Our friend Sebastian was born this time of year in 1685 – on March 21 or March 31, depending on whether you recognize Old or New Style (Julian or Gregorian) calendar conventions for commemorating things that happened centuries ago. I have friends who insist that one or other date is correct, but for me it doesn’t matter – for me, every year for many years now I have observed a quiet little personal eleven-day period of reflection on Bach’s music between March 21 and March 31. Each day for eleven days, I set aside some time to both play some of Sebastian’s music (on piano, harpsichord, or lute) and to intentionally listen to some of my favorite recordings of pieces that have touched me deeply.
This small personal project has also been supported by the annual occurrence of BACHanalia – Music City’s Bach festival – which usually takes place as close to one or other of Sebastian’s birth dates as Christ Church Cathedral (who hosts the event) can schedule it. I have participated in BACHanalia several times over the years in varying capacities as recorder player, choir director, harpsichordist, this year on lute.
It’s not by any means the only time of year I engage with Sebastian’s music. The Well Tempered Clavier is the most worn book in my piano library (I’m on my second copies of the Henle editions of both volumes now) and I turn to Bach’s music throughout the year regularly for solace, instruction…reaffirmation of my own humanity.
PRESS PLAY The Courante and Sarabande from Hopkinson Smith’s 1993 recording of BWV 1012. The Sarabande begins at 4:28.
The practice of transcribing Sebastian’s cello suites for the lute is not unusual or uncommon at all, and began with a transcription Sebastian made himself of Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011. His manuscript of the Suite in G minor, BWV 995 still exists today.
On Tuesday morning – March 21 – I thumbed through my CD collection before I left for work for something to start my annual reflection on Sebastian’s music and walked out the door with Hopkinson Smith’s 1993 recording of transcriptions of two cello suites – BWV 1010 & 1012 – for baroque lute. This is a pretty rare CD, even for a solo lute recording – I don’t believe it was ever released to the US market. I found it in a store in Montreal about twenty years ago.
I hadn’t listened to this CD for some time and was unprepared for the emotional impact that Hoppy’s performance of the famous Sarabande from the D Major Suite would make on me when I heard it Tuesday morning. I sat in my car, parked in the dimly lit parking garage, weeping as I listened.
It is generally believed that Sebastian wrote the cello suites in his thirties, when he was Kappellmeister at Köthen for Prince Leopold – during this period Sebastian wrote many instrumental works for which he is famous today. It was also during this period that his first wife Maria Barbara died, and he married Anna Magdalena. The manuscript of the cello suites that has come down to us is in her hand.
Of course, today Sebastian’s cello suites are regarded as among the most profound pieces of music ever composed. They are at the heart of the repertoire of any cellist, and beloved throughout the world. My son is a cellist, and my own associations with these pieces are imbued with memories of our home filled with the sound of his practicing many of these pieces when he was a teenager.
The brilliant cellist Matt Haimovitz performs the D Major Sarabande in this recording from 2012.
The sixth suite is famous for its difficulty, and is believed to have been written for a five-stringed violoncello piccolo, although there are other theories. Modern cellists playing it on only four strings must negotiate very high positions in order to play all the notes. It’s notoriously difficult to play beautifully.
The sarabande was a slow dance in three popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sebastian included a sarabande movement in each of his solo instrumental suites for cello, violin, and keyboard, and a sarabande is the theme of The Goldberg Variations.
The rhythmic emphasis of the sarabande is on the second beat of the measure. The relatively slower tempo and halting rhythm naturally lend it a sense of calm, contemplation and reflection. In the hands of Sebastian, this slight dance in binary form becomes a vehicle for the expression of deep or complex emotions.
Many of of my cellist friends cite Anner Bylsma’s recordings of the suites as their favorite. His performance of the D Major Sarabande here is strikingly different from most contemporary performances – more spacious, dancelike, and less introspective.
The Sarabande from the D Major cello suite is only one of so many pieces by Sebastian that have worked their way deeply into my psyche. Encountering music like this again after months or years can be powerful, uncovering memories, assisting one in the act of reflecting on experience. Over the course of my life since childhood, Sebastian’s music has consistently provided me with beloved companions and guides to help me in my attempts to integrate the seeming conflicts and chaos that arise between my outer world of relationships and activities and my inner world of memory, thought, and feeling.
An arrangement by C. Hampton of the D Major Sarabande for cello ensemble recorded here by The Yale Cellos: 17 cellists, many of them students, directed by Aldo Perisot. This lovely arrangement and recording is romantic and endearing.
Johann Sebastian Bach is probably the most important and most influential musician in history, and likely the composer whose music has made the deepest impact on my life. I suspect there is no other whose influence is so widespread and deeply felt not only by musicians but by anyone who has felt the power of our art to heal, to illuminate, to console.
Although I’ve been writing an average of a weekly post here for over two years now, I have for the most part avoided writing about Sebastian’s music so far. I simply don’t know where to start. So many musicians and scholars have already written so much and so well about Sebastian and his music – I have no illusions that I might have something original to say. But I’ll try not to let that stop me from making the attempt.
As John Eliot Gardiner remarked in Music in the Castle of Heaven, Bach was an unfathomable genius. From the grandest of public ceremonial compositions like the Passions or the B minor Mass to the tiniest jewels like this D Major Sarabande, Sebastian’s music for me has a unique ability to convey and release the dual nature of my deepest feelings, often buried, often painful, this joy shot through with sorrow, this conflicted response to my experience of being human.
This touching pop arrangement of the D Major Sarabande is one of Sting’s finest efforts.
Always this winter child,
December’s sun sits low against the sky
Cold light on frozen fields,
The cattle in their stable lowing.
When two walked this winter road,
Ten thousand miles seemed nothing to us then,
Now one walks with heavy tread
The space between their footsteps slowing
All day the snow did fall,
What’s left of the day is close drawn in,
I speak your name as if you’d answer me,
But the silence of the snow is deafening
How well do I recall our arguments,
Our logic owed no debts or recompense,
Philosophy and faith were ghosts
That we would chase until
The gates of heaven were broken
But something makes me turn, I don’t know,
To see another’s footsteps there in the snow,
I smile to myself and then I wonder why it is
You only cross my mind in winter
(Music by J.S. Bach, Lyrics by Sting)
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Our Friend Sebastian:
Sebastian’s Music in Nashville: