2021 Festival Videos
The Intimate Bach
The Intimate Bach
When we think of Johann Sebastian Bach, the word “intimate” does not usually come first to mind. Marble busts in grand concert halls, towering statues outside venerable churches, and the prestigious gate of Brandenburg, Germany are more typical candidates for the images and ideas we tend to associate with the man whom many champion as a leading figure of western music history. But even a brief exploration of Bach’s music reveals a world that stands in quiet contrast to the monolithic reputation that this composer bears. From organ preludes that encourage introspective religious contemplation to tender arias most likely sung at home by Bach’s second wife and fellow musician, Anna Magdalena, Bach’s music offers an opportunity to gain a closer look at the composer, his family, and daily life in 18th-century Germany.
For many of Bach’s contemporaries living in the region that would become modern-day Germany, attending Lutheran church services was an integral part of daily life. Bach spent much of his career working for religious institutions, most famously the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Congregants in the city would have been deeply familiar with Bach’s works, perhaps including his organ prelude Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 737). Over the course of his lifetime, Bach wrote four arrangements on Vater unser im Himmelreich, the hymn penned by Martin Luther in 1538 as a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. Congregants sang this hymn in church services during Communion; BWV 737 would have invited individual contemplation on Christ’s life-giving sacrifice for humanity. Bach’s organ prelude survives in the Neumeister Collection, a manuscript of 82 chorales copied by Johann Gottfried Neumeister (1757-1840), who may have copied his manuscript directly from a music album owned by the Bach family. The prelude represents the simplest of Bach’s arrangements of Luther’s hymn. His setting celebrates the stile antico tradition of polyphonic vocal music in the sixteenth century. Its musical lines are clear and stark, adhering strictly to the rules of Renaissance counterpoint. The antiquated style of the composition encourages spiritual reflection while giving the piece an air of solemnity.
Music was a part of Bach’s life both at work and at home. His second wife, Anna Magdalena née Wilke, was an accomplished musician who had worked as a court singer in Cöthen before her marriage to Johann Sebastian. Anna Magdalena is most famous today for the two musical notebooks that she owned. She acquired the first within a year of her 1721 wedding to Bach, perhaps as a wedding anniversary gift. She obtained the second notebook in 1725. Bach, Anna Magdalena, and their children and friends copied many pieces into these notebooks. Most of the compositions were by Bach, but others reflected popular pieces by other composers. The repertoire spans across a variety of musical genres, reflecting Anna Magdalena’s taste and talent in music for voice, dance, and keyboard. Bach’s Praeludium in C Major (BWV 846/1), for instance, is most famous for opening The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s collection of preludes and fugues that challenge the performer to practice all 24 major and minor musical keys. Yet Anna Magdalena also copied the Praeludium into her 1725 notebook, suggesting that she almost certainly enjoyed playing the piece herself.
Anna Magdalena may also have enjoyed singing “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (BWG 518), which also appears in her 1725 Notebook. The aria’s elegant phrasing, sighing appoggiaturas, and soft cadences doubtless helped ensure the piece’s enduring popularity as a parlor song well into the Victorian era. The aria’s beguiling poetry is at once anxious and affectionate: the narrator urges her lover that “if you want to give me your heart, [we must] begin things secretly.” German composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832) raged that the piece was a “grotesque” impropriety. Zelter assumed that the aria was copied into Anna Magdalena’s second notebook to commemorate her courtship with Bach, which Zelter thought came too quickly after the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. It is possible to read the piece more subtly, however, as an expression of the challenges that women in 18th-century Germany faced in everyday society. The multiple verses repeated to the same music, the hope of romantic fulfilment without the assurance that the relationship will materialize, and the repetitive, perhaps forced, sighs at the end of each melodic line suggest a sense of confinement and submission behind the veneer of courtship. Besides vocal music, Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian also clearly loved dance music, like many of their German middle-class contemporaries. The rhythms of popular and courtly dances infused instrumental music from this period. While people probably never danced to the Gigue in D minor (BWV 1004), listeners would have recognized the meter of this piece as similar to that of the gigues they danced at social events. Bach’s Gigue in D minor is a riot of musical color, framing a virtuosic display of musical technique within the lively meter of the gigue. No less energetic is the Marche in D major written by Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel, which also appears in Anna Magdalena’s notebooks. The abrupt melodic phrases of this piece revel in percussive rhythms that recall the processions and fanfares that would have been part of any courtly or military spectacle in 18th-century Germany. The Marche in D major is one of C.P.E Bach’s earliest compositions, foreshadowing the composer’s own prolific career as a composer at the court of Frederick the Great and, later, Frederick’s sister Princess Anna Amalia, a composer in her own right.
For many middle-class Europeans in the 18th century, daily life would have included not only prayer, song, and dance, but also coffee and tobacco. While Europeans had begun smoking tobacco in the late 1500s, when the plant was brought across the Atlantic from the New World, it was the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that popularized tobacco consumption throughout the European Continent. By Bach’s lifetime, smoking had become an acceptable pastime for men and, to a lesser extent, women. Erbauliche Gedanken eines Tabaksraucher (BWV 515) captures a common 18th-century trope that used the tobacco pipe to reflect on mortality. The white pipe recalls the human skeleton, and the tobacco ashes the fate of the human body after death. In this trope, smoking itself represented a bodily vice as well as a virtue because it caused the smoker to reflect on her own mortality. This strophic song appears twice in Anna Magdalena’s 1725 notebook. The first person to copy it into the notebook was Bernhard Dietrich Ludewig, who sometimes worked as a tutor for Bach’s family. Following Ludewig’s transcription is a second copy in the hands of Bach and Anna Magdalena, reflecting their partnership in marriage as well as music.
Like smoking, Bach and his contemporaries considered music a social affair. The flashy dialogue between the violin and the harpsichord in Bach’s Sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major (BWV 1016) mimic the witty conversations that men and women would have relished in salon gatherings in this period. This sonata is one of six that Bach composed for violin and harpsichord. Bach began working on these sonatas around 1717 and continued to finesse them until his death in 1750; his son C.P.E. Bach believed that they were among the greatest of his father’s works. Although the sonatas are technically for two instruments, they are called trio sonatas because the right hand of the harpsichord is predominantly independent from the left hand, constituting a “third” instrument. The Sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major betrays the deep influence that contemporary Italian music had on Bach’s compositional style. The piece is in four movements that alternate between fast and slow tempi, similar to the sonate da chiesa, or church sonatas, that Italian composers such as Antonio Corelli were composing for audiences in Italy.
The Bachs were an industrious musical family, constantly composing, performing, teaching, studying, and – like any decent baroque musician – improvising music. No portrait of Bach and his world is complete without a newly composed work that reflects the Bachs’ spirit of innovation and creativity. It is with this in mind that Blue Hill Bach Young Artist Fellow Julian Bennett Holmes presents his prelude on Vater unser im Himmelreich. In the 17th century, organists who did not improvise were often derided as “paper organists,” signifying that they had to perform by looking at written music rather than composing extemporaneously at their instruments. In the spirit of improvisatory baroque organists, Holmes performs a partly improvised, partly written-out prelude on Vater unser im Himmelreich.
Today, studying Bach’s compositions has become a foundational part of most classical music curricula. The Minuet in G Major is often one of the earliest pieces that budding violinists learn to play. This minuet was ascribed to Bach until the 1970s, when musicologists identified its original composer as Christian Petzold (1677-1733), the organist at Dresden’s Sophienkirche and one of the most widely respected German composers during Bach’s lifetime. Bach performed a concert in Petzold’s church in 1725, and it is possible that he may have learned this piece during his trip and brought it back to Anna Magdalena, who copied it into her notebook. Minuets were one of the most popular dances in the 17th and 18th centuries. When danced, a minuet’s choreography ranged from simple to complex. Whether danced or played on an instrument, a minuet always showcased the elegance, taste, and refinement of its performer.
Elegance and tenderness are key adjectives that describe the aria “Bist du bei mir” (BWV 508). While “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” plays with the boundary between coy romance and societal oppression, “Bist du bei mir” is a lullaby that contemplates the sweetness of death. The piece was composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749) for his 1718 opera Diomedes. The aria swiftly achieved popularity in Leipzig as a standalone piece, where its central messages of the sweetness of death resonated with the Protestant community and almost certainly the Bach household, where only 13 of Anna Magdalena’s children survived into adulthood. The piece acquired a sacred connotation, shifting away from its secular, operatic origins to become a love song between the human soul and Christ. Stölzel uses musical gestures to encourage the performer and listener to equate death with the sweetness of sleep. The gentle, rocking melody glides over a bass line that tenderly nudges forward over the course of the piece. The bass line often pauses to pulse on the same note, as if a divine presence were cradling the singer. Stölzel wrote the piece for voice with two violins, viola, and continuo. Anna Magdalena’s notebook features the aria transcribed for voice and keyboard, transforming the piece from operatic aria to domestic music appropriate for the 18th-century salon.
“Bist du bei mir” has a timeless quality, yet it is Bach’s six Brandenburg Concerti that number among the composer’s most widely recognized works today. Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos for Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721. Each concerto features different configurations of solo instruments that perform a flashy display of musical fireworks against the backdrop of a chamber orchestra. Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (BWV 1050.2) features violin, flute, and harpsichord, a popular trio arrangement of the period among professional and amateur musicians. It is possible that Bach may have composed the fifth concerto for a musical competition at Dresden against the French organist Louis Marchand. Legend has it that Marchand fled before the competition could take place, apparently frightened by Bach’s formidable reputation as a composer and keyboardist. Regardless of the origins of this piece, it is above all a celebration of the harpsichord, which takes centerstage throughout the concerto in its lengthy and flamboyant solos.