Why should we continue to perform the music of Johan Sebastian Bach several centuries after his death? Aren’t there any other composers worth looking into? Music of our own time to be performed?
A few weeks ago, we in the Minnesota Chorale launched a project with the Minnesota Bach Ensemble, and our Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey posed that question to us… not as a vague rhetorical point, but to get at the core of what we were doing. Why Bach, why now?
I’m sure many musicians would respond “What, are you kidding? Because he’s Bach, that’s why!” As if no other explanation was necessary.
I was gratified, however, that we went further. With very little prompting the singers burst into a flood of passionate responses of why this music was so vital, so important for us today. It sparked a fantastic, personal conversation about why great art still moves us, still inspires us, and still heals us across the ages.
For me, it’s hard to give a simple response. Why Bach? At the end of the day, it’s that his music is so… complete. Rich. Multi-layered. It’s isn’t just pretty, but simultaneously engages your head, heart, and soul. This is true of music generally, but Bach takes it to a whole different level.
For example, the structure is astonishing—and I mean really astonishing. There is this wonderful, short video that takes apart the structure of the “Crab Fugue” that shows how he was able to think of a line that worked in so many levels… even when visualized on a Möbius Strip. The hard-core musicologist can endlessly pore over how Bach crafted his music and the many layers of symbolism and meaning he encoded in his scores and still find hidden depths. His music is so intellectually stimulating and satisfying.
But Bach’s importance goes well beyond that. Obviously, many other composers had a brilliant command of musical structure. Bach’s music has a profound emotion, too—emotion that touches on many aspects of the human experience. Bach doesn’t just provide tonal math, but plumbs depths of doubt, fear, ecstasy and joyfulness. His dances are happiness unfettered, while his laments are the embodiment of sorrow.
Plus, there is a profound sense of spirituality. And while Bach is clearly influenced by the religious beliefs of his time and place, his music seems to transcend them. He doesn’t present specific rituals or particular dogma, but creates a much broader sense of humans reaching for The Divine.
And through it all, his music embraces a sense of community. It is meant to be shared, engaging performers and audiences alike… and together. Bach specifically used popular melodies in his work, knowing and expecting that his audiences would recognize the tunes, and that this would inform their understanding of his work. Sometimes the audience was expected to sing along at key moments, creating a shared performance. Even if the tunes he utilized are now obscure for us, we instinctively get what Bach was about.
So again Bach’s music is a holistic experience. It engages us on many levels simultaneously, even on an unconscious level. And the sophistication by which Bach is able to blend all these elements together is nothing short of breathtaking.
And I firmly believe that like all great works of art, Bach’s works amply reward all the work you put into them. Yes they are wonderful to listen to on their own. But delving into them only enhances their richness. I’m struck by Shakespeare’s famous description of Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
With little modification, these lines could sum up the power of Bach’s works, too… they make hungry where most they satisfy.
It is a wonderful hunger, and I hope to never be free from it.
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You can hear for yourself the power, emotion, and spirit of Bach’s music this weekend. The Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Bach Ensemble are proud present Bach and Vivaldi: Joy for All Seasons in a pair of afternoon performances on October 24 and 25. And I’m thrilled to be taking part.
Part of what makes this concert so exciting for me is the artistic forces gathered together.
The Minnesota Bach Ensemble is a relative new-comer to the Twin Cities’ musical scene. It was the brainchild of Dave Williamson, Basil Reeve and John Miller, each of whom played in the Minnesota Orchestra as well as freelance orchestras throughout the Twin Cities, and conductor Andrew Altenbach. They founded the ensemble as a way to shine a spotlight on Bach, and give themselves more opportunities to perform his music.
The Minnesota Chorale’s Kathy Romey is famous for her advocacy of Bach’s music. She is a fixture of the Oregon Bach Festival, and leads Bach performances throughout the US and in Europe.
As a singer, what better team of musicians would you want on your side?
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But of course, the real joy is in the selections we’re performing. In planning this concert, Kathy said that part of what drew her to select these particular works was the fact that they contained dazzling choruses.
Dazzling is an understatement.
Cantata BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (“King of Heaven, Welcome!”), is a youthful work written in 1714 for Bach’s new employer in Weimar. Think of it as a musical calling card written to show off his musical range.
And Bach pulled out all the stops.
The cantata takes as its frame of reference the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at Palm Sunday. It begins with a French-style overture; it is regal and dignified, but still conveying an overall feeling of joyful celebration.
All at once, the crowd rushes in to welcome Jesus with an extravagant song of praise. A modified fugue leaps between the voice parts, steadily building to a universal cry of welcome—not only for Jesus to enter into Jerusalem, but for the Holy Spirit to enter into our collective hearts.
Following this choral outburst, Bach turns his attention to the experience of individuals from the crowd. In quick succession, a solo bass, alto, and tenor reflect on the events as individual believers, supported with instrumentation that becomes ever more intimate.
Bach then lets loose with a dazzling showstopper of a chorale. The melody is taken from the hymn “Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod,” which is set to new poetry that proclaims “Jesus, your passion in my joy.” The main tune, carried by the sopranos, floats above the chorus in great nobility while the other voice parts take part in a choral fantasy rich in filigree.
The work ends in a strong choral fugue—technically a “permutation fugue” that allows for greater flexibility of the fugue’s theme. This means that after the initial entry, the theme can and does go through a series of slight variations that add interest and depth to the musical subject.
But that’s a technical description. More important, this movement dances.
This whole movement lilts and swings, suggesting the joyful swaying of the palm fronts held aloft by the crowds. The text suggests Jesus has come home, not just into the city but into our lives as well. It is a statement of fulfillment.
For a quick taste, the Chorale has posted this short video taken from the first rehearsal this week.
Cantata BWV #33, Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (“Only upon You, Lord Jesus Christ”) was written later in Bach’s career, from a time he was well established in the city of Leipzig. It shows Bach at the height of his powers—a work that is refined and confident, yet wonderfully exuberant. The cantata is shaped overall by the story of the Good Samaritan, and is one of the most profound retellings of the story in all of Western Art.
Musically, the cantata is based on the popular hymn “Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” which had also been set by a variety of composers. It’s a curious tune; it has an asymmetric melody played out over nine phrases, and the implied harmony shifts between major and minor. I can see why a mature Bach would be drawn to the hymn, as it offers a wonderful, creative puzzle and provides for many unexpected shifts. Plus, Bach effectively uses the peculiarities of the tune to create musical (and dramatic) tension.
The opening chorus presents the basic material of the hymn in the chorus, separated by orchestral passages that amplify and develop it. Overall the impression is of grandeur… a timeless ritual.
What follows is absolutely remarkable—an alto aria that seems breathtakingly modern in its swinging, blues-like quality. But more than that, this section is a prime example of Bach’s ability to create stunning musical lines from the sparest of materials. There is a great yearning here, the song of a person desperate for God’s love. Even so, the mood is one of hope and affirmation.
The tenor recitative follows, leading to a glorious duet for tenor and bass. The soloists combine with two oboes to create a near-quartet that bristles with life and energy, emphasizing the abiding connection between God and humankind. Beyond the gorgeous vocal lines, there is a powerful message of community in this section, with the voices turning from individual prayers to a more universal call for all of us to treat our neighbors as we do ourselves. It is a moment of power and deep emotion.
The piece concludes with a full restatement of the hymn tune, fit with Bach’s own harmonization. It is strong and dignified… a glorious affirmation of God’s love.
The Minnesota Bach Ensembles will round out the concert by performing “Summer” and “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
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Altogether, this upcoming concert will prove to be a great treat—dazzling works performed by fantastic musicians who love this music.
I hope you consider joining us. We’re performing it in both Wayzata and St. Paul; information advance tickets are available here. In addition, tickets are available at the door at each venue.
Don’t miss it!