Tag Archives: Bach

The Brandenburg Concertos as allegories

Venus Mars

Bach’s Brandenburgische Konzerte are not the epitome of absolute music, as some scholars contend; rather, they comprise an allegory of princely virtues. This reading of the works puts them in the framework of both Bach’s cantatas and the allegorical iconography that was common in the decorations of Baroque palaces.

Although not all the concertos were conceived in relation to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, they were chosen for the cycle dedicated to him and are meant to reflect themes connecting him to particular figures in classical mythology: the hunter (Diana), the hero (Hercules), the patron of the arts (Apollo and the Muses), the shepherd (Pan), the lover (Venus and Mars), and the scholar (Athena).

This according to “Bachs mythologisches Geheimnis: Philip Pickett, Reinhard Goebel und das verborgene Programm der Brandenburgischen Konzerte” by Karl Böhmer (Concerto: Das Magazin für Alte Musik XII/109 [December–January 1995–96] pp. 15–17).

Above, Venus and Mars presenting arms to Aeneus by Gérard de Lairesse (1641–1711; click to enlarge). Below, the Freiburger Barockorchester performs the corresponding concerto.

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Bach’s temperament

harpsichord tuning

It is unanimously accepted that the term wohltemperiert in the title of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier refers to a tuning that makes it possible to compose and perform music without restriction in all twelve major and minor keys; however, there are still divergent opinions about the tuning that Bach preferred for his composition.

One view is that so-called equal temperament was assumed, in which the octave is divded into twelve equal half-tones (the tuning which came to be generally accepted over the course of the 19th century). Other scholars dispute this, but do not agree among themselves about how the nuances of the inequality in tuning are to be divided among the individual major and minor keys.

This according to Valuable nuances of tuning for part I of J.S. Bach’s “Das wohl temperirte Clavier” by Mark Lindley (Berlin: Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, 2011), which is an open-access multimedia resource for students and performers of Bach’s work.

Below, Gustav Leonhardt’s interpretation.

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Bach’s youthful indescretions

Although we think of Bach as a paragon of devotion to duty and hard work, school records indicate that as a child he was an inveterate class cutter. This gives a wrong impression, however; he was most likely helping out in the family business—singing, that is (he had a very fine soprano voice) at weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, and burials.

Still, when the 22-year-old Bach resigned his first major job in 1707 the management may have felt relieved, because he had accumulated quite a list of complaints: he had introduced too many surprising variations into the chorales, confusing the congregation; he had extended a four-week professional-development leave to study with Buxtehude to a full four months; and he was known to slip temporarily off the organ bench during a Sunday sermon to refresh himself at the local winery.

This according to Bach-ABC (Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2007). Above, a portrait of Bach when he was a young man; below, Robert Tiso plays Bach’s music on wine glasses.

Related article: Bach and personal conflict

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The first Bach monument

On 23 April 1843 Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy made a ceremonial presentation of a monument to Bach in the courtyard of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor and where his remains now lie.

Mendelssohn Bartholdy worked tirelessly to make the monument a reality. He offered suggestions about its details, gave concerts to raise the necessary funds, and handled much of the project’s organization. His many letters provide information about his commitment to it.

Now known as the Altes Bach-Denkmal, it may be the only example of a monument built by a composer to honor another.

This according to Ein Denkstein für den alten Prachtkerl: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy und das alte Bach-Denkmal in Leipzig by Peter Wollny (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004). Above, a woodcut depiction from around 1850.

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Schubert deltiography

Schubert deltiography, a database produced by The Schubert Institute as part of its Schubert ographies website, is an open-access online resource for postcards bearing images relevant to Schubert—portraits, buildings, and so on. In addition to reproductions of both sides of the cards, entries include detailed annotations for deltiologists and other interested parties.

Above, a postcard depicting Schubert playing the “trout” quintet (piano quintet in A Major, D. 667) with Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and Gluck in Heaven (click to enlarge). The audience includes Beethoven and Wagner; leave a comment if you can identify others!

Below, a terrestrial performance of the work’s first movement by members of the Amadeus Quartet with Clifford Curzon.

Related article: Postcards

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Schola Cantorum Basiliensis: Scripta

The series Schola Cantorum Basiliensis: Scripta was inaugurated by Schwabe Verlag in 2009 with Die frühen Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs: Stil, Chronologie, Satztechnik by Jean-Claude Zehnder. The book follows the young composer’s development from 1699 to 1708, showing how even in his teens Bach’s compositions evinced an innovative, experimental mind at work.

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Alphabetical impressionism

Bach’s use of a musical motive based on his name, B–A–C–H, is well known, and several other composers have used it in tributes to the Baroque master. As connoisseurs of French chamber music also know, Ravel made similar use of the technique of deriving musical material from a composer’s name in his Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure and Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn.

Far less known is the further use of this technique by both Debussy and Ravel in more enigmatically titled pieces. For example, several of their works bearing the words hommage or tombeau include musical material derived from the honoree’s name. Such formerly puzzling titles, which have led the curious on wild-goose chases in their attempts to understand what on earth the music had to do with the named composer, may now be understood as sly references to uses of this technique.

This according to “Widmungsstücke mit Buchstaben-Motto bei Debussy und Ravel” by Paul Mies, an essay included in Festschrift für Erich Schenk (Studien zur Musikwissenschaft: Beihefte der Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich, vol. 25 [1962], pp. 363–368); this journal issue dedicated to the Austrian musicologist Erich Schenk (1902–74) on the occasion of his 60th birthday is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

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Dal grammofono al lettore: Discografie ragionate

The Italian publisher L’Epos launched the series Dal grammofono al lettore: Discografie ragionate in 2009 to present annotated discographies that illustrate aspects of the history of sound recordings. The first book in the series, Bach Goldberg, Beethoven Diabelli by Carlo Fiore, illuminates the interpretation and reception histories of these two landmark sets of keyboard variations.

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