Category Archives: Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach by the numbers

When it comes to celebrating famous birthdays, we all love the numbers that end in 0 and 5. But a 329th birthday? Pah.

When it comes to J.S. Bach, however, perhaps we should think again.


According to an article by The Guardian‘s Philip Oltermann, Bach’s 329th birthday is quite a big deal for scholars and numerologists:

Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number 14, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this 14 years into the 21st century. Coincidence?

Oltermann goes on to report that the Bach Museum in the composer’s hometown of Eisenach, Germany, will feature an exhibition this year that explores J.S. Bach’s fascination with numbers and number puzzles. One of the items on display includes a painting in which Bach wears a vest with 14 buttons and holds a drinking cup with a 14-point monogram.

There is some scholarly debate about the 14 obsession, but the idea of a composer being fond of numbers isn’t difficult to imagine. You can read Oltermann’s entire article about Bach and numerals here.

Was Bach a teenage bully?

New research indicates that one of the greatest composers of all time may have a life story that’s been cleaned-up to preserve the image created by his pristine works.

Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been digging into the records… and the results are jaw-dropping.

Archival sources, including school inspector reports, reveal that Bach’s education was troubled by gang warfare and bullying, sadism and sodomy – as well as his own extensive truancy.

Find the full story in The Guardian

Gardiner’s findings will be published in the UK on October 3 (stateside Oct. 29) in the book Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.

(h/t Suzanne Schaffer, Performance Today producer)

Sellar Stages Bach

I don’t know how I missed this back in April, but thanks to Fresh Air for their feature on Tuesday reviewing the latest production of Peter Sellars.

A new DVD has been released of The Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, Mark Padmore, Camilla Tilling and Thomas Quasthoff along with several choirs, performing a semi-staged production of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Sellars is known for staging operas in unusual venues, from Handel’s Orlando in space to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in a luxury New York apartment. He’s collaborated with John Adams and Kaija Saariaho. And who could forget his role as Dr. Ohara in the TV series Miami Vice.

How I Like My Bach

I was preparing for an interview and, naturally, I got pulled into that Internet vortex — listening to recordings and watching videos of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites.

There are dozens of videos. Dozens and dozens and dozens.

In the classical music world, we frequently hear the term “interpreter” thrown around — as in, the performer is a wonderful interpreter of Beethoven Piano Sonatas or that conductor is a brilliant interpreter when it comes to Mahler’s symphonies.

Same goes for Bach, of course. There are a load of questions facing performers of Baroque music, not least of which is this: to romanticize, or not?

Since this is a blog, and blogs inherently spew personal opinions, I’m here to say something.

Don’t romanticize it.

It’s not how I want my Bach. I want it more like this:

Less like this:

First of all, I adore Pablo Casals. The first recordings I bought of the Cello Suites? Played by Casals.

The difference between the two here is subtle. Casals most certainly performs the Prelude with more rubato (like a relaxation of time, or liberty with the tempo of the piece) than Rostropovich. But to me, that subtle rubato destroys the momentum of the line.

I think of it like this: rubato is a bit like a drunk person trying to walk straight. There is no measured rhythm to their steps as they navigate the path ahead. I prefer to think of Bach, and virtually all of Baroque music, as a nice walk in your most comfortable shoes. It’s second nature. There is no anguished thought behind your steps. You just GO.

The simplicity and journey of the individual line… how that line creates the impression of more than what’s there on its own — this is what I find beautiful in Bach’s music.

So, while Casals manipulates time to create his version of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, Rostropovich rather spices up his performance by concentrating on dynamics. There isn’t even a dynamic marking on the original manuscript, so even Rostropovich is adding elements absent from the written page.

I don’t pretend to know exactly how J.S. Bach wanted his cello suites performed. I just know that when it comes to Bach, I want my coffee black.

For an easier distinction between rubato and, well, not rubato, watch MIscha Maisky perform the Prelude, then go back and listen to Rostropovich.

Bach Visualization

This is a fascinating visualization of the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suites.

I like how it shows the chordal and melodic structure in a whole different way; the musical line forming the broken chords and flowing into the melody is quite beautiful visually as well as musically.

Here is a video of the entire visualization: J.S. Bach – Cello Suite No. 1 – Prelude from Alexander Chen on Vimeo.

If you have a recent web browser, you can also use the interactive visualization (written using the HTML5 Canvas for the web developers among you). The developer also has written a blog post describing the visualization.

The SPCO: Bach – The Art of the Fugue

This Thursday through Saturday (Oct. 13-15), The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is exploring selections from J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.

From their site:

This season, for the first time in the orchestra’s history, the SPCO presents Bach’s Art of Fugue, the monumental cycle of fugues and canons left unfinished at the composer’s death. The first of two programs, this concert honors The Art of Fugue as the epitome of musical craft by prefacing it with Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 12, and Leon Kirchner’s Music for 12, a masterpiece of the twentieth-century repertoire.

Here, Patrick Castillo, Director of Artistic Planning, discusses Art of Fugue.

Ticket information and details are available on the SPCO site.

Broadcasts of our extensive Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra recordings can be heard Monday nights at 8 p.m. on Classical MPR stations and webstream.

Bach You Very Much, Mr. Sharp Nelson

I grew up playing the ‘cello.

And as anyone who has spent any time playing the ‘cello, I played the Bach ‘Cello Suites.

Maybe more than any other group of pieces in the world, these 6 pieces are in my ears, fingers, and psyche.

But never, not ever, have I dreamed of playing those pieces like this.

Make sure to pay special attention at 3:21. THAT is something I did (and still do) dream of doing.

Walk or roll for Bach

“Who’s the greatest classical composer of them all?” asks Rob Hubbard of the Pioneer Press. If you agree that it’s the guy celebrating a birthday Saturday with 324 candles on his cake, then put your walking shoes on (or maybe a pair of roller-blades) and do the ‘Saint Paul Bach Crawl’ for a whole series of concerts down Summit Avenue this Bach birthday.

Here’s more from Rob’s piece in the Press.

Oops, Bach did it again.

Fugue (fyoog) n.

1. Music An imitative polyphonic composition in which a theme or themes are stated successively in all of the voices of the contrapuntal structure.

2. Psychiatry A pathological amnesiac condition during which one is apparently conscious of one’s actions but has no recollection of them after returning to a normal state.

Which of these applies to Britney Spears? Well, both, sort of. While attending a “Mother of the Year” awards party (I think that’s what it was) in Las Vegas New Years’ Eve, Britney may have passed out. She’s denying it, but it’s been hard to tell exactly what constitutes a “normal state” for her to return to.

But what does Britney have to do with “fuguing?” (Steady!) Well, one of her early hits, “Oops, I did it again!” turns out to be the perfect teaching tool for showing how to write a fugue. A 25 year-old named Danny Pi has done a brilliant job making music theory fun in this video on You Tube.

Britney, by the way, is going to have to start doing it again (coming out with some hits, that is) pretty soon, or word is that her record label might dump her. Her biggest fan site already has.