Today is the 330th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Like so many of us, I first encountered his music as a child. I don’t actually remember the first time I heard it – it might have been at church, it might have been in a piano lesson. I am pretty certain that the first piece that I became aware of and associated with his name was Menuet in G. It was only years later that I learned that scholars actually now believe this piece was written by Christian Petzold (1677-1733), but no matter. Sebastian is still credited as the composer in most piano books one will encounter, and if it was good enough for his children…
I struggled to learn to play his pieces as a child, and did not make a strong emotional connection with his music until my late teens. Then, when I was 17 or 18, my piano teacher gave me a copy of Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of The Goldberg Variations.
After some years of frustration with his preludes and fugues (especially fugues!) here was a Sebastian I had never heard before. Yes, there was still counterpoint, but how glorious and moving! If much of my fascination with this music at this age was due to Gould’s interpretation – and it undoubtably was – then I am grateful. His breathtaking tempi and rhythmic precision released a joy and vitality in Sebastian’s music I had never experienced before – not only in this music, in any music. More than 30 years later this album remains one of my favorite piano recordings.
More importantly, Gould’s 1955 recording opened up the world of Sebastian’s music to me. Within a few years all of his keyboard works found their way into my library and have been a constant companion, teacher, and solace as I tried to make my way as a musician. Most of what I know about fingering I learned from all the hours and pencils I spent marking up Sebastian’s pieces, and much of my sight-reading ability I gained from the years I began my piano practice each day by opening up Riemenschneider’s 371 Harmonized Bach Chorales and playing a page at random.
On my 19th birthday I sang in the bass section in a performance of his Magnificat by the choir and orchestra of The Claremont Colleges (California), directed by Michael Deane Lamkin. We also sang Beethoven’s Mass in C on that program (at least that’s what I remember) but it was the experience of singing the Magnificat that stands out in my memory. It was thrilling, and so different from my solitary struggles with Sebastian’s music at the piano – the different timbres of the instruments in the orchestra, the elegance of the soloists, the powerful and touching movements for the choir, the unrelenting, driving, dancing rhythmic pulse of so much of the work: all combined for the most fulfilling musical event I had yet experienced “from the inside”. I was hooked. At this point in my choral training this was the most difficult work I had learned to sing, and I think the effort involved had a lot to do with the impact the music made on me emotionally. In fact I have found this often to be the case – as long as the music is of sufficiently high quality, the greater the effort involved in mastering a work for performance, the more invested I (and as I was to learn later, my students) became.
And Sebastian’s music is of the very highest quality. So high that after some three hundred years his works for keyboard, organ, violin, cello and more are cornerstones of the respective repertoires for these instruments (and arrangements or transcriptions of these works hold comparable places in the repertoires of instruments he did not write for) and his music serves as the basis for any serious course in “common practice period” music theory.
His music has a tremendous resiliency and depth, rivaled only by a few works by others (masters who themselves cut their teeth on The Well-Tempered Clavier). In my work as a teacher I soon learned only to bring the very best music to my students: inevitably, lesser material would wear out by the end of the rehearsal process, become stale and uninteresting – or worse, intolerable – by the time came for the performance. Never Sebastian’s music. Not only did it never wear out, the rich rewards of mastering a piece by Sebastian would inspire my students to greater efforts than lesser material could bring out of them.
In the years I taught recorder programs I spent many hours transcribing and rehearsing some of his works for recorder quartet, especially selections from The Art of Fugue, developing a deep interest in this work that revives from time to time. My memories of playing these fugues with children in their early teens are among the highlights of my teaching career.
One of many examples of the continuous influence and malleability of Sebastian’s music occurred in my piano studio at NSA a number of years ago. A talented student had brought to her lesson the haunting Prelude in f minor BWV 881 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Here is how Sebastian might have heard it:
Other students soon gathered around the piano where I was teaching the lesson. “That’s the sample from the song by Jem!” The lesson was “interrupted” by some impromptu research on a iPod, and we all listened to “something new”:
I immediately noticed the sample from the Swingle Singers (after all, I grew up singing in choirs in the seventies) and pointed this out:
For the next weeks, interest in Sebastian’s music and the Swingle Singers (and yes, Jem) surged through the piano studio.
Sebastian would not have been surprised at the use to which his theme had been put nearly three hundred years later. He often “sampled” his own music, taking themes or motives from one work (or within the same work) and incorporating them into others, transforming them and finding new settings, expressions, and developments for them. He is particularly famous for using chorale melodies this way.
In the three-movement Prelude for Lute or Harpsichord BWV 998 (Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro), Sebastian “samples” the motive from the f minor Prelude BWV 881 for the second movement, and uses it as a secondary subject for the development of the first and third sections of this rare Fugue in da capo (ternary) form (Sebastian is only known to have written three).
This motive consists of three eighth notes in two voices (usually in thirds or sixths). Both voices repeat the same pitches as the first on the second note of the motive – which falls on the beat – and then move to the third by step in parallel or contrary motion.
In the excerpts above I have circled the first appearance of this motive: the first musical idea of the Prelude, and below it in the opening of the Fugue where this motive makes its first entrance at the end of the tenth bar. In this motive’s entrance in the Fugue the first statement is in sixths, and the second statement in thirds (also circled) is nearly identical to the first statement of the Prelude: the only difference is that in the Prelude the lower voice steps down to E natural (the harmony moving to the dominant), while in the Fugue it steps down to Eb (the tonic in first inversion). It is interesting to note how different the emotions evoked by the same motive are when employed in minor (the Prelude BWV 881) vs. Major (the Fugue BWV 998).
The title of BWV 998 in Sebastian’s autograph Prelude pour la Luth. ò Cembal, par J. S. Bach. (rather uncharacteristically in French) is not in his hand (it was added later), and technical considerations as well as the restricted range of the piece seem to indicate that it was intended to be performed on lute – which he is not known to have played himself. He was certainly familiar with the lute: he was friendly with Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750), the greatest lutenist of the eighteenth century and Sebastian’s near-exact contemporary, who lived in Dresden and is known to have visited Sebastian in 1739. Sebastian employed lute in several choral works and is credited with a small body of works for lute (a repertoire that has come under some scrutiny and contention in recent years). It is most likely that Sebastian played BWV 998 on the lautenwerk, a baroque keyboard instrument like a harpsichord but strung in gut like a lute: two of these instruments were listed in Sebastian’s estate.
Here the Fugue from BWV 998 is performed on baroque lute (as Sebastian intended?) by Luciano Contini. Note the entrance of the motive from BWV 881 at 0:45.
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I made it a deliberate policy to always include at least one piece by Sebastian in my curriculum for every student, every year. It seemed to me vital, as a teacher, not just to expose my students to his music, but to awaken in them love for it.
He stands at the heart of the Western musical tradition: nearly a millennium of music that sings through history, growing, changing, throwing up paths in many (sometimes opposing) directions, incorporating as many elements into it’s role and function in society and into its expression as humans can imagine. Already when Sebastian was a child this tradition was ancient, and rich with masterpieces and lore. His music is both both steeped in this past, and reaches far into the future. If Sebastian’s music (as others have described) is a summation of all that had gone before, his influence on those who came after has only grown stronger with the passage of time, and the relevance of his art to contemporary humankind is greater than ever. As John Eliot Gardiner points out in his landmark 2013 biography:
“…if we accept that one part of the human psyche searches for a spiritual outlet (and, indeed, a spiritual input), then however materialistic our society may have become, however agnostic the Zeitgeist, for those who have the ears to hear it, the confident and overwhelmingly affirmative music of Bach can go a long way towards meeting this need. For Bach is of the very front rank of composers since 1700 whose entire work was geared, one way or another, towards the spiritual and the metaphysical – celebrating life, but also befriending and exorcising death.”
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, p 17
One day I was teaching about Bach – I no longer remember if it was still in the piano studio or if it was after I became the choir director at NSA in 2011 – and in a moment of inspiration I referred to him as “our friend Sebastian” and made a dramatic sweep of my arm towards the large portrait of him that dominated my classrooms for years. The smile I felt on my own face as I said this was reflected on the faces of many of my students, and the phrase (and gesture) stuck – at first as something intentional, eventually as a habit. Referring to him as “our friend Sebastian” in discussion and rehearsal instead of the usual four-letter-word somehow brought him closer to my students, helped to establish a more intimate relationship for all of us with his music, and encouraged us through the rehearsal process which for Sebastian’s music – as any choir director will tell you – at some point simply comes down to very hard work indeed.
I have thought of him as our friend Sebastian ever since.
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Our Friend Sebastian:
Our Friend Sebastian