Bach and Rock ‘n Roll

From Toccatas to Tchotchkes, He’s Everywhere

MaryJo Wagner, PhD
Nov 2, 2020 · 12 min read
large church pipe organ
large church pipe organ
Licensed from 123Rf; copyright, junyajunya

“I consider Johann Sebastian Bach the greatest man who ever lived, along with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Fats Waller

Maybe you hate classical music? Perhaps your only interest in Bach is on his birthday when memes with word-play such as “Bach to Bach” and images of him wearing sunglasses or sticking out his tongue pop up.

academy meme on me.me

My Favorite meme is Ennis and Jack from the movie Broke Back Mountain wearing Bach-like wigs under their cowboys hats. Another creative Bach lover did a 7-minute YouTube video chronicling the life of Bach in memes.

If you’re old enough to have watched Tom and Jerry cartoons on Saturday morning, you may have seen Droopy and Butch play Bach’s “D-minor Toccata and Fugue.”

Bach Tchotchkes

Beethoven trinkets abound: socks, coffee mugs, and apple-cinnamon-soap-in-a music-box that plays the “Ode-to-Joy” from the 9th Symphony.

Without doing the rigorous research that such a claim would require, I’m suggesting that Bach has inspired even more stuff. Beethoven may be more popular, but the name “Bach” is irresistible. The most popular memes with word play on his name are printed on coffee mugs and t-shirts.

I have a book bag with Bach’s portrait on front and back and a Bach mouse pad with a bit of a Bach Prelude plus Bach socks (which are so uncomfortable I never wear them). Of course, I have the two contemporary, scholarly biographies of Bach: John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven and Christoph Wolff’s Bach: The Learned Musician plus too many Bach CDs.

My favorite Bach book, The Little Bach Book by David Gordon, is short and filled with delightful trivia: in 1708 Bach’s salary included “150 florins, 18 bushels of wheat, 12 bushels of barley, four cords of firewood, and 30 buckets of beer.” Want to know why Bach and and others of his time wore wigs? Or how Bach and fellow composers made their quill pens for writing their music? You’ll find the answers and more in The Little Bach Book.

One day I took my Bach bag to the grocery store and a woman in line behind me commented on how cute on my book bag was with its picture of Beethoven. I was speechless. My book bag is not cute. And Beethoven with his wild hair sticking out in every direction does not resemble Bach wearing his proper and formal wig.

Several websites sell Bach facemasks — from portraits of him to bits of his music to memes. The most popular meme, not surprisingly, is “Stay Bach” as a COVID 19 virus warning printed over his picture or music. I’ve ordered a Bach mask for Christmas which features Bach wearing a Santa hat.

Need a new tote bag? You have ten Bach tote bags from which to choose, in addition to a backpack. How about a Bach beer stein, a warm, winter Bach scarf? Or your choice from among 33 different Bach 2021 calendars? And don’t forget your Bach coloring book.

Bach at the Movies

Assuming you watch movies, even occasionally, you’ve heard Bach. According to the “Bach Cantatas Website,” from 1931 to 2001 the music of Bach is heard on the soundtracks of 180 movies. And many times since 2001. Yes, some are foreign films, and some in English are obscure.

A few well-known movies with music of Bach include: Dr. Jekyle and Mr. Hyde (1931), Fantasia in 1940 and Fantasia 2000 in 1999; Sunset Boulevard in 1950, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, Love story (1970), and The Godfather (1972).

I’m guessing you’ve seen at least one of the movies listed above. I’m not much of a movie goer and can count Fantasia, Love Story, and The Godfather among the ones I’ve seen. So even if unaware of what you’re hearing, you’ve heard Bach.

You’ve seen Bach memes and cartoons, probably even a Bach trinket or two and you’ve watched some movies with Bach playing in the background. But you’re still positive you’ve never heard Bach. I think that’s unlikely.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Freely licensed from Wikipedia

Bach’s Greatest Hits You’ve Heard Even Though You Hate Classical Music

Because of dozens of arrangements and the frequency of performances, you’ve heard Bach’s two greatest hits: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, published in 1723. (That’s “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life.”). And you’ve heard the “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.” And maybe you’ve also heard the “Chaconne” from the Partita for Violin №2.

They’re in movies, transcribed in pop music and rock and roll, and reached number 1 hits on Billboard’s Top Hits Chart. Bach is often played or sung at weddings and funerals.

Obviously Bach is heard at church. Bach, a devout Lutheran and kapellmeister at the St. Thomas Kirche in Liepzig, appears 20 times as composer, arranger, and source of hymns in the hymnal of the Episcopal church. Surpassed only by the English composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams who composed specifically for the Anglican (Episcopal) Church.

“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”

In 1971 Apollo 100, a short-lived British rock band recorded Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Apollo 100 called it “Joy.” Arranged by Tom Parker for electric guitar, percussion, and bass and played at lightening speed, “Joy” became a top-ten hit in the U.S. in 1972. The band broke-up the next year. “Joy” is heard in movies including Boogie Nights, One Day in September, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Battle of the Sexes.

In 1963, eight years before “Joy” became a number one hit and ended up in four movies, the Swingle Singers released Bach’s Greatest Hits. Described as “a unique jazz vocal treatment” of Bach’s music, it became wildly popular. The album included the fugue portion of the “D-minor Toccata and Fugue.” Bill Swingle would reissue Bach’s Greatest Hits 5 years later to include “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Even more popular than the Swingle Singers, Wendy Carlos followed in 1968 with a jazzy Bach played on a Moog synthesizer. Her album Switched-on Bach reached the Top 40, then the Top 10 for more than a year, And from 1969–1972, the album moved to number 1 on Billboard’s Classical Music Chart. By 1969, it had sold more than 1 million copies.

Switched-on Bach included “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (and the “F-Major Invention” I had mutilated in my first piano recital). A year before Switched-on Bach hit the top spot on the charts, the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) recorded its version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” calling it “Precious Joy.”

“Precious Joy” appeared on the quartet’s album, Blues on Bach. The MJQ also recorded Bach’s “Air on the G String” with the Swingle Singers. It became a hit for the vocal group and would be used as the theme for the Italian TV show Superquark.

In 1997 the Westminster Choir sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” . . . very slowly . . . at Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s Golden Wedding Anniversary. More like a dirge than a celebration, it dragged on for 7 minutes. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with the choir of King’s College, Cambridge manages it in a bit over three minutes.

In the TV comedy The Simpsons, Bart called it “that wedding song” when he briefly considered getting married. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, known as the Singing Nuns, released their Christmas CD, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, in October 2017. Another №1 hit for the tune on Billboard’s Classical Music Chart.

Most recently one might have heard it on TV in 2015 during the first episode of Schitt’s Creek. Or perhaps in an ad for buying a new sofa for your living room.

If you’ve sung in a church choir, you’ve sung it. If you’ve gone to church on Christmas or Easter, you’ve heard a choir sing it. You’ve heard it at weddings. Perhaps you’ve heard it played on a guitar at a non-Christian funeral.

From rock and jazz to church choirs, why is this tune so popular? It’s certainly not the most inspired piece Bach ever wrote. Without evidence to back it up, I’m guessing it’s popular because it’s uncomplicated and endlessly repetitive, lending itself to many interpretations and arrangements. If sung, it has seven verses each with the same simple and repetitive accompaniment from an organ, harpsichord, or piano.

Please don’t tell me your choir sang it accompanied by a guitar. I will weep.

But don’t accuse me of being a purist. Although he never recorded “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Bach on a banjo with Bela Fleck giving the “Prélude” from Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin a blue grass flair is great fun. Bach would have approved. Pete Seeger recorded a cringe-worthy banjo version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in which he sang along in German!

Bach’s Spooky Halloween Music: The “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor”

As “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” became popular and recognized at funerals, weddings, and coronations, Bach’s other big hit, the “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” quickly became a popular choice for spooky music and horror films.

The “Toccata” first appeared in movies in 1931 in Dr. Jekyle and Mr. Hyde. Nine years later, Disney released Fantasia. It opens with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.”

This big orchestra version transcribed by Stokowski would lead to the popularity of the piece written for and usually played on large pipe organs. Stokowski eventually recorded two albums of Bach transcriptions for large orchestra.

Although not transcribed for pop and rock music to the extent of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the electric guitar band, Sinfonity recorded the “Toccata.” I prepared myself to hate it, but was pleasantly surprised. It works well and is creative in the spirit of so many 20th-century Bach transcriptions. Bach would have liked it.

In France, the Jaques Loussier Trio known for jazz interpretations of classical music recorded both “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Fans loved it. Critics and jazz purists not so much. Again, Bach would have approved.

Bach “repurposed” much of what he wrote. There is nothing new in his greatest achievement: the Mass in B-Minor. Bits of cantatas appear in his instrumental music and vice versa.

In 1894 Ferruccio Busoni, the famous Italian composer and conductor, transcribed the “Toccata” and much of Bach’s other works for piano. It’s also been transcribed for solo violin and glass harp (an odd instrument constructed from various sizes of water glasses or wine goblets).

Because the “Toccata” is a big piece and often loud with many voices (i.e. fugues) continually intersecting, it doesn’t sound well on individual instruments. Purists may not like the Stokowski orchestral version but it’s quite magnificent! (Orchestras the size of Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra didn’t exist in Bach’s day.)

Although Fantasia popularized the piece, it wasn’t used as spooky music. Just a big, startling sound to begin the movie. (The “spooky” music in Fantasia for the Night on Bald Mountain segment is appropriately accompanied by Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”)

It’s appeared on TV in The Office, Spongebob, and a single episode of Boardwalk Empire. In the episode titled “Home,” Richard, a disfigured ex-army man also happens to be an assassin. Viewers witness his assassination skills while the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” plays in the background.

Don Pearson, the organist at St. John’s Cathedral Denver for 23 years, performed a much-anticipated Friday night concert closest to Halloween. All but the last piece was serious organ music, much of which wouldn’t be familiar to the average person.

During the intermission, more people arrived to be seated, some in costumes. These were the folks who knew Pearson would finish the concert with the Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” on the Cathedral’s mighty four-manual Kimball organ boasting 5, 949 pipes. Enthusiastic clapping and often a standing ovation would follow.

In addition to Fantasia, The “D-minor Toccata and Fugue” appears in Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, The Great Race, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Rollerblade, and Monty Pythons Meaning of Life. Enough times there’s a good chance you’ve heard it in case you missed it in Fantasia.

The “Chaconne”

The “Chaconne” from the Partita for Violin, №2 isn’t a top hit, not in many movies nor heard often in transcriptions, even though it’s been transcribed for everything from large orchestra, again by Leopold Stokowski, to harp.

Famous for left-hand-only piano transcriptions, Brahms first transcribed the “Chaconne.” A few years later, the Hungarian Géza Zichy, known as the world’s first one-armed pianist, also transcribed a left-hand-only transcription of the “Chaconne.” After World War 1, pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the War transcribed it a third time for left hand.

In 2017 Barnabás Dukay and Márta Ábrahám published a book about the “Chaconne” with the unwieldly title: The Purification of Time and Character, the Fulfilment of Love and Cooperation with the Celestial Will in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ciaccona for Violin. Better known as Excerpts from Eternity, this 148-page book about the “Chaconne” is not available on Amazon nor is it on my “to-read” list. I’m not sure anyone has ever read it.

Isacc Stern plays the “Chaconne” in Schindler’s List. It’s also heard in The Blue Room (La Chambre bleue), a 2014 French erotic thriller. Violinist Joshua Bell played the “Chaconne” in L’Enfant Plaza while busking in Washington. He described the piece as a “spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect . . . one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.”

It’s been suggested that Bach wrote the “Chaconne” in memory of his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Bach had accompanied Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen to the Carlsbad spa. When he returned to Leipzig, he found that his wife, not sick when he left, had died and been buried.

Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the now retired Guaneri Quartet, featured his passion for the “Chaconne” in his autobiography, Violin Dreams and included a CD of his playing it. After spending years practicing, playing, and improving his performance of the “Chaconne,” Steinhardt travelled to Germany to play it at Maria Barbara’s grave in the Old Cemetery at Cothen, now called the Friedenspark.

Bach is considered the finest composer of Western music. A composer still studied by both classical composers and jazz musicians. Although the opening da, da, da, dum of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony may be more recognizable, Bach has had the greatest influence on musical composition. Today’s composition students are still required to study Bach.

From rock and roll to the concert hall to church, Bach is everywhere.

P.S. I do not own a Bach coffee mug, a Bach t-shirt or Bach earrings with pictures of Bach dangling from each ear. If you’re going to get me a Christmas present, a Bach coffee mug would be nice. No thanks to the t-shirt or earrings.

I do own two of the three major Bach biographies: Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner and Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christof Wolff, the former director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig.

Read the Gardiner biography to distract myself during months of chemotherapy. I haven’t read Wolff.

Both books reinterpret and correct Philip Spitta’s biography, published in German in two volumes in 1873 and 1880. I have no interest in reading the English version of this tome. There’s a limit!

While we lived in New Jersey, I attended the yearly Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, two glorious days and evenings of Bach concerts and lectures by Bach experts, including Christof Wolff.

I also own the 22-disc set of Bach Sacred Masterpieces including 35 of Bach’s more than 200 cantatas and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Singers. Plus both recordings of Gardiner conducting the B-Minor Mass. And of course dozens of other recordings of Bach.

When I win the lottery, I will purchase “J.S. Bach: The New Complete Edition” on 223 discs at $499.90, recorded by Decca and Deutsche Grammophon in cooperation with the Bach Archiv Leipzig.

You can read my story of singing Bach’s B-Minor Mass with the choir of St. John’s Cathedral and almost falling off the risers in the story below:

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MaryJo Wagner, PhD

Written by

Non-fiction writing coach with ADHD loves reading, writing, the mountains, Bach and Willa Cather. Get “9 Tips for Readable Writing” at maryjo@mjwagner.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

MaryJo Wagner, PhD

Written by

Non-fiction writing coach with ADHD loves reading, writing, the mountains, Bach and Willa Cather. Get “9 Tips for Readable Writing” at maryjo@mjwagner.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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