“There is no other God than Bach and Mendelssohn is his prophet!” exclaimed the French composer Hector Berlioz after Felix Mendelssohn had performed in 1841 in the German town of Leipzig the St. Matthew’s Passion, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and first performed in that very same town in 1727. Felix Mendelssohn has done much to resuscitate Bach’s works. He established himself as a composer and conductor in 1829 when he had the St. Matthew’s Passion performed for the first time in Germany after almost 100 years. He was 20 years old then, and the concert was one of the top musical events in Berlin that year. But today’s post is not about Mendelssohn, it’s about Bach!
Bach certainly is the best known Baroque composer and set new standards for composing music. He composed over 1000 pieces of sacred and secular music of incredible beauty. Listening to Bach always leaves me in a state of awe… It comes as no surprise that his music has been widely described as god-like, not only by Berlioz! I prefer to compare his works to mathematical equations: logical constructions, perfectly thought through, of incredible elegance and harmony. Mathematics set to music.
To get started with Bach, I suggest you listen to “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” (The Well-tempered Clavier) BWV 846–893, formed by Book I and II, a collection of preludes and fugues for keyboard in all 24 major and minor keys. I had the chance to listen to the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Book I in Luxembourg in September 2014. Within minutes I found myself in a state of trance and during the break, I had some trouble recognizing people I knew in the audience as I felt like having been brain-washed or feeling high without drugs. “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” is one of the pieces that most pianists of international renown feel compelled to record on some point of their career. I picked recordings by Keith Jarrett – right, the jazz guy – and by Daniel Barenboim (available on Spotify). I am not expert enough to say which one is better… I like both!
I did not yet have the chance to listen to a live performance of the Matthew’s Passion BWV 244, but I will jump on the first occasion. It is very, very impressive. I recommend the recording by the Dresdner Kreuzchor and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig dated 2002. Bach and Leipzig are closely linked. Bach was the “Thomaskantor” from 1723 until his death in 1750. This assignment made him the musical director of four Lutheran churches in Leipzig, in particular the St. Thomas Church. He was supposed to write sacred music to be used during services on Church holidays, but he went well beyond that. He took over the directorship of a secular ensemble called Collegium Musicum. Today, Leipzig is the center of scientific research on Bach’s legacy. It hosts the Bach Museum as well as the Bach Archives and celebrates each year a music festival around Bach. The next one will take place between June 10 and June 19, 2016.
Other works that I can recommend are the Violin Sonatas and Partitas and the Brandenburg Concertos. I have two excellent recordings of the Violin Sonatas and Partitas, one by Gil Shaham and one by my favourite violinist Julia Fischer. The Brandenburg Concertos have been recorded many times, I prefer the one by the Munich Bach Orchestra under Karl Richter.
Bach died 265 years ago, but I believe his music can give us something very precious: deceleration in a world that seems to spin faster and faster (and perhaps out of control), intellectual elegance in a world dominated by short-lived, consumer-orientated first impressions and a spiritual focus in a world driven by confusing and conflicting forces. And you don’t need to believe in God to enjoy Bach’s music!
© Charles Thibo