During his life, Bach was primarily known as a dazzling organist with virtuoso improvising abilities. Not surprisingly, his prowess gave rise to a number of urban legends.
One such legend had him traveling incognito, dressed as a village schoolmaster, going from church to church to try out the organs—prompting one local organist to cry out, “I don’t know who’s playing, but it’s either Bach or the Devil!”
Read on in “Tod und Teufel” by Frieder Reininghaus, an essay included in Bach-ABC (Sinzig: Studio-Verlag, 2007, pp. 91–93). This post originally appeared in Bibliolore on March 21, 2015 but it seems appropriate for Halloween 2023.
They then constructed two empirical experiments to test whether contemporary listeners could identify the same emotions identified by the analysis, targeted at two groups of subjects: relatively inexperienced popular music students; and musicians, composers, and music academics (including some of the world’s leading Bach scholars).
Results suggest that emotional attributions by low-level experts are led by surface acoustic features, and those by high-expert listeners are led by both acoustic and formal features; that this applied much more to the emotions of sadness and tenderness rather than to anger or fear; and that despite the common confusion between anger and fear in real life, listeners were capable of differentiating these emotions in the music, supporting analytical findings in the score.
This according to “The effects of expert musical training on the perception of emotions in Bach’s sonata for unaccompanied violin no. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001)” by Michael Spitzer and Eduardo Coutinho (Psychomusicology: Music, mind and brain XXIV/1 [March 2014] 35–57).
Stölzel was a highly respected musician and composer who contributed works in all major 18th-century musical genres. His first Passion, Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu, was performed widely during his lifetime, including by Bach in 1734—the same year he composed his Christmas Oratorio, which imitates various aspects of Stölzel’s style.
Several characteristics of Stölzel’s Passion demonstrate the composer’s unusual approach to the genre, including a lack of named protagonists, texts couched in the present tense to heighten the immediacy of the drama, a balance between recitatives and arias, and the employment of primarily 17th-century chorales with plain harmonizations that may have encouraged the participation of the listening congregation.
Evidence of the work’s popularity includes the existence of a truncated and adapted mid-18th century score, several excerpts of which are included in the edition’s appendix.
In the 1960s Gustav Leonhardt found himself transformed from a locally successful Dutch harpsichordist into a global phenomenon. Ironically, Leonhardt, an advocate for historical performance and building preservation, achieved critical and commercial success during an era marked by the rhetoric of social protest, renewal, and technological progress.
Leonhardt’s recordings demonstrate an authenticist stance, contrasting with the Romantic subjectivity of earlier Bach interpreters and the flamboyant showmanship of competing harpsichordists. Complementing this positioning were Leonhardt’s austere performance in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (above), his advocacy for historical instruments, and his uncompromising repertoire choices.
To a conservative older generation, Leonhardt represented sobriety and a link to the past. Nonetheless, Leonhardt’s staid persona had broader appeal: an unlikely guru, he attracted flocks of devotees. Younger musicians, inspired by his speech-like harpsichord articulation and use of reduced performing forces, viewed his performances as anti-mainstream protest music—despite Leonhardt’s own self-consciously apolitical stance.
Moreover, the antiquity of the harpsichord and historical instruments complemented concurrent interests in craftsmanship, whole foods, and authenticity; yet early music’s popularity was dependent upon technological mediation, especially high-fidelity recordings. Leonhardt thus emerges as a complex figure whose appeal transcended generational boundaries and bridged technological mediums.
This according to “The grand guru of Baroque music: Leonhardt’s antiquarianism in the progressivist 1960s” by Kailan Ruth Rubinoff (Early music XLII/1 [February 2014] pp. 23–35).
Today would have been Gustav Leonhardt’s 90th birthday! Below, performing in 2001.
Martin Luther’s influence on J.S. Bach was profound; Bach’s library contained two expensive collected editions of Luther’s writings, which exerted demonstrable impact on his works—not least on the third Clavierübung.
Scholars have long puzzled over the dramatic changes that Bach introduced at the work’s engraving stage. These changes largely involved the addition rather than the removal of material, and the only explanation for wishing to enlarge the collection—a decision that caused enormous problems with the scheduled production and publication dates—must be the way in which Bach viewed his success in having fulfilled the overall objective: providing musical items reflecting Luther’s catechism.
It is easy for such a scheme to follow the letter of the law through settings of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Sacraments, but not so easy for it to capture the spirit. Luther’s doctrine stands apart by virtue of its clear insistence that the law must embody a human experience “from the heart”. All such experience, whether painful or pleasurable, requires this essential attribute. Through their clear spiritual resonances, the new movements provided a fitting frame for a collection of music inspired by Luther’s teachings.
Zuzana Růžičková endured three concentration camps and was persecuted by communists in the following years. Nevertheless, she went on to become one of the world’s leading harpsichordists.
Born in Czechoslovakia to a prosperous Jewish family, Růžičková had a happy childhood but was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis. One day, as a reward for getting better from her illness, she asked her parents for a piano and piano lessons. Though doctors had ordered her to rest, she eventually got her way, and her teacher was so impressed that she encouraged her to go to France to study with the world’s top harpsichordist.
But in 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; Růžičková was unable to continue her studies in France, and three years later she and her family were deported to the Terezin labor camp. “My childhood ended there,” she says.
Music helped her to survive. She remembers writing down a small section of Bach’s English Suite No 5 on a scrap of paper when she left Terezin in a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz. “I wanted to have a piece of Bach with me as a sort of talisman because I didn’t know what was awaiting us.”
Růžičková was due to be gassed on 6 June 1944, but she was saved by the D-Day landings, which took place early that day. She then endured forced labor in Germany before being sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945, where she contracted bubonic plague.
When she finally returned home to Czechoslovakia her hands were badly damaged from working in the fields and hauling bricks. She was advised to abandon any ambition for a musical career. But, she says, “I couldn’t live without music,” and she practiced the piano for twelve hours a day to make up for lost time.
Despite continued persecution by the communist government, Růžičková went on to forge a distinguished career as a harpsichordist. Her international breakthrough came in 1956 when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, and she was allowed to perform in competitions and concerts around the world because she was a lucrative source of foreign currency for the state. Between 1965 and 1975 she became the first person to record Bach’s complete keyboard works.
She remains grateful to the composer, who, she says, “played a big role in my recovering from my terrible experiences…Bach is very soothing. You always feel in his music that God is present somehow.”
Through composing alternative solutions to fugal problems, Šostakovič’s ironic musical signature is revealed to have several major, previously undefined components. In large part, this signature creates a dialogue between traditional associations and modernist dissociation.
His remarkably consistent compositional choices define techniques that create musical dissociation. Important elements include the use of a rigid, virtually academic fugal format, the invocation and frequent use of traditional counterpoint and harmony, the preparation of musical confirmation and its subsequent absence, and the final achievement of musical affirmation through dissociation.
These techniques, displayed against the background of Bach’s fugal schema, put into relief the effects that traditional and nontraditional materials and approaches have on each other; they also reveal how a powerful sense of irony—the simultaneous recognition of irreconcilable opposites—can be created.
This according to The treasons of image: Bach, irony, and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, op. 87 by Evan Bennett, a dissertation accepted by Princeton University in 2004.
Today is Šostakovič’s 110th birthday! Below, Svâtoslav Rihter performs selections from the cycle.
These recordings document not only a fusion of musical genres, but also a meeting between three performers of diverse nationalities and ethnicities: South was a Black American, Grappelli a White Frenchman of partially Italian ancestry, and Reinhardt a Belgian-born Manouche Romani. Their collaboration evinces a fluidly complex relationship between their social backgrounds and their music that is not easily reconcilable with some of the more inflexible ways that race and culture have traditionally been theorized in critical discourse on jazz.
These recordings are transcribed in full score, both for performing and musicological/analytical ends, in Il concerto per due violini di J.S. Bach nelle incisioni del trio Reinhardt, South, Grappelli: Una edizione critica/The Reinhardt-South-Grappelli recordings of J.S. Bach’s double violin voncerto: A critical edition (Lucca: Libreria Musicale Italiana, 2016)
Above, Eddie South, today the lesser-known member of the trio; below, the two historic recordings.
The holdings of the Bachhaus in Eisenach include a polished goblet that was presented to J.S. Bach around 1735; the word VIVAT inscribed on it was meant as an invitation to enjoy a glass of wine.
Sources including letters, pay slips, stipends, and the 1750 catalog of his estate suggest that Bach’s life was sometimes cheerfully informal. The table of this choral street-singer, organist, cantor, court musician, and municipal music director—whose salary as an employee was, throughout his life, paid not only in money but also in kind (grain, fish, beer, wine, wood)—was abundantly set for his large family and for the many welcome guests, and his comfortable standard of living was provided for on a corresponding scale.
This according to Zu Tisch bei Johann Sebastian Bach: Einnahmen und “Consumtionen” einer Musikerfamilie by Walter Salmen (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2009).
Albert Schweitzer’s transcendentalism goes beyond talent and imagination—it is the literal embodiment of truth. When listening to his performances of Bach’s organ works one feels that in every important detail one is listening to Bach himself.
Schweitzer had studied with Charles-Marie Widor, the leading authority of his day, and he was familiar with German organs from Bach’s era; but his connection to the music was far deeper than that of an apt pupil.
Part of the reason for this is Schweitzer’s own resonance with the composer’s character, particularly regarding the relationship between spirituality and service. Rather than interpreting Bach’s works, Schweitzer revealed them.
This according to “The transcendentalism of Albert Schweitzer” by Archibald Thompson Davison, an essay included in The Albert Schweitzer jubilee book (Cambridge: Sci-art, 1945, pp. 199–211).
Today is Schweitzer’s 140th birthday! Below, some rare live footage.
BONUS: Practicing at home, with kibitzing from a friend.
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