Why Bach?

Thursday, December 11, 2014 “You can smell the resin in his violin parts, taste the reeds in the oboes.” Igor Stravinsky on J.S. Bach in 1958 Why Bach? I requested an answer to some of my friends, many of them musicians. I did receive a, “Why not?” Composer Rodney Sharman mentioned what somebody else said about Bach (Igor Stravinksy ) so that statement is above. Many of these erudite musicians apparently while being able to read complex music do no seem to be clear on what a paragraph is.

Bach! Aw geeze how to even begin to flick mere words at Bach? I have to stand back here and try to find an opening somewhere. Mathematicians, there’s a study showing that a strangely disproportionate number of mathematicians rank Bach as their favourite composer. Christ, Johannes Brahms wrote about Bach’s Chaconne in a letter to Clara Schumann, saying that it captured every emotion possible in a few minutes and that if he, Brahms, had written it, he would surely have gone mad. I had to refer to my esteemed polymath Zia Haider Rahman for details. “The Chaconne,” wrote Brahms, “is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. 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.” I need to think mere words, meanwhile here’s (below) apologies to Steinberg,

Mati Laansoo — Journalist

Illustration by Mati Laansoo

His music can truly be described as divine art. Bach weaves together unfathomably intricate lines of music to create something that touches deep within the human soul. I will never stop loving to perform his music. I hope I continue to have the honour.

Tyler Duncan — Baritone

I love Bach and have from the first time I heard one of his Brandenburg Concertos. The strangest thing about his music, to my mind, is that his absolutely transcends the instrument it is written for.It’s a palimpsest — witness Uri Caine’s Goldberg Variations (with David Moss raving in the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde variation! oh yes…), the Swingle Singers Bach, Bach on accordion, Marimbach…I could go on…

Jocelyn Morlock — Composer — Composer in Residence at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Because he translates so well. All through my musical life I’ve been occasionally fanatical about various recordings of the music of Bach. As a kid, wanting to highlight what I thought was the greatest music going, I took a Swingle Singers record to school for Show-and-Tell. In junior high school, the Canadian Brass had me in their clutches with their performances of Bach’s music. Later I discovered Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” and was transfixed by his music presented with completely new textures and timbres. Even in grad-school, studying performance practice and, with the benefit (luxury) of a few years of professional activity playing Baroque violin, I was still not able to give up on my old recording of Henryk Szeryng which I found so compelling even though so different in their dialect from the performance manner that I was embracing more each day. Last week I was captured yet again by a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3lH_Tevw5o) of the American Bluegrass mandolinist, Chris Thile, playing Bach’s first unaccompanied Sonata for violin, casually on a couch, with such fantastic facility and musicianship that I could not turn it off — I just needed to go right to the end. It’s completely amazing how Bach’s music can take each new treatment and sound just like someone speaking their native language. Paul Luchkow — Violinist (The Luchkow — Jarvis Duo, Victoria Baroque Players, Pacific Baroque Orchestra) What to say about that greatest of musical minds? When exposed to his music as a player or listener, I am always filled with a sense of wonder about the Shakespearian volume and variety of his work, in which the music flows freely, but is at the same time mathematically organized. And although there is the occasional moment of frustration when the great man wrongfoots you yet again, making you realize that your presumed understanding is being proved wrong, his music always fills me with joy. A joy that not only comes from simply experiencing his beautiful melodies, rhythmic invention and killer harmony, but also from the awareness of being in the presence of a great mind, who somehow seems to have had an insight into the true nature of things.

Arthur Neele — Violinist — Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Stile Moderno

If you’ve heard pianist Glenn Gould lovingly caress each perfect note from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or listened to Kathleen Ferrier’s burnished alto pleading for mercy in “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, you will know the essence of Bach. You will have a sense of the deep power of Bach’s music, and his gift for making each of us want to find our better selves. In 1685, Mother Nature sneezed. She felt a sharp pang, then birthed a wet, genius bundle of light with twice the allotment of talent and zeal as anyone else. Gesundheit. The young Sebastian got his hands dirty repairing pipe organs. He earned a rep for incredible keyboard facility, a kind of Hendrix of the organ, if you can forgive the anachronism. He once shirked his church gig to hang with Buxtehude in Lübeck, 250 miles north, walking both ways. In winter. He returned with twisted chorales for his confused but appreciative congregation. Then came the cantatas, reams of them, keyboard works, concertos, sonatas, solo works, masses, marriage, love, and a house full of children who all lived and breathed music and expanded on papa’s art in their own ways. When the music stopped, like the unfinished Contrapunctus 14, the silence was cold as snow. We know Bach put on his Hosen one leg at a time just like everyone else. Except once he got dressed he wrote triple fugues. He lived, and laughed, prayed and drank like the rest of us. But he was more than us.

Michael Juk — Senior Producer — CBC Music

Why Bach? The obvious answer is “why not?”, but Bach deserves more than that. I’ve played a lot of Bach, and listened to a lot more, and I never get tired of either. The appeal, for me, lies in the way he marries incredible complexity with an abiding commitment to fundamental melodic simplicity. There are plenty of layers in his music, but for me they’re never obtrusive; they only serve to deepen the beauty of the experience.

Genevieve MacKay — Violist

The music of J.S. Bach balances the structural, the technical, the spiritual and the sensual. Musicians speak little about the latter quality, but to me it is an essential part of his work. There is some explicit eros in the cantatas, of course, and in his overtly pietist music, but it also present in so many of the instrumental pieces. As a flute-player, I approach Bach’s music with eagerness and joy, so deliciously conscious of my breath, lips and tongue. As a teacher, I delight in showing the quirkiness of the early cantatas to my students, written before JSB’s exposure to contemporary Italian music and common-practice tonality; I offer the later cantatas and passions as models of multiplicity and layering. As a composer, I also aspire to the balance the structural, technical, spiritual and sensual. We can always learn from better artists than ourselves, and that, too, is one of the life-long lessons of J.S. Bach, his gift to us, his legacy.

Rodney Sharman — Composer

Note: Mr. Sharman when suggested he write stuff that was not so serious he responded with this other paragraph:

Too late, Alex. I have only positive things to say except, perhaps, that he’s the only composer I know of who did prison time except Dame Ethyl Smyte.

As a musician, because Bach’s music challenges my mental stamina, my technical mastery, my emotional maturity. As a performer, because Bach’s music speaks to every audience member. As a scholar, because Bach’s music promises intriguing puzzles and fascinating discoveries. As a listener, because Bach’s music puts every mood into perspective. Researched as carefully as I know how,

Christina Hutten — UBC School of Music

Why Bach? Here are seven reasons:

Cantata, BWV 105, aria: Wie zittern und wanken

Mass in B minor, BWV 232, Symbolum Nicenum: Crucifixus

Easter Oratorio, BWV 249, Sinfonia

Partita no 4 in D major, BWV 828

Violin sonata no. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003

Brandenburg Concerto no 3 in G major, BWV 1048

Suite no 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 These select works and many others by the great Kapellmeister have been constant companions since I was a teenager. I believe, no words can explain ‘Why Bach’ as much as listening to the music. The emotional depth of Bach’s work constantly astounds and inspires.

Graham Walker — Graphic Designer &Typographer

Why not Bach?Why not Wachet Auf Chorale Prelude?

(or why not Brandenburg 5?)

Patricia Hutter — Bassist — Artist

What a great idea! I am getting ready to perform a bunch of Bach harpsichord concertos so this is on my mind…Bach is unique among the great composers in that he seemed to be writing not for his own time but for some universal ideal. Indeed his music only began to have significant impact nearly 100 years after his death. In some ways he fit the mold of the 19th-century artist/genius better than that of the Baroque artisan/craftsman. On the other hand he had a deeply pious humility rare in composers since the 18th century.Those are my thoughts about Bach this morning.

Byron Schenkman — Harpsichordist — Pianist — Music Director

As for myself, I can only say that I find Bach fresh and surprising and creative after a lifetime of listening, which I guess is a sign of true genius.

Andrew Taylor, Engineer — Guadalajara, Mexico

Let me step on some toes with this one. Here goes: The simple answer is, “Bach? Of course!” My background in the European tradition that focuses on Bach rather than the Messiah around Christmas and Easter still has an impact. The powerful Mengelberg tradition of the Matthew Passion with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, for example (“early music” of a different kind!) kept people huddled around the radio on Palm Sunday, and the streets were deserted. Not to offend anyone; there’s of course nothing wrong with Messiah — but personally I would rather sit through the Passions or the Christmas Oratorio on hard pews in a cold church (as I have done many times) than hear another Messiah in a comfortable concert hall.

José Verstappen — Artistic Director Emeritus Early Music Vancouver

I am a Jazz musician and Bach to me was one of the first major improvisers. His fugues for piano or cello are masterpieces of open improvisation full of rhythmic nuances and yes, a swing feel. The fact that they are written down doesn’t alter the fact that Bach was improvising. A master Jazz player like Charlie Parker or Bud Powell would play over a structured form and build a set of variations and so would Bach. He wrote the notes down with very little direction as to how to phrase or interpret them leaving his music open and free to personalize for eternity.

Gavin Walker — Saxophonist

Why Bach?Which one?I’m actually fascinated by the relative and intermittent obscurity and fame of J.S. and his kids as they traverse history. From what I’ve learned it took marketing efforts from W.A. Mozart and Felix Mendlessohn to reinvigorate musical history with J.S.B’s talents a generation after his death!For me as a trombonist, I still try to play through a dance or two from his unaccompanied cello suites as often as possible to find my core sound, a template for balancing rhythm,harmony, and melody, and way into my inner desire to get a Handel (just kidding, he sure creeps in every December, eh!) on this chaotic world.

Jeremy Berkman — Trombonist — Turning Point Ensemble

Playing Bach on the organ, I think of life 300 years ago. The quiet of the land, the natural environment when thunder would sound catastrophic so the full organ must have been unimaginably awesome. To play Bach is the beginning and the end for me. I will always play and learn and relearn his music. The Chorale Prelude Wachet Auf, is a signal; a clarion call for love and peace. To play it at this time of the year; to accompany the choir as they sing the very old melody is to create that great ephemeral beauty that is always with us and always unattainable.

Michael Murray — Organist

There is something about Bach himself that speaks to our modern world. Bach used the most rational, intellectual system in art — counterpoint — to produce some of the most significant artistic creations of western culture. In Bach, the human, the rational, and the transcendent met to produce monuments that pay homage to both the spiritual and natural worlds, the heights of human reason, the depths of human imagination, and the relationships that connect all things. — Brian Mix -Cellist

I took the extra time to rewrite.Please use whichever format looks best in your blog:

I remember trying to play Bach as a young music student. The patterns in the score kept flowing on and on, but there was no convincing outer context that I was afforded to help make sense of the whole. The only dictum was “you must practice this,” and of course I did. Today the outer context of Bach has two parts, the commercial and the institutional. While we holiday-shop, we hear “Sheep May Safely…”, and “Jesu, Joy…” canned orchestrally. As we attend concerts or educate the next generations of music students, we reference him as of central value amongst the old composers of art. It remains unconvincing to me. So I try to leave all this aside, as if discarding the tough, outer husk of a fruit. Within, the most delicious, fleshy, tropical pulp awaits:

I practice Bach today at my pleasure, the inner context of the notes and patterns amongst themselves, providing its own reward.

Stephen Creswell, musician

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I remember trying to play Bach as a young music student. The patterns in the score kept flowing on and on, but there was no convincing outer context that I was afforded to help make sense of the whole. The only dictum was “you must practice this,” and of course I did. Today the outer context of Bach has two parts, the commercial and the institutional. While we holiday-shop, we hear “Sheep May Safely…”, and “Jesu, Joy…” canned orchestrally. As we attend concerts or educate the next generations of music students, we reference him as of central value amongst the old composers of art.It remains unconvincing to me. So I try to leave all this aside, as if discarding the tough, outer husk of a fruit. Within, the most delicious, fleshy, tropical pulp awaits: I practice Bach today at my pleasure, the inner context of the notes and patterns amongst themselves, providing its own reward.

Stephen Creswell, musician


Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.

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