Johann Sebastian Bach is 321 Years Old Today
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 21, 2006
Between Bach, Mozart and Voltaire, maybe a bit of Gandhi, the Daily Show and a few Carlsbergs thrown in there, we really have no excuse ever to be uncivilized or boorish or imperial, or to end up with the likes of George Bush and Dr. Phil for, respectively, president and therapist-in-chief. Yet we have. If the United States is regressing so rapidly, it’s because there’s too much brawn and not enough Bach. We can’t do anything about the brawn shirts: we’re stuck with them for almost three more years, and possibly many more than that if John McCain, who hasn’t really had his payback for his Hanoi Hilton days, ascends to Ceasarhood in 2008. We can do something about the Bach drought. Bach is 321 years old today, March 21. It’d be a shame to let his birthday go by without a musical cake. If I had the right server I’d have invited everyone to download his complete works in varying interpretations—all three hundred hours—off my hard drive, copyrights, for JS’s sake, be damned. I’m neither that lucky nor that rich, so here’s a selection of a dozen or so pieces for your listening pleasure. I’ve chosen a few of my favorites that aren’t necessarily played that much (when Bach is played at all) on what’s left of the classical music radio ghetto. So no Brandenburgs or the Tocata and Fugue in D minor, which you can get on your top-40 dial. These are the pieces I grew up to revere, adore, kiss in the night and weep to even at high noon on a summer day in Florida. All the files are in mp3 format, re-recorded at 128 kb, not the best quality but easier for downloads, which may still take a few moments. Trust me, on JS’s twenty-three children’s heads, they’re worth it.
- To begin, here’s the last movement from the Sonata in A minor for solo flute, BWV 1013, Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra. (One of my first girlfriends, the unforgettable kind, played all four movements for me damn near flawlessly on the island of Oléron way back in 1984, the summer of “morning again in America,” when the morning-after pill that was just then making itself useful could have done the emerging Reaganites all over the place a world of good; last I’d heard Cécile Robilliard was an accomplished flutist from a Bach-like family of genius performers somewhere in Lyon.
- The partitas for solo harpsichord are incredibly playful, inventive works based on medieval dances. I wouldn’t have made it through college without Alexis Weissenberg’s box set, which drugged me through many a term paper. Here’s the first movement from the Partita in B-flat major, BWV 825.
- The organ works are, along with his choral works, Bach’s Twin Peaks, though in both cases the staggering breadth and intensity of the music make it seem, on occasion, forbidding. If you think Bach didn’t have a sense of humor, even on the organ, have a listen to these two Schübler Chorales, the musical equivalent of a baby’s gurgles on waking up from a nap. Played by the great Marie-Claire Alain, here’s the BWV 645, and BWV 650.
- No Bach bash is complete without some Glenn Gould, the nutty Albert Einstein of Bach interpretations who, like Keith Jarrett, can’t keep his humming shut while playing. But you forgive those guys because their renditions are out of any known human world. A couple of decades back my mother was producing a radio series for the United Nations, she was looking for theme music, I suggested Gould’s interpretation of the Prelude in C major, BWV 933, and week after week African listeners to a program about food and development and who knows what else heard this to start things off.
- OK, we should have at least one work from beginning to end, so here’s the Concerto in D minor for violin and oboe, BWV 1060: who says you have to blow yourself up for those 72 virgins? All you have to do is hear this (by the Jean-François Paillard Chamber Orchestra): 1st movement; 2nd movement; 3rd movement. [Thanks for the catch Sean]
- If you’ve made it this far, you might as well go the full distance with the heavyweight stuff. Bach’s choral works are an oeuvre all its own. He wrote some 200 cantatas that have survived, possibly 200 more that haven’t, several oratorios, the Missa Brevis, 200-odd disparate chorales, and of course the great Mass in B minor, which would stop wars and insurgencies if those who started them gave it a listen. Turn down distractions, turn up the volume, sit back, here are the Everest and the Aconcagua of musical achievement: From the Mass in B minor (the live, 1968 performance with the Bach Munich Choir), part 16, Et incarnates est, and part 17, Crucifixus.