Tag Archives: Johann Sebastian Bach

Zuzana Růžičková, survivor

zuzana-ruzickova

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.”

This according to “The miraculous life of Zuzana Ruzickova” by Rebecca Jones (BBC news 19 December 2016).

Today is Růžičková’ 90th birthday! Below, performing Bach’s English suite no. 5, her early talisman.

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Šostakovič and Bach

shostakovich-bach

The invocation of Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier in Dmitri Šostakovič’s 24 preludes and fugues creates an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the latter’s compositional choices and style.

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.

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Grappelli, South, and Reinhardt play Bach

Eddie South

The two versions of the first movement from Bach’s d minor concerto for two violins (BWV 1043) recorded in Paris in 1937 by the violinists Eddie South and Stéphane Grappelli and the guitarist Django Reinhardt are among the earliest preserved jazz renditions of a Bach composition.

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.

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) these recordings are transcribed in full score, both for performing and musicological/analytical ends.

Above, Eddie South, today the lesser-known member of the trio; below, the two historic recordings.

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Bach at the table

Bach food

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).

Below, Bach’s jovial Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet (“Bauernkantate”), BWV #212, which includes the encouraging words “Wave if you’re thirsty!”

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Schweitzer and Bach

albert_schweitzer_orgel

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, performing Bach’s fantasia and fugue in g minor, BWV 542.

BONUS: Practicing at home, with kibitzing from a friend.

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Sämtliche Orgelwerke/Complete Organ Works

Sämtliche Orgelwerke

In 2013 Breitkopf & Härtel launched the Bach series Sämtliche Orgelwerke/Complete Organ Works with Präludien und fugen I/Preludes and fugues I, edited by David Schulenberg.

In this new edition Schulenberg presents a new evaluation of the extant sources, based as faithfully as possible on the manuscripts that can be traced back to Bach or to his circle, generally choosing one source as his principal one. Divergences from other sources are documented in the commentary.

Sometimes this new edition emends long-cherished readings of ornaments, voice leading, and notation. Also printed in Volume 1 is an early version of the C major Prelude BWV 545 that includes a trio movement, making a three-movement version of this work.

The CD-ROM enclosed in Volumes 1 and 2 contains dubious works and secondary versions for comparison with the principal versions; these CD-ROMs are entirely in both German and English.

Below, Alexander Kellarev performs the BWV 545 prelude and fugue.

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Rosalyn Tureck and Bach

tureck

When Rosalyn Tureck was first studying piano, Bach’s keyboard music was widely considered to be primarily didactic—good for training in pianistic skills, but too dry for the concert hall. Tureck, however, was fascinated with this repertoire, and started making a point of memorizing a prelude and fugue pair every week.

At the age of 16 she moved to New York City to study at Julliard, and immediately declared her interest in specializing in Bach. Her teachers there were encouraging, but others were not: at the Naumberg Competition, for example, she made it to the finals but the jury declined to give her the award because they were convinced that nobody could make a career out of playing Bach.

Tureck persevered, keeping her repertoire centered on Bach while continuing to pursue her interest in new music. In the 1950s she began to focus more exclusively on Bach, and in 1957 she moved to London, having found that European audiences were more eager for Bach programs than U.S. ones.

This according to “Rosalyn Tureck, pianist specializing in Bach, dies at 88” by Allan Kozinn (The New York times CLII/52,549 [19 July 2003] p. A:11).

Today is Tureck’s 100th birthday! Below, the prelude and fugue in A minor, BWV 895, in 1962.

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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 and personal conflict

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s life was shaken by several confrontations and traumatic events that had important repercussions on his personal and professional development.

One of the first documented conflicts with authority occurred when he was just nine years old, following the loss of both of Bach’s parents, when his brother Johann Christoph confiscated a manuscript that Sebastian had copied behind his back. When this event is conceptualized in terms of recent research on coping with trauma and trauma recovery, it reveals Bach’s sense of vulnerability to authorities and the establishment of a lifelong approach to resolving conflict.

Patterns of action throughout Bach’s early career reveal efforts towards autonomy and independence through outward resolutions of conflicts with authority. When he was in Leipzig the authorities’ lack of enthusiasm for music made him consider departing from this prestigious position. His previous conflicts with authorities resulted in just such a departure; however, his decision to stay in Leipzig reflects a different mode of conflict resolution, one that involves inward reflection rather than assertive confrontation.

This according to “From Ohrdruf to Mühlhausen: A subversive reading of Bach’s relationship to authority” by Sara Botwinick (BACH: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute XXXV/2 [2004] pp. 1–59).

Above, Bach as he may have appeared in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; below, the beautifully reflective Ich habe genug, BWV 82, from February 1727, four years into his Leipzig tenure.

Related article: Bach’s youthful indescretions

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