Mar 04

BachTheologians

Bach Among the Theologians, by Jaroslav Pelikan ★★★★★

This book explores the theology of Bach, written by an eminent conservative Lutheran theologian who taught church history at Yale University. It is a delightful easy read. JS Bach, while known as indubitably and unquestionably as the greatest composer to ever have walked terra firma, also had an interesting theological side to him. Bach was known to have an exceptionally large library of theological texts, and most of his texts were heavily annotated by him, as seen as column notes in all of his books in his own handwriting. An analysis of his musical output demonstrates that this interest in theology had a highly significant impact on the music that he wrote. In particular, Bach was caught in Germany during the struggles of Pietism (centered in Halle, not far from Leipzig), and the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) mentality. Pietism sought for a strong personal religion without the public sphere and without “fancy” music, which Bach strongly opposed, while in conjunct with the Pietists, pleaded in his music for a strong personal relationship with God. Contrary to the Aufklärung, which sought to “de-mythologize” the Scripture, Bach sought through his music to emphasize the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in opposition to Aufklärung thinking. Thus, Pelikan would call each cantata of Bach also a sermon in music by Bach.

Pelikan provides marvelous insights into the theological culture of Bach’s time, and shows how Bach confronted culture with his music. Much of the second half of the book details Bach’s thinking in the two existing Passions and the H-moll Messe. With the H-moll Messe (B-minor mass), Pelikan shows how Bach thoroughly “Lutheran-izes” the mass, making it a more Catholic mass than just the confines of the Roman Catholic church. Pelikan’s final discussions counter a contemporary move to make Bach an essentially secular thinker, highlighting the much smaller volume of Bach’s secular works. Even here, Pelikan is able to show that Bach is thinking sacred in his secular music, and that it is impossible to strip Bach of a religious, theological context.

This book is a must read for anybody that enjoys Bach and delights in vast array of music that he produced. It also gives one a greater interest in not only listening to the cantatas, but following along the words of the cantatas to hear the “sermon” that Bach is preaching through music.

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Jan 19

BachOrganAlainBach Works for Organ, performed by Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★

I have multiple recordings of the Bach organ works, including that found in the complete sets of Bach works by Brilliant and Hänssler, as well as the complete organ works by Walcha, Hurford, and Preston. Alain has recorded the Bach works for organ three times, this being her last complete recording. She is a formidable Bach interpreter, and her recordings of Bach’s organ works remains among the best loved and most sought out. I would certainly agree with that, in that she delivers a depth of feeling in the works that is noticeable. The technical aspects of her performances are also quite superlative. Each of the Bach interpreters in my collection offer something different to the Bach organ works, which make them complementary. Perhaps the performances that stand out the most are the Simon Preston recordings, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I could not say that any one series is best, and if a person were to seek out a single performance set for their collection, I would not not suggest any recording as better or worse than any other; you won’t err with any set of Bach’s organ works. Bach has a style distinctly different from other contemporary composers, including a style that is more demanding, more use of the pedals, and a better cohesion of musical statements than others. If all we had from Bach were his organ works, he still would remain a most remarkable and exceptional composer.

 

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Dec 15

MusicInCastleHeavenBach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner ★★★★★

Gardiner is not especially my favorite conductor, but he does a fantastic and compelling job of writing this book. The text is partially a biography of Bach, but also partially a critique of his music, and commentary on music in Bach’s time. Gardiner conducts well, but he writes even better, and this book was difficult to put down. The first half of the book is more narrative, and the last half is more exploration of the cantatas and major choral works of Bach. What are you left with? A kid born in a small town in rural Germany to musical parents, orphaned when he was 9, lives a few years with his oldest brother before being thrown out, hikes up to Lübeck with a buddy and attends an orphans school for a year or so, comes back to Thuringia, and gets measly employment. In his first job, the city mayor asks Bach to include a bassoon solo for the mayor’s son, which Bach does—the solo happens to be too difficult for sonny boy and so he attacks Bach in a back alley and daddy naturally sticks up for sonny. Obviously, Bach didn’t put up with that. He spends time in prison. He has serious employer problems. He survives a war. He has problems with wayward children. I could go on and on. Gardiner paints many personal facets of Bach’s life that turns him into a real person, and erases the massive quantity of hagiography written about him. Bach also was an avid theology reader, and well versed in the writings of Luther, as well as in Lutheran commentaries on the Scripture. As mentioned, the later part of the book explores more the actual choral compositions of Bach, focusing especially on the Passions of John and Matthew, as well as the B minor mass. Fortunately, I was familiar with these pieces and could follow the text. I caution the reader not familiar with Bach’s music to spend some time working through his cantatas and major choral works while you read the book to get the full effect of the book. This book was a total delight to read, and so much so that I purchased additional copies for my musical friends. Hopefully, they develop as much appreciation for Bach as Gardiner has.

 

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Oct 11

OrgansToccatasOrgans, Toccatas, & Fantasias, featuring Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★

Marie-Claire Alain is a French organist, having a fairly broad repertoire, though she is known to have recorded the complete Bach organ works three times. In this brief video, she expresses her immense love for the compositions of Bach, and why she feels that Bach was the greatest of all composers. She performs many of his works on various organs throughout Europe, using a combination of larger and smaller church instruments. Included are organs that Bach quite possibly may have played on himself. She goes into a moderate discussion of the organ as an instrument. Her playing is excellent, and the discussion is enjoyable, though brief and somewhat disorganized. This is a nice once or twice watched film.

 

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Jan 11

Die Thomaner

By Kenneth Feucht Media, Movies 1 Comment »

Die Thomaner, a DVD documentary of the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig ★★★★★

David Miller on Amazon.com makes a review of this DVD as one of the best music documentaries that he has yet seen. I would concur. This is a one year documentary of the life of students at this 800 year old school in Leipzig, Germany, the most famous cantor being none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. One experiences the brutal testing necessary for entry into the school, the first days of homesickness, the gradual accomodation to a daily schedule that allows for minimal free time, the daily pressure for practice and perfection in music, the world tours, the excitement of performance at special times such as at Christmas and Easter, and the final end of year departure. Boys will enter at about 8-10 years of age, and leave between 16-18 years of age. During that time they will not only have mastered the Bach repetoire, but have spent many of good days on the soccer field, as well as excelled in the Thomas Internat (boarding school), which includes more students than just the 93 or so Thomanerchor Jungen. During those years, you see those who were faithful turn to an athiest belief, while there is a trend the other way, with many being so affected by Bach’s music to making a profession of faith and undergoing confirmation in the Evangelische Kirche. The angst among the students as well as the current cantor (Cristoph Biller) are well portrayed. This movie is a moving commentary on these incredible youth, worth showing to your own children when they are somewhat reluctant to practice their music lessons as they should.  The German is fairly easy to understand, with undertitles that are reasonably accurate translations.

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