Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Bach Blitz Begins

March -- J.S. Bach’s birth month.

Today I begin periodic posts on events in March related to Bach’s life and music, events with unusual connections to our time as well. I will edit posts from Bach Bagatelles from 2014 and add new tidbits. The climax of this series is the Chorale Bel Canto concert on April 2nd at First Friends Church in Whittier. Enjoy! 
      Linda de Vries

A bagatelle is “a thing of little importance, a very easy task.”

In music, a bagatelle is “a short unpretentious instrumental composition,” usually of a light, mellow character and usually written for the piano. The earliest use of the term was by François Couperin in his tenth harpsichord ordre (1717) in which he titles a rondeau “Les bagatelles.” The best-known bagatelle is probably Beethoven’s Für Elise.

 Before we Begin, a Brief Biography

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German musician and composer. He was born in Eisenach in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750.

Five generations of the Bach family (the name means “Brook” in German) lived from the early 16th century in the Thuringian duchies of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and Saxe-Meiningen and the principality of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt. The family profession was music. Records indicate that 53 Bachs held posts as organists, cantors, or town musicians for over 300 years.

J.S. Bach (hereafter referred to as “Sebastian” to distinguish him from his many relatives) is the most famous of this illustrious family, was church organist at Arnstadt (1703-07), Mülhlhausen (1707-08), court organist at Weimar (1708-14), concert master at Weimar (1714-17), court music director at Köthen (1717-23), music director of St. Thomas School in Leipzig (1723-50), where he also provided Sunday service and Christian holiday music for the four churches in the city—St. Thomas Church, St. Nicholas Church, St. Peter Church, and the New Church. From 1729 until his death he was also director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. He composed over 1,100 known pieces of music and was renowned as an organist.

Beyond these bare facts, however, lies an entire universe. The English organist Augustus Frederick Christopher Kollmann published a copper engraving of the sun with Bach at its center surrounded by other German composers as its rays. The composer Haydn said of this engraving that “Bach was indeed the center of the sun and hence the man from whom all true musical wisdom proceeded.”

March 1

On this date in 2013 John Eliot Gardiner was interviewed in the BBC Music Magazine. The dialogue focused on Gardiner’s new book, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Gardiner, who celebrated his 70th birthday in 2013, changed the way we listen to Baroque music through his use of period instruments in scholarly yet passionate performances of Bach’s cantatas, only one of his many accomplishments as a preeminent conductor in contemporary England.

It is Gardiner’s title, though, that provides our Bach Bagatelle for this date: Portraits of Bach.

Gardiner begins his book by recalling that on his way to bed he would glance up at a portrait of Bach that hung on the first floor landing of his family’s home in an old mill house in Dorset, England. The portrait, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, had been delivered to the Gardiner home in a knapsack by a Silesian refugee who handed it over for safekeeping during World War II.

Although there are over 50 reputed portraits of Bach, the Gardiner picture is one of only two fully-authenticated portraits of Bach, one painted in 1746 and one in 1748. Here is that picture:
                                     John Eliot Gardiner                                 Johann Sebastian Bach
Wait! There is yet another surprising connection to this date and this portrait. In October of 2012 a Bach portrait thought to be a Haussmann original or reproduction was sold at auction by Freeman’s of Philadelphia for $122,500. The painting had been discovered in a bank vault in Mountain Brook, Alabama!

John C. Jones, the art appraiser often seen on the PBS Antiques Roadshow and the History Channel’s American Pickers, wrote me on March 1, 2014: “On March 1st of 2012 I was in the midst of deep contract negotiations, being the appointed broker, with the then owner of the Bach and the auction houses interested in wanting to represent the portrait.”

Wait again! As of March 1, 2014, the Voyager Spacecraft, launched in 1977, became the farthest human-made object from earth. The Golden Record with music from around the world launched with it included three pieces by J.S. Bach.

The eminent biologist Lewis Thomas, when asked what music he would want sent from Earth into outer space, answered, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” After a pause, he added, “But that would be boasting.”

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