Luke Passion

There is a manuscript of such a work from 1730 that is partly in Sebastian’s hand, but although C.P.E. Bach included it in his body of work, scholars are now certain that it is not his.

St. Mark Passion

BWV 247 was first performed in Leipzig on Good Friday, March 23, 1731 and again in a revised version on Good Friday in 1744. The music has been lost, the full score last seen in 1764, but the libretto by Picander is extant, allowing for reconstructions of the work, a task aided by the fact that Sebastian recycled material from earlier compositions—the Trauer Ode from BWV 198 and two arias from BWV 54—and reused two choruses from the St. Mark Passion in his Christmas Oratorio. The recitative is usually drawn from a Markus Passion attributed to Reinhard Keiser, a work Sebastian conducted a least twice.

Sebastian’s Passions are revered for their extreme expressive power—the rich musical elaboration of the poetic text, the complexity of the arias in contrast to the simplicity of the hymns, the emotionally charged recitatives that emphasize words such as “crucify,” “kill,” and “mourn” with chromatic melodies, and the psychological depth the music provides the characters.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 22

            By Linda de Vries

Whatever acts Sebastian and anyone associated with him throughout the succeeding centuries performed on this date, they have not been recorded.

We will, therefore, look at a composer born on this date 245 years and a day after Sebastian—Stephen Sondheim. Although these two worked in wildly different arenas, they are comparable in their complex style of composition, the mixed reception given them by their audiences, and the ultimate recognition of their importance.

Our Bach Bagatelle for today then, is: Bach and Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim, born on March 22, 1930, is an American composer and lyricist known for his immense contributions to the musical theatre for over 50 years. He has won more awards than any other composer. Frank Rich of the New York Times describes him as “the greatest and best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” He is 84 years old today, and still working.

On February 11, 2011, Peter Hilliard posted an article that explores this similarity: “Three Times Sondheim Changed my Life.” Hilliard wrote:

            Sondheim is a little like Bach. In Bach’s time, his work had a reputation for being confusing, overwritten, too complex, and “overly artful,” as Johann Schiebe put it. Even Bach’s kids considered his music a little old-fashioned, although they acknowledged his genius. Sondheim has never been called old-fashioned, but his music and lyrics have a complexity that many people find off-putting, and he has an undeserved reputation for writing cold, un-memorable melodies. But like Bach, Sondheim is also a writer who rewards close study, a creator of pieces containing seemingly inexhaustible riches, layers upon layers of meaning that keep revealing themselves if you have the patience to keep looking.

Hilliard goes on to describe the three life-changing events. The first was when, feeling estranged from his Les Miserables-loving friends, he bought a used CD of the soundtrack of Sunday in the Park with George and listened to “Finishing the Hat.” The second was when he decided to shift from singing opera to composition and, feeling Sondheim had been an influence, wrote him and Sondheim wrote back. The third was when a student gave him a CD of Sondheim on Sondheim, in which Sondheim talks so movingly about Oscar Hammerstein’s profound influence on his life. Hilliard realized:

            If as a teacher and a father I can open someone’s eyes to the possibility of greatness; if I can pull back the curtain on some piece of music and say, “there is a world of terrific and almost inexpressible meaning here if you can learn to see it,” then there is a value that lives beyond me, and beyond even my work.

Sondheim, ever grateful for the tutelage of Hammerstein, recognized that value as well, and endowed The Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. The six 2014 recipients received their awards and grants today. I am grateful to be one of the six. Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, and Happy Birthday!

Hilliard concludes his post with a final reference to Bach and the composers who testify as to how much they learned from him: “If he and his work were somehow forgotten, his legacy would still be immeasurable.”

Since the year is 2014 and Sebastian, according to some, felt the number 14 to be particularly significant, and even though the chronology is not parallel, let’s briefly compare the 14th work of each.

BWV 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (Were God not with us at this time) is a church cantata composed in Leipzig in 1735 for fourth Sunday after Epiphany, a rare Sunday, as it only occurs in years when Easter comes late. The text is based on a hymn by Martin Luther taken from Psalm 124, a hymn that had regularly been sung on this Sunday for a very long time. Its theme is that we depend on God’s help and are lost without it:

            If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say:
            If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
            Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
            Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
            Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
            Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers:
The snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

This is a late cantata in Sebastian’s canon, and as such most musicologists agree that it reflects a deep maturity. The opening chorus contains an extremely complex four-part counter-fugue, with the added instruments creating a five-part composition, unique in his cantata movements.

Moreover, Sir John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 14 uses “word-painting,” in which the music attempts to embody the words and the drama of the plot. The dangers of the flooding waters are illustrated by fast musical passages, and waves are captured “by the use of octave leaps and fast downward scales.”

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Sondheim’s 14th Broadway Show. As was Sebastian’s cantata, this is mature Sondheim. It is also comparable in its rarity, with Sondheim using the popular musical theatre form to tell a dark, cautionary tale.

As Martin Luther’s hymn had been sung on that Sunday from time immemorial, so too does the plot of this musical have a long history, beginning with the Victorian “penny dreadful,” The String of Pearls.

It tells the story of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd, consumed with hate and the desire for revenge, and his partner Nellie Lovett, who bakes the bodies of his victims into her pies. The theme expresses the threat of Psalm 124: Sweeney is caught as if “in the snare of the fowlers” by his inability to look past his anger and desire for revenge. The Lord is not there on his side, and “the proud waters” have gone over his soul.

Each work speaks of the existential alienation of humankind, helpless without the support of God, a living presence for those in Leipzig in the 18th century but, as Nietzsche wrote, “dead” to those in a Broadway show in the 20th.

Sondheim’s score allows a striking comparison with the cantata in its heavy counterpoint and angular harmonies. He uses the Dies Irae as a motif in the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that runs throughout the score, and then inverts it in the accompaniment to “Epiphany.” As Sebastian used his music to embody the words and the narrative, so Sondheim uses his to make manifest the dark psyche of a mad murderer.

We don’t usually think of Sebastian’s church cantatas in any sense as drama, but that is exactly the view that Sir John Eliot Gardiner explores in his Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 21

            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany.

This birth gives us our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach’s Birthday.

He was born into a family of musicians. His great-grandfather Hans was a piper, the first professional musician in the family. His grandfather Christoph was town musician in Erfurt and Arnstadt. His father Ambrosius was town and court musician in Eisenach. The list continues—uncles, great-uncles, cousins, second cousins, and cousins once or twice removed.

Sebastian’s mother was Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt, the 24-year-old daughter of a wealthy furrier and town council member in Erfurt. Elisabeth’s older stepsister Hedwig had already married a Bach and borne three musical sons. Yet another link in the chain was forged between the Erfurt burgers and the Bachs when Sebastian’s older sister married papa Lämmerhirt’s business partner, allowing the Bach family a comfortable musical monopoly in Erfurt.

The chain lengthened when the town musician of Eisenach, Christoph Schmidt, whose two daughters had married Bachs, died. Sebastian’s father Ambrosius was immediately hired as his replacement.

Although not all the Bachs fared as well, Ambrosius and his family lived quite comfortably on funds provided by Maria Elisabeth’s mother after her widowhood. The Eisenach in which they lived was not, however, as fortunate. Although situated at a major European trading intersection, its population of about 6.000 had suffered badly during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated so much of Thuringia.

The four institutions that were the foundation of culture in 1685—town, church, court, and school—were less than a quarter of a mile apart. Each of these four would play its part in forming the young Sebastian, and would be his world throughout his life.

He was born on the Saturday before Oculi Sunday and baptized on Monday, March 23. The baptism took place in St. George’s Church, the main church of Eisenach. Built in 1182 and substantially rebuilt in 1515, this was the church in which Martin Luther preached in 1521 on his way to and from the Diet of Worms.

As we have seen, the Bachs tended to repeat names for their children. Ambrosius was, however, an exception, as would be his son. Sebastian’s two godfathers were Johann Georg Koch, forester to the Duke, and Sebastian Nagel, town piper of Gotha. From the musician came Sebastian’s distinctive name.

Only two others were named Sebastian—Sebastian’s elder brother, Johann Christoph, gave the name to one of his children, but the child died at two months. C.P.E. named his firstborn after his father, but this child became not a musician, but a gifted draftsman and admired painter of landscapes who died in Rome at the age of 29.

Sebastian’s mother may have helped choose his godfathers and thus his name but she was not present at his baptism. According to the strict customs prescribed by the Hebrew Bible and upheld by Lutherans at the time, a woman was not permitted to enter the church until she had undergone a religious purification rite six weeks after childbirth.

What about this child? Much has been speculated and written about Sebastian’s “secret.” What allowed him to create such powerful and moving music? Was it simply the Bach gene? Was it in his stars? Was it a mathematical formula? Sebastian himself said that his achievements were simply the result of hard work and that anyone was capable of the same.

Some believe he had an obsession with numerology, specifically, the number 14, and so they find this, his 329th birthday, highly significant: 14 years into the 21st century; a surname with the numeric value of 14 (2+1+3+8); and 3, 2, and 9 add up to 14.

At the Bach Museum in Eisenach from March 21st through November 9th, the display will include a 1746 portrait of him wearing a waistcoat with 14 buttons, a drinking cup with a 14-point monogram, and an annotated score for 14 canons based on the Goldberg Variations discovered in Strasbourg in 1974. A series of films and interactive displays will examine some of the most common of the numerological theories.

Did he share with other Baroque artists’ a passion for gematria, a system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases? Lars von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac features a series of conversations bout Fibonacci numbers and Bach’s polyphonic theory. One might also note Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Pulitzer-prize winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Still others feel there is a special Bach “secret.” From the Bach Cantatas Website come:

Robert Peters: “What is the mysterious X which makes Bach’s music so touching that even an agnostic guy like me feels like a Christian when listening to the St. Matthew Passion?

Yoel L. Arbeitman: “As a Jewish atheist I find Bach’s two passions the most incredible works of music ever. I still see the plenitude of Judenhass which informs the Johannes Passion. But, for all that, this music has always overwhelmed me in a way that no other music ever will. I must believe that Bach was infused with your ‘X.’”

Glenn Miller: “I saw on TV an interview with Stephen Gould, the paleontologist who passed away not long ago, and was an atheist I recall, [who] said he thought the Mass in B Minor was the greatest piece of music ever written.”

And from two well-known musicians:

Cellist Pablo Casals:
“For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine, but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. . . .
The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle.”

Pianist Glenn Gould:
“I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that—its humanity.”

Lastly, you may celebrate Sebastian’s birthday today by heading to one of the Los Angeles subway stations to hear a free concert that is part of the Bach in the Subways Day started by cellist Dale Henderson!