Friday, January 27, 2012

In praise of Bach (7)

When posting my 6 previous blogs 'in praise of Bach' I was struck yet again by the frequency of over-the-top phrases spoken through history in praise of the music of this one man:

"one of the most influential works in the history of western classical music"
"a pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire"
"one of the greatest achievements of any man in history"
"one of the most important examples of variation form in music"
"there are many great composers, and then there is J. S. Bach"
"Bach pierces to the heart like no other"
"the greatest artwork of all times and all people"
"some music is so good it needs no introduction"

How can one describe Bach to those who don't know his work? His position in the music world is easy to describe: Bach is frequently compared to Shakespeare in literature. Isaac Newton in science, Michelangelo in art [see the foot of this blog for a recording of one of Bach's most moving choruses (from the St. John passion) combined with a slide show of Michelangelo's incomparable Pietàs]. Revered by all the greatest composers that came after him, even music critics whose daily published opinions reveal their ignorance feel obliged to genuflect in front of Johann Sebastian (if only out of peer pressure). Bach's position in musical history is unassailable, unarguable. I remember, when I was too young to appreciate just who Bach was, a teacher at my school being asked who they thought was the greatest composer of all. A ridiculous question needless to say, but the teacher's answer was immediate: "Bach of course". As a small child I didn't forget that answer because of the confidence of the teacher's response. But how is it that one man could have been so gifted, had so much wisdom and sense of humanity - that's much harder to explain. Listening to the inferior quality of the music written by his own children (some of whom became more famous than their father as composers during their lifetimes) or the poverty of the music by the long line of Bach ancestors who came before him (music was a family business for the Bach's stretching back centuries) doesn't strengthen the argument that it can all be explained by genetics. The composer Walton once quipped that you have to have something truly appalling happen to you in order to write music. Certainly Bach's personal life story is filled with sad events that surely must have deeply affected him: the loss of 11 of his children and the unexpected death, in his absence, of his youthful first wife Maria Barbara. But not every one who has suffered similar tragedies starts writing the most beautiful music of all time. If I could travel in time I would so love to go back 300 years to meet Johann Sebastian - just glimpsing him walking out of his building and perhaps through the neighbouring 'Little Thomas Gate" would leave me in a state of euphoria, let alone hearing him speak, watching him conduct, or best of all being a fly on the wall in his Componierstube (his Composing Study, from where he had views over ornamental gardens and the surrounding countryside) when he was creating his immortal masterpieces! To others who don't understand my passion this might seem as exciting as watching paint dry. To me it's the meaning of life!

Sadly there is only one authenticated picture of the composer (painted in 1746, see above), and one that really doesn't give much away (apart from the bags under his eyes that clearly show a lack of sleep). The description of Bach left by its painter, Elias Gottlob Haussmann, writing of how Bach was in a tremendous hurry and did not want to sit too long for the portrait, says more about Bach than the portrait itself. But there are other written descriptions of Bach that help to shape a clearer portrait of the man, from his children and from his friends, all of whom describe his wonderful humanity, his love for his family, his gregariousness (his son said his house was like a beehive so constantly filled with visitors, and that his presence was always "edifying"), his kindness to those he taught (one pupil writing that he could not adequately describe his excitement when the hands of the composer overlapped with his when being shown a passage on the keyboard), Bach's sense of fun (digging his son in the ribs when listening to a new composer's music and suggesting in a whisper what the piece should do next if the composer was any good), Bach's down-to-earthness (telling someone that his success was due to his industriousness, something anyone else who worked as hard could also achieve). Bach was a stubborn man too, someone who had little patience with unreasoning authority - this attitude frequently got him into trouble from the ignorant and petty-minded officials who had authority over him, and who probably wanted more than anything to take him down a peg or two. Yet for all those ignoramuses there were just as many kind, intelligent and thoughtful friends who loved and appreciated Bach. One ex-pupil recalled years after Bach's death how he had a portrait of Bach on the wall in his house, and how a friend called by and, on seeing the portrait, said words to the effect of "that old bore Bach", this distressing Bach's ex-pupil so much that ever afterwards he always hung the picture facing the wall to prevent anyone else saying an unkind word about a man he clearly adored and of whom he had nothing but the fondest memories.

Perhaps the last words of this short eulogy to J.S. Bach should be left to Johannes Brahms, a man not known for giving empty praise, who wrote the following words to Clara Schumann describing Bach's Chaconne for solo violin: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind".

J.S.Bach's deeply moving final chorus from the St John Passion, conducted by Karl Richter, accompanied in this video by photographs of the Pietàs, drawings and buildings of Michelangelo (1475 - 1564). Pietàs shown include the Pietà from St Peter's Basilica in Rome (1499), the Florentine Pietà (1547 - 1555), Palestrina Pietà (1555, unfinished) and the Rondanini Pietà (1564, his last work, unfinished), as well as the Madonna of Bruges (1501 - 1504).

Pietà from St Peter's, Rome (1499):

Michelangelo was in his early twenties when he completed his most famous Pietà of St Peter's Rome. According to legend he overheard someone praising the work as by another artist so returned to the sculpture and carved his name on it - the only work of his on which he carved his name.

Florentine Pietà (1547 - 1555):

Michelangelo began the Florentine Pietà (also known as 'The Deposition') in his 70s and was originally intending it for his own tomb. Unfortunately the marble he used was faulty, unknown to Michelangelo when he began the sculpture, and it often drew off sparks as he worked. Finally the left leg of Christ broke off while he was working on it. Michelangelo was so furious he attempted to destroy the whole sculpture, beginning with Christ's left forearm and hand and right forearm, but was prevented by his pupils from completing the destruction. It was later repaired and completed by his pupil Tiberio Calcagni - the inferior quality of Tiberio's work is obvious in the finishing of the figure of Mary Magdalene; fortunately Tiberio Calcagni didn't attempt to 'finish' the remaining figures. The tall figure of Joseph of Arimathea (also credited as Nicodemus) is according to legend supposedly a self portrait of Michelangelo himself.

Palestrina Pietà (1555):

The unfinished Palestrina Pietà has no documented history in Michelangelo's lifetime. However it was added to the Michelangelo collection in Florence in 1939. Most likely Michelangelo began the work, and possibly one or more of his pupils attempted more work on it, though it remained incomplete.

Rondanini Pietà (1564):

Michelangelo was apparently working on his last Pietà, the unfinished Rondanini Pietà, only days before he died in 1564, at the age of 89.

Before his death Michelangelo attempted to have all his drawings burnt, regarding them as inferior work, drawn purely for the purpose of preparation for his sculptures and paintings. Fortunately for us Michelangelo was unable to complete the destruction and many of his beautiful drawings (many done in red chalk) have survived.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (6)

The joy of his keyboard music

Since my teens I have had a deep love of Bach's music, and as a pianist have enjoyed playing much of his work, such as the Preludes and Fugues, Partitas and Suites, and the Goldberg Variations. As a young teenager I was also very passionate about the organ and even considered the idea of becoming a professional organist for a while, so naturally I played a large number of Bach's organ works, some of which I have since arranged for the piano. It would have been unthinkable for me not to include the music of Bach in my Queen Elizabeth Hall debut recital in London in 1984, when I played Bach's Goldberg Variations alongside music by Chopin (Funeral March Sonata) and Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit).

Here is a series recordings from my own archives, beginning with the earliest recording I have of my Bach playing. As those of you who have attended my concerts will know, I enjoy talking about music as well as playing it, and in the penultimate video below I give a brief spoken introduction to Bach's Goldberg Variations, followed by an excerpt from the work recorded live at one of my concerts.

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853

Here is Johann Sebastian Bach's incomparable Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, no.8 from Book One of 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'. This ground-breaking first set of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys was completed in 1722 and written, in Bach's own words, 'for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.' Unusually the fugue of this work is written out in D-sharp minor, the enharmonic key of E-flat minor.

J.S.Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, July 1980, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Gigue from Partita no.4 BWV 828

Bach wrote six Partitas for keyboard, published from 1726 to 1730 (the 4th Partita, the largest of the six, was published in 1728). All six were then published as a set in 1731 under the title Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise). Eventually Bach would produce four such collections. The title page of the first Clavier-Übung bears the following words of encouragement: ‘Keyboard practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets, and other Galanteries, composed for the agreeable diversion of enthusiasts by Johann Sebastian Bach'.

Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.4 BWV 828, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, September 1981, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue No.18 in G sharp minor BWV 887

Bach wrote two sets of Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys. They are known collectively as the 'Well-Tempered Clavier', a title Bach used because of the need for a new and more careful tuning system in order for the pieces to work in all 24 keys. This iconic collection is regarded as "one of the most influential works in the history of Western classical music". Many composers, including Beethoven and Chopin, were brought up on the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is as beloved today as the day the first volume appeared in 1722.

The Prelude and Fugue BWV 887 featured here is from the second set, completed by Bach in 1742. The fugue is known as a double fugue because it has two fugue subjects which in the course of the piece are developed simultaneously (for the layman: it's almost like having two separate pieces which can then be laid on top of each other). As usual Bach's compositional 'sleight of hand' can easily go unnoticed in the general enjoyment of the piece!

On the front page of the first set of Preludes and Fugues Bach wrote out a long and elaborate title, which in full reads: 'The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach'. For the second set Bach opted for the shorter title 'Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues'!

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, from 'Das Wohltemperierte Klavier' ('The Well Tempered Clavier') Bk 2, no.18 (BWV 887), recorded live, June 1987, St John's Smith Square, London

J.S. Bach: Gavotte from French Suite no.5 BWV 816

The only manuscript that exists of the erroneously titled French Suites can be found in the Clavierbüchlein of Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena. Bach gave his wife this little instructional music book as a gift soon after their wedding in December 1721. The image of Bach coaching his much younger new bride with simple keyboard pieces (his first wife having died tragically young two years earlier) is a touching one. Listening to these pieces it is easy to imagine a new happiness in Bach's life, and romance that, like everything in Bach's life, revolved around music and his family.

Jack Gibbons plays the Gavotte from Bach's French Suite no.5 BWV 816, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach arranged Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne from Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004

This Chaconne, in its original form, is considered "a pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire" and "one of the greatest achievements of any man in history". Many composers have made arrangements of the work for piano, including Johannes Brahms who wrote of the piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind". The Italian composer Busoni, a life-long champion of Bach's music, made his own beautiful arrangement of the work in 1893.

It is thought by some Bach scholars that Bach may have written the work in 1720 as a memorial to his first wife Maria Barbara, who died tragically young at the age of 35.

Jack Gibbons plays Busoni'a arrangement of the Chaconne from J.S.Bach's Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach: Partita no.1 BWV 825

In 1726 Johann Sebastian Bach published his Opus 1, the Partita no.1 in B flat BWV 825. Bach dedicated the six movement partita to the new born Prince Emanuel Ludwig (born 12 September 1726), son of his former employer at Cöthen Prince Leopold. Bach clearly retained an affection for the prince and for the happy years spent at Cöthen. He further celebrated the arrival of the prince's new born heir by writing a dedicatory poem to accompany the Partita Opus 1:

Serene and Gracious Prince, though cradle cov’rings deck thee,
Yet doth thy Princely glance show thee more than full-grown.
Forgive me, pray, if I from slumber should awake thee
The while my playful page to thee doth homage own.
It is the first fruit of my strings in music sounding;
Thou the first son round whom thy Princess’s arms have curled.
It shall for thee and for thy honour be resounding,
Since thou art, like this page, a firstling in this world.
The wise men of our time affright us oft by saying
We come into this world with cries and wails of woe,
As if so soon we knew the bitterness of staying
E’en this short time in weary travail here below.
But this do I turn round about, instead proclaiming
That thy sweet childish cries are lovely, clear, and pure;
Thus shall thy whole life be with gladness teeming -
A harmony complete of joys and pleasures sure.
So may I, Prince of all our hopes, e’er entertain thee,
Though thy delights be multiplied a thousandfold,
But let, I pray, the feeling evermore sustain me
Of being, Serene Prince, Thy humblest servant,

1. Praeludium

Jack Gibbons plays the Praeludium from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

2. Allemande

Jack Gibbons plays the Allemande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

3. Courante

Jack Gibbons plays the Courante from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

4. Sarabande

Jack Gibbons plays the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

5. Menuet I & II

Jack Gibbons plays Menuet I & II from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

6. Gigue

Jack Gibbons plays Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

An introduction to J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988

A short lecture at the piano, recorded in concert, describing the many wonderful aspects of this work of Johann Sebastian Bach, first published in 1741, and which makes up Bach's fourth Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise).

Jack Gibbons talks about Bach's Goldberg Variations before his performance of the work, recorded in concert, August 2007, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations part 1, BWV 988

Considered one of the most important examples of variation form in music, Bach published his Goldberg Variations in 1741, under the long heading "Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Nuremberg, Balthasar Schmid, publisher".

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, part 1 (Aria and Variations 1-15), recorded live in concert, July 1983

Monday, January 23, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (5)

Two excerpts from J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

1. Chorale: ‘O große Lieb’ (‘O mighty love’)

For Bach it was very important that the music expressed accurately the sentiment of the words that were set. In this short excerpt from the St John Passion (first performed 1724) we hear one of many chorales placed throughout the work that the congregation was possibly expected to join in singing. Bach's sensitivity to the words is very apparent; interestingly the music increases in pathos and anguish with the dissonance Bach uses to express the 'sins' of pleasure and joy but returns to a calmness (albeit of a resigned kind) in reference to the need to suffer for those sins - quite the opposite to how those words would likely be interpreted in music today!

The chorale ‘O große Lieb’ (‘O mighty love’) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion, performed by the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded 1964). Background images are of the Thomaskirche amd Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, where Bach’s Passions were first performed.

2. Peter's Denial

Recitative: 'Und Hannas..'
Chorus: 'Bist du nicht...'
Recitative: 'Er leugnete aber...'
Aria: '‘Ach, mein Sinn’

In this second excerpt from the St John Passion we hear Bach's extraordinary sensitivity to the text, from the spitefulness of the rabble chorus ('Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?' - 'Aren't you one of his disciples?') to the torment of Peter's mind after his realization of what has just happened ('und weinete bitterlich' - 'and he wept bitterly'). The tremendous emotion of this last recitative passage acts as a spring board into the anguished aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ ('Ah, my soul'), one of Bach's noblest creations. The amazing expressiveness and sensitivity of the music in this aria clearly shows how Bach identified with Peter's condition.

Bach later cut the aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ from the St John Passion, presumably because Christian Weise’s words related to text taken from the St Matthew Gospel - in strict Lutheran Leipzig it's inclusion was no doubt seen as a terrible faux pas. However he reinstated it in the work's third and final revision of 1749, the year before his death.

From J.S.Bach's St John Passion: the recitative and chorus leading up to Peter's Denial, followed by the aria "Ah, mein Sinn", performed by Ernst Haefliger and the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded 1964). Background images are of the Thomaskirche amd Nikolaikirche in Leipzig (where Bach’s Passions were first performed) as well as a variety of famous paintings depicting Peter's Denial

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (4)

‎"Bach pierces to the heart": it's a phrase that's regularly encountered describing the incomparable music of Johann Sebastian Bach. One can try to rationalise why this is so, presumably a product of his exceptional genes, and his own life experiences. Reading about Bach's life one is immediately aware that death was a regular occurrence in his immediate family. He outlived 11 of his 20 children, 10 of whom died in infancy:

Johann Christoph (died 23 February 1713, aged 1 day)
Maria Sophia (twin of Johann Christoph, died 15 March 1713, aged 21 days)
Leopold Augustus (died 29 September 1719, aged 10 months and 14 days)
Christiana Sophia Henrietta (died 29 June 1726, aged 3 years)
Ernestus Andreas (died 1 November 1727, aged 2 days)
Christian Gottlieb (died 21 September 1728, aged 3 years)
Christiana Benedicta Louise (died 4 January 1730, aged 4 days)
Christiana Dorothea (died 31 August 1732, aged 1 year)
Regina Johanna (died 25 April 1733, aged 4 years)
Johann August Abraham (died 6 November 1733, aged 3 days)

Another son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, died at the age of only 24 (27 May 1739), and Bach's first wife Maria Barbara died unexpectedly aged only 35 (7 July 1720).

Whether this terrible toll accounts for the incredible depth and pathos within Bach's music can only be a matter of conjecture, but someone of Bach's intelligence and sensitivity must have undoubtedly lived constantly with mental anguish and pain, out of which his music must surely have provided solace and direction. Karl Richter, the greatest Bach scholar of the 20th century bar none, here conducts Julia Hamari in one of Bach's most moving arias from the St Matthew Passion, the famous song of anguish following Peter's denial: "Erbarme dich" ("Have mercy").

'Erbarme dich' from J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, sung by Julia Hamari with The Munich Bach Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded May 1971)

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (3)

As someone recently said: "there are many great composers, and then there is J. S. Bach". Bach composed this beautiful aria, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" ("Contented rest, beloved inner joy") in 1726. It opens his solo cantata BWV 170. Evidently he had an excellent alto soloist in his choir to be able to devote a whole cantata to one soloist (here it's sung by the incomparable Janet Baker). This poignant cantata was first performed in Leipzig on 28 July 1726, just 27 days after the death of his 3 year old daughter Christiana Sophia Henrietta. One can only imagine the emotions Johann Sebastian and his young wife Anna Magdalena must have been feeling at such a sad time as this wistful song rung out for the first time at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Janet Baker sings 'Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust' from the Cantata BWV 170 with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner (recorded in London, January 1966)

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (2)

Bach's B minor mass (of which this Agnus Dei is a part) was hailed in the 19th century as "the greatest artwork of all times and all people". To this day it is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest monuments of western culture. The work was completed in 1749, a year before the composer's death, and is one of Bach's last works, though much of the music was written earlier or adapted from his other works. It was not performed in its entirety until over 100 years after Bach's death. In Beethoven's lifetime the work was already so legendary, despite not having yet received any performance, that Beethoven tried twice (unsuccessfully) to acquire a score. This performance, by Janet Baker, is for me one of the most moving.

J.S. Bach's Agnus Dei from his B minor mass, sung by Janet Baker with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer (recorded October 1967).

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (1)

Having used my Facebook music page as a blog for the past year or so I have decided to copy some of those posts to this blog, to make it easier for people to look back over certain subjects, rather than having them lost in the Facebook ether. I will begin with a collection of posts on J.S. Bach, one of my great idols and a key figure in my 'pursuit of happiness'.

Some music is so good it needs no introduction... pure beauty of accompaniment, pure nobility of melody in this extract from Johann Sebastian Bach's secular Cantata BWV 208, composed in 1713. Needless to say I choose my recordings with great care: in the following example we have a truly wonderful rendition by the soprano Gillian Fisher, whose beautiful voice can also be heard, along with that of her husband Brian Kay, on the soundtrack of the 1984 movie Amadeus (in the rôles of Papageno and Papagena).

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Schafe können sicher weiden" (Sheep may safely graze) from his Cantata BWV 208 (composed 1713), sung by Gillian Fisher with the King's Consort conducted by Robert King (recorded 1987).