Tag Archives: Johann Sebastian Bach

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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Filed under Baroque era, Resources

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


Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities

Segovia’s gusto

segovia autograph 2

Writing for the centennial of Andrés Segovia’s birth, the guitarist and writer Alison Bert mused on a telling recollection.

“At the closing reception in the grassy courtyard, Segovia’s genteel aide stood at the refreshment table with its rich spread of chocolate candied pastries. As he placed one after another on his plate, he said ‘Not for me, not for me…’ When the dish was full, he said “These are all for the maestro—he loves this sort of thing.’

“At a nearby table, Andrés Segovia was enjoying his wine and refreshments surrounded by admirers on this breezy summer afternoon. I thought to myself, the man didn’t live this long eating bean sprouts and tofu. He lived with passion and he wasn’t afraid to break the rules. In life, too, Andrés Segovia was an artist.” (Guitar review 93 [spring 1993] p. 7)

Today is Segovia’s 120th birthday! Below, his celebrated arrangement of the chaconne from Bach’s partita in D minor, BWV 1004.

Related article: Schoenberg’s birthday bash


Filed under Performers

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


Filed under Baroque era, Humor

Analyze this!

Analysis of compositions has long been one of the mainstays of Western musicology. What, in turn, are the mainstays of analysis? We recently checked RILM’s database to see which works have inspired the largest numbers of analytical studies.

The hands-down winner is Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier, BWV 846–93, with 112 analyses—perhaps not terribly surprising since the work comprises 48 preludes and fugues, some of which are fiendishly complex. The rest of the top ten are:

2. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (75 analytical studies)

3. Debussy’s Préludes (45)

4. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fugue, BWV 1080 (31)

5. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (29)

6. Beethoven’s symphony no. 9, op. 125 (29)

7. Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, op. 21 (27)

8. Mozart’s symphony no. 40, K.550 (26)

9. Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (23)

10. Schubert’s Die Winterreise, D. 911 (22)

Above, part of the manuscript for Das wohltemperierte Klavier.

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Filed under RILM, Theory

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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Filed under Architecture, Baroque era, Iconography, Reception

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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Filed under Iconography, Reception, Resources, Romantic era

Bach Cantatas Website

Bach Cantatas Website is a comprehensive open-access resource covering all aspects of  Bach’s cantatas and his other vocal works, including discussions and detailed discographies of each cantata and other vocal works, performers, and general topics.

The website also provides texts and translations, scores, musical examples, articles and interviews, and over 8,000 short biographies of performers of Bach’s vocal works and players of his keyboard and lute works, as well as of poets and composers associated with Bach.

Also included are relevant resources such as the Lutheran church year, a  database of chorale texts and melodies and their authors, detailed discographies and discussions of many Bach’s instrumental works—including solo keyboard and lute works as well as Die Kunst der Fuge and Musikalisches Opfer—and their performers, reviews, and transcriptions.

Further resources include lists of books and films on Bach, terms and abbreviations, concerts of Bach’s vocal works, Bach festivals, and cantata series; as well as a guide to Bach, a discussion of Bach in arts and memorabilia, and thousands of links to other relevant resources.

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Filed under Baroque era, Resources

Bach’s countenance

In 2008 scholars at the Centre for Forensic and Medical Art at the University of Dundee used forensic techniques to produce a reconstruction of Bach’s face on the basis of his skull.

According to its author, Markus von Hänsel-Hohenhausen, Vom Sichtbaren zur Wirklichkeit: Das wahre Antlitz Johann Sebastian Bachs (Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Verlagsgruppe, 2009) raises fundamental questions relating to image theory, considering the power of the image, the possibility of accessing reality through subjectivity (that is, the objectivity that arises from a dual subjectivity), the rendering of real “presence” by means of technically accurate representation, and the physicality (and noticeable absence of spirit) that results from the application of technical methods alone, e.g., in the case of Andy Warhol’s work.

Beginning with reflections on the royal portrait, Christian ritual, and Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns, the book then delivers a clear statement about the significance of portraits of Bach, at the same time offering therein an answer to the question: Does a person really have a true countenance?

Above, the reconstruction with the 1746 portrait by Elias Gottlob Haußmann, the only portrait Bach is known to have sat for.


Filed under Baroque era, Curiosities, Iconography