We don’t know much about the private life of the greatest composer ever, Johann Sebastian Bach, but we know he drank a lot of beer.
And we know he was a magnanimous guy who didn’t mind lending his manuscripts to others for study, just as he liked to scrutinize the scribble of elder organist Dietrich Buxtehude. We know he was a terrific boy soprano, and an orphan at age 10. That must have stung.
We know from a sculpture in the city of Arnstadt that he was a studly young fella. We know that, a man of large sexual appetite, he fathered 20 children with two women: seven with his cousin Maria, then 13 more with Anna Magdalena Wulcken after Maria died.
We know he was jailed briefly after telling his employer Duke Wilhelm he wanted to quit.
We know he liked opera, and even attended with his older sons various productions in Dresden (the Italian style was all the rage in Germany back then), but never wrote one, perhaps because he didn’t feel up to the task linguistically, and perhaps because, in Leipzig, where he worked for a long time, the bankrupted opera house had been converted into a prison.
And we know he was as pragmatic as he was religiously and professionally devout. At the end of his life, after he started to go blind, Bach was thinking about his legacy, according to renowned Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, author of “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician.”
“He was sure that the cantatas he had written, with few exceptions, would not last forever,” Wolff said. “He experienced it himself: the taste in poetry would change. But the Latin text of the Mass, that people worked on for centuries, that would really last a long time, this legacy of vocal polyphony.”
The Mass, with its prescribed, unchanging liturgy and familiar texts, now that was about as permanent as it gets, that would stand a better chance of surviving the centuries. Bach completed his Mass in B minor in 1749. He died in 1750. Nearly 270 years later, the Mass in B minor is widely considered to be top-ranked on the All-Music-Ever-Written-or-Performed-Throughout-History chart. Don’t believe me? Ask Wolff.
“It’s hard to argue with it,” he said.
Or ask Rob Taylor, director of choral activities at the College of Charleston and founder of the Taylor Festival Choir.
“I think it might be the greatest piece of music ever written.”
Listen to it. Judge for yourself. The experience might put you in the mood for more Bach. If so, you’re in luck. The Bach Society of Charleston is gearing up for a special event at the Charleston Library Society that features Wolff as guest speaker, followed by the three-day Bach Festival during which two cantatas and other music will be programmed.
First up is “Bachanalia” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21. Wolff will be at the Library Society, joined by a few musicians, for a talk, book signing, some musical selections and, of course, wine and cheese. Wolff is an exciting speaker, passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. He’s also, arguably, the pre-eminent Bach scholar at work today. Attend this event and you will learn something interesting, guaranteed.
Susan Sully, Bach Society board member and organizer of the Library Society event, said Charleston, a city established in the Baroque period, is a great place for an early music festival.
“It’s meaningful in Charleston because Baroque music was played here in that era,” she said.
The Bachanalia is a sort of prelude to the fugue that’s the Bach Festival itself, scheduled for March 8-10. Concerts at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church will feature two of the fine cantatas (“Widerstehe doch der Sunde” and “Der Herr denket an uns”) plus works by Vivaldi and Handel. St. Michael’s Church will host an organ recital by Clara Gerdes, and Bishop Gadsden will host a young artists recital.
The concerts all feature musicians playing period instruments, according to festival director Ricard Bordas, who also is choral director at First (Scots). This adds a logistical complication to the endeavor, for expert Baroque players with access to period instruments are few in the Charleston area. They must come from off: North Carolina, New York City, Oberlin College in Ohio, Virginia, Florida.
Bordas said he is tapping into a nascent enthusiasm for early music in the South.
“Little by little it’s growing,” he said.
But what of the big B-minor Mass, you ask? Well, finally, Charleston audiences will get a chance to hear it performed live, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, 126 Coming St.
It takes courage — and stamina — to present this monumental two-hour work. Who is the lunatic taking it on? Someone who appreciates a good pint of German lager as much as the old master himself: Rob Taylor.
Taylor is celebrating his 20th anniversary at the College of Charleston, and what better way than to conduct the B-minor Mass? Bach reworked a lot of previously composed music, setting Latin text, rearranging the voice parts, mixing and matching, and adding some new material.
“It’s one of those benchmark works that, if you’re a choral conductor, you dream about doing at some point in your life,” he said. “This is a compendium he did at end of his life, (as if to say) ‘These are all my styles, and this is my ultimate piece.’ ”
Initially, Taylor thought about working with an ensemble of musicians playing period instruments and a relatively small choir in order to achieve a certain Baroque-era authenticity. But a conversation with Ken Lam, music director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, convinced him that the best approach, given the plethora of talent in town, was to keep it local.
So he is combining his Taylor Festival Choir singers and College of Charleston Madrigal Singers into a chorus of 44 voices, from which he’ll pluck the soloists (just as Bach used to do); and he’ll team up with the CSO’s 24 core musicians, plus a couple of freelancers.
“They’ve got the virtuosity to do it,” Taylor said. “This is not only about celebrating 20 years at the college, but about celebrating colleagues and friends. So if I’m going to do something really big, I want to do it with people I know and care about.”
Oh, it’s really big, alright. Big in scope and ambition.
“He’s reviewing his life’s work, and the pieces span some 40 years,” Wolff said of Bach’s motivation to write the Mass. “The oldest music in the B-minor Mass is from 1714: the chorus “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” which became the Crucifixus in the Mass.”
Bach was selecting previous pieces that he considered particularly expressive and appropriate for this new setting. And he did a lot of rewriting and rearranging, as well as new writing, in order to modernize the score, add new instruments that were in fashion and intensify the dramatic effect, Wolff said.
“So he’s not really copying himself,” he said.
At the Bachanalia event, Wolff will talk about Bach the man: the stud, the beer-drinker, the father, the businessman. It’s difficult because the written record contains little information about Bach’s daily life. Much is inferred from the musical output, though a few documents offer strong clues about Bach’s experiences away from the church organ.
Soon after Wolff’s book was published in 2001, he took over management of the Bach Archive in Leipzig and launched several research projects that turned up 300 new documents culled from holdings in the former East Germany, until then closed to Western scholars.
The discoveries — correspondence between Bach and local cantor about sharing musical scores, for instance, and a piece of music, a birthday aria, heretofore unknown that Back wrote for the Duke of Weimar, Bach’s boss for nine years — prompted Wolff to write an expanded preface to his book, which was reissued in 2013.
It might not seem a big deal to lend manuscripts to a pal so he might study the arrangement of your little black dots, but the letters in fact expand our understanding of the Western world’s greatest composer.
“It really indicates that Bach’s music was spread in central Germany in a way we had not anticipated, and somehow contributes to the notion that really emerges in the late 18th century of Bach, the greatest harmonist of all time, that people probably admired his music even though they may not have been able to perform it with their local ensembles.”
That’s because it’s hard!
It requires a special skill, then and now, to manage Bach’s fast runs, many modulations of key, sophisticated harmonies and voice leading. Singers need lungs that hold a lot of air. Players need extra radar to keep track of everyone else flying about.
It’s clear that in Weimar, then in Leipzig, he had access to some pretty good vocalists and instrumentalists (though not usually throngs of them at any given time, thus the emphasis today on “authentic” performance practice by employing small orchestras and choirs).
“The principal concert hall was the church, and of course the ballrooms at castles and larger facilities — hotels or coffee houses,” Wolff said.
The people gathered to dance and sing and party at the ballrooms and coffee houses. It’s where the aristocracy could enjoy the Brandenburg concertos or violin sonatas and partitas. Opera houses offered Italian productions, which were all the rage, but Leipzig had no such venue.
Like many artisans and craftspeople of the age, Bach relied on the largess of wealthy patrons for his salary, and those patrons could have fickle tastes in music. Sometimes, Bach was celebrated (and well-paid), sometimes he was marginalized (and ill-paid). A virtuoso organist capable of jaw-dropping improvisation, Bach occasionally found himself searching for work.
“Part of Bach’s salary was in-kind,” Wolff noted. “So he got delivered, free of charge so to speak, beer every week, but it was for the whole family because the problem with water is that it was not pure. People in the 18th century ... had thin beer instead of water for drinking. ... Everyone would drink beer for every meal during the day.”
One particularly interesting document recently unburied is a hotel invoice. Bach, organ expert that he was, had been invited to the city of Halle to examine an instrument under construction.
“He was staying at the town’s most expensive hotel and he ordered all kinds of things: really fancy dinners, and he had some after-dinner drinks, some liquor, some cognac, and he had some tobacco and so forth, so you can tell from that kind of opportunity that he would really indulge.”
It’s nice to think of Bach as a hedonist, a man with desires of the flesh, an artist who luxuriated in some of the pleasures of life. And it’s helpful to remember that without Bach we would likely have little of the music we know today. The history of Western music would have run a different course.
Bach "tempered" (retuned) the chromatic scale, dividing it into 12 equal semitones. He codified the rules of Western harmony, and he set the standard for performance practice in the first part of the 18th century. It’s a legacy that has influenced all musicians since, including The Beatles, whose songs — “Love Me Do,” “Eight Days a Week,” “Penny Lane” — depend on the rules of harmony and voice leading that Bach established.
Long live the immortal Bach.