Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 18
      By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1731 Sebastian’s 15th child was baptized.

This child, Christiana Dorothea, was one of nine daughters, seven of them born to his second wife Anna Magdalena, who was also the mother of six of his eleven sons. Ten of Sebastian’s children lived to adulthood, and nine survived him. Of the ten, four were girls and six were boys. Different from the norm, the male children in this family fared better that the females.

In the 19 years of her child-bearing, Anna Magdalena bore a child an average of every 14 months, with the exception of the almost five years between the two youngest daughters. All the while she managed to maintain a singing career, aid Sebastian with the copying of his manuscripts, and compose music of her own!

Interesting as I find this, the family is not, however, our Bach Bagatelle for today. Rather, let’s take a look at three more films using his music released on this date over a 40 year span: Bach in Film II.

The Girl of the Golden West was released on March 18, 1938. The story is simplicity itself—a frontier woman falls in love with an outlaw. The people associated with this film, however, really define American theatre and cinema through the end of the 20th century.

The film was produced by MGM and starred Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, America’s “singing sweethearts.” It was first a play written and produced on Broadway by David Belasco, the most important writer-director-producer of the 19th century, who introduced Naturalism to the theatre and consequently, some would say, established a typical American style from which the theatre is still trying to evolve.

His influence on film was profound as well—over 40 motion pictures have been made from plays he wrote. Two Broadway theatres were named after him (one still exists under his name) and one in Los Angeles at 1050 S. Hill Street, which has recently been refurbished and serves as a rock concert venue!

This play was also was the source for an opera by Giacomo Puccini, called the greatest Italian opera composer after Verdi.

The music of Bach used in this film is the first prelude in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Rather, it is Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria based on the prelude, still a world famous song. In the film it is played on the organ by H.B. Warner and sung by Jeannette MacDonald and chorus.

Gounod, born in Paris in 1818, was introduced to Sebastian’s music by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix (initiator of the 19th century Bach Revival). Gounod said that The Well-Tempered Clavier was “the law to pianoforte study . . . the unquestioned textbook of musical composition.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a series of solo keyboard compositions that uses all of the 24 major and minor keys. It is actually two works, one composed in 1722 in Cöthen and the other in 1742 in Leipzig, that are now compiled as one book. These pieces are lauded as being among the most influential works in the history of Western classical music.

Well Temperament (also circular temperament, or good temperament) refers to a type of tuning in which the 12 note octave of the standard keyboard is tuned so that music can be played in most major or minor keys without sounding out of tune. In earlier tuning, one or more intervals on the keyboard were so dissonant that they were called a “wolf,” unusable in harmony. Bach’s Clavier pieces exemplify well temperament in all keys.

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, another MGM film, was released on March 18, 1964. It was based on the novel The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, with a screenplay by Ben Hecht (The Front Page) and Charles Beaumont, and a soundtrack by Leigh Harline. It was directed by George Pal and starred Tony Randall.

The story recounts the visit of an old Chinese gentleman and his magical circus of fantastical beasts to Abalone, Arizona and its effect on the townspeople. The Bach piece used in the film is Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565).

One of the most famous works in the organ repertoire and first published in 1833 at the behest of Felix Mendelssohn, scholars now question whether Sebastian actually wrote it, suggesting that it comes from an earlier period. The famous Bach scholar Christoph Wolff suggests, however, that it is an early work reflecting Sebastian’s attempt to remedy the inadequacies of his organ in Arnstadt.

The piece has been used in other films as well: Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and The Phantom of the Opera (1962).

The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee, based on the novel by Rick Moody, and starring Kevin Kline, was released on this date in Belgium in 1997 and in 2008 on DVD.

The film dissects 1970s pop culture in America by focusing on the moral deterioration of two New England families on one Thanksgiving weekend. As an unexpected ice storm hits and the characters slip into adultery, sexual experimentation, drugs, and crime, until one shattering event forces them to confront their existential “nausea.”

The soundtrack by Mychael Danna includes Sebastian’s Invention No. 14 in B Flat Major (BWV 785) played on the synthesizer by Wendy Carlos. Ms. Carlos is an American composer and electronic musician whom we’ll meet on March 26, along with Robert Moog, the creator of the synthesizer.

Sebastian’s Inventions and Sinfonias (BWV 772-801) are a collection of 30 short keyboard pieces written as musical exercises for his students in Cöthen and Leipzig.

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