March 06, 2013

Bachanalia

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I've been on a Bach sprint lately. Christoph Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is wonderful, though a bit dry. Except for the length, I found it similar to the marvelous William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, in that it focused on (seemingly) all the known and documented details of JSB's life with little psychological or otherwise fictional interpretation. That's fine, but it thus also lacks historical atmosphere; while we may not know much about Bach the man, we surely know more about the general goings-on and lives of Europeans in the 17th-18th century. Still, a masterful work by a leading Bach scholar and humbling to discover that we only know of some half or even less of Bach's original works.

After finishing the book and listening to more full Cantatas - q.v. http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Intro.htm for your weekly listening pleasure - I then stumbled on The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin; this explicates Bach's fabulous composition and interleaves a biography of the composer and Casals, his 20th Century cello disciple. I knew about Casals' repertoire, but his life story is fascinating amid myriad details of the suites individual movements and themes. The books structure attempts to mimic each suite and movements; you'd do well to prepare your music player of choice and listen to each suite in its proper place.

Finally, I picked up Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederich the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James R. Gaines. Again, there's a retelling of the Bach biography, this time in fugue with the story of the Frederichs (father and son) of Prussia. My Prussian/German history is very shaky, so this was very interesting; Gaines does a great job at this popular history of how 18th century Prussia came to be, with many, many unbelievable anecdotes of Frederich The Great's life. The crux of the book is to describe the genesis of Bach's Musical Offering, a set of canons, suite, and ricercars, set to a theme chosen by the musically inclined (flute player) Frederich. The book makes a somewhat overly dramatic point of the meeting of the classical "harmony of the spheres" musicianship of Bach, versus the more florid/"French" stylings and outlook of Frederich, but there are wonderfully thought-provoking points about Bach's music, his compositions, and the general swirl of intellectual philosophy of the era.

One final link: There's apparently a modern (2003) German movie of the Frederich/Bach musical meeting, My Name Is Bach.

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Posted by netrc at March 6, 2013 04:34 PM