The heavens laugh; the earth rejoices. The title of Bach’s Cantata No. 31.
The heavens must have been laughing on March 21, 1685, on which date, 330 years ago today, Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family of very accomplished musicians in Eisenach, previously best known for being the town at the foot of the Wartburg, where Luther translated the Bible.
I know bugger all about the technical aspects of music. I can’t play an instrument (although I once picked at the banjo). So I can’t explain just why it is that for over 30 years now I’ve felt deeply moved by his music. It’s a pleasure I get to enjoy pretty much all by myself, at least among my acquaintances. Perhaps there are others of my acquaintance who guiltily slip off and let the mysteries of the C-minor Passacaglia wash over them, but if there are, they’ve managed to keep their identities a dark secret from me.
While I was in college, a small church just off campus put on an organ marathon on the tercentenary, March 21, 1985. I packed by book bag as full as it would go, grabbed a thermos of coffee, and camped out for several hours, studying and listening to relays of organists put the instrument through its paces. That summer I was in Germany and the local cathedral, which every summer has a weekly organ concert, performed everything Bach ever wrote for organ over the course of the season. With a student identification it cost may $0.75 to get in, and man alive it was something to hear.
A few years ago the symphony near where I live put on the B-minor Mass (link is to an excerpt) which by way of gentle irony Bach himself never got to hear performed end-to-end in his lifetime. By an even gentler irony the text is the Roman Catholic Latin mass (Bach composed it for an R.C. prince). I can’t think of anything in Italian, French, or English that Bach ever set to music. Most of his choral/vocal works are in German (he never worked in any really cosmopolitan city, and the place of his longest tenure — Leipzig — was regarded as being thoroughly provincial). He did some work in Latin, perhaps most memorably (other than the B-minor Mass) being his absolutely breath-taking Magnficat:
At my age I’m starting to think in terms of bucket list items. Last month I got to go see a basketball game on Larry Bird’s home court. I’ve seen Earl Scruggs play at the Ryman, and once, many many years ago I got to see Bill Monroe. Arlo Guthrie I likewise checked off the list. Recently I got to see the Wiener Sängerknaben on tour. I’ve been to Bach’s “home” church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, but I do want to hear his choir, the Thomanerchor, perform (well . . . perhaps it’s not strictly speaking accurate to describe them as “his,” since they’d been around over 500 years before he became the director, but nonetheless he spent the final 25 or so years of his life as their director and ever since they’ve been keepers of the flame, so to speak, to the extent that The New York Times once described them as a “Bach re-enactment society,” which I thought was a bit tacky of them). While not on tour they still sing two or more times a week at the church.
A further bucket list item is to hear Ludwig Güttler and his brass ensemble play. I have a CD of him performing sundry Bach trumpet pieces with the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum and the Leipzig University choir, the disk ending with the final choral of the Christmas Oratorio, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen” — Now are you well avenged. This stuff just puts me in a good mood, no matter how lousy a day it’s been.
At the risk of getting all morbid and all, among my regrets — irremediable, unfortunately — is that when it comes time to go to such eternal reward (for certain values of “reward,” of course) as is in store for me there will be no one and nothing around to play or perform those pieces which I’d most want to have played at my funeral. Such as, for example, the last movement of Cantata No. 31 — “So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ” — “So I go to Jesus Christ.” Or, even though the tune is well-known in the Anglo hymnary, “Nun danket alle Gott”:
Although most in the English-speaking world don’t seem to realize it, “Bist du bei mir” is actually a death-bed song; the narrator is singing to his love: “Be thou with me, so will I go joyfully to my dying.” One of my favorite cultural uses of it is in “Joyeaux Noël,” the polyglot dramatization of the 1914 Christmas truce. They don’t give the entire rendering, but among the most touching moments of the film is when the old couple whose house has been commandeered by the German Crown Prince for his headquarters can hear the protagonist couple singing for the high brass, and the old man wordlessly grasps his wife’s hand.
Lest Gentle Reader suppose I’m thinking of an all-Bach funeral, I’m not. I have a disk of 18th Century Moravian Brethren music. On it is “Lob Gott getrost mit singen,” (can’t think of any terribly good way to translate that title), which dates to 1544. It’s now firmly established as part of the Lutheran tradition in Germany; the link is to an ordinary congregation singing the choral as part of their ordinary Sunday service. And while we’re reaching back into the very early days of the Reformation and its music, I’d really, really like to have among the chorales sung “Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr” — “To God in the Highest Alone be Honor” — which, at pre-1525, has to be among the very earliest Protestant chorales. They sang it at the re-consecration of the re-built Frauenkirche in Dresden (bonus Brer Güttler, who personally raised a boat-load of the money to build it, leading his ensemble):
Even if I can’t have my favorite hymns sung because they’re pretty much all in German, maybe I could have a competent organist? Contrary to my wife’s assertion, organ music is emphatically NOT all gloom-and-doom. As brief exhibits I refer to Triosonatas Nos. I, V, and VI. Those can only be described as jolly. Same for his transcription for organ of Vivaldi’s A-minor concerto (bonus: this recording is on the re-built Silbermann organ in the Hofkirche in Dresden, the pipes of which had fortuitously been removed for maintenance before the bombing).
Not that Bach’s organ works can’t be rich in dramatic tension and energy. Here we’ve got another piece recorded on yet another of Johann Gottfried Silbermann’s organs:
In addition to his enormous outpouring of sacred music (some 200 of his cantatas survive, and that may not even be a complete muster of them), he spent a large amount of time exploring the “standard” forms of music in different keys and in different structures. Perhaps his most thorough exposition is “The Art of the Fugue,” which has fugues in every major and minor key, and in nearly every combination of structure (“similar” motion, “contrary” motion, similar and contrary together, “inverted” motion, and so forth). As an exercise book he put together the Two- and Three-Part Inventions for harpsichord. No. 8 is among my favorites. No. 13 was, for those of a certain age, the background music for the old Commodore 64 television commercials.
The didactic, sometimes nearly mathematical elements of Bach’s music make it particularly well-suited to electronic format. I’m proud to say I’ve got both Walter Carlos’s Switched-on Bach albums on vinyl at the house. On the first one he gave us the first movement from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; on the second we got the complete Brandenburg No. 5.
I supposed I could go on. But either one is a bit nutty about this or one is not. De gustibus non disputandum est. All I can say is Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen — praise God in all lands, that talent, inclination, and opportunity converged so magnificently in central Germany, beginning 330 years today.