Bernard Chazelle

Whether you landed here by accident or by design, thank your lucky star.Like the first swallow in the april sky, my top-10 Bach selection has arrived! It is the rare top-10 listthat boasts 29 items and still manages to sin by omission.Bach lovers will scoff at the absence of their favorite piecesand, of course, they"ll be right.Blame it on the tyranny of the small number. Great museums put their artwork on rotation and so will this list.But here I am, hundreds of listens later, and still underits magic spell;so turn on the volume and, if music be the food of love, read on. Glenn Gould called Bach the greatest architect of sound.His harmonies indeed are so dense and rich even mighty Mozart can come off sounding like a grinder of baby tunes.If the Modern Jazz Quartet turned to the Baroque master for inspiration,it"s that, alone among his peers, Bach "swings." Yet his singularity, I believe, lies elsewhere.His harmonic language, the counterpoint, entails the vertical integration of melodic lines.It is, indeed, the gift of melody that stands Bach apart from the rest.Schubert had it; Bizet had it; Monk had it; Bono not so much. How this works is a mystery. What is not is that a counterpoint is only as good as its melodic parts.That"s why Bach is such a thrill and Pachelbel is not.

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J.S.B as a mirror fugue
Bach"s music is soft and gentle, often suffused with piercing tenderness.His style has been called "feminine,"a dated way of saying that Bachian geometry is free of angles and that the shortest path from A to B is a spiraling curve. I"ll go further.While fond of the opera, Bach shunned its adultdispositions, leaving the hormonalout of his art"s emotional makeup.You won"t find any trace of lust, greed, or jealousy in his music.In other words, Bach took the opera form and cut the bullshit.If his work has an unmistakable child-like quality, it"s becauseits spiritual aspirations, borne of faith, joy, grace,and wonder, call for the deepest seriousness—and no oneis more serious, and spiritual, than the child.The emotive depth of Bach"s music owes much to his mastery of dissonances in the inner voices(tenor/alto), his blue notes.An early bluesman, he did it the sweet-and-sour way, mix-and-matching modesto make the joyful anxious and the sad hopeful.Upon discovering, back from a trip, that his beloved wife had diedunexpectedly, Bach sat down to compose in her memory… a dance. An open challenge among Bach aficionados to point tounmitigated despair in his oeuvre has remained unanswered:Bach, like Ellington, doesn"t do despair.Music is uniquely physical among the arts.The tonal kind has a simple mathematical foundation based on the laws of acoustiusmam.org.If Jay-Z"sMy 1st Song rocks my world, it"s becausea bluesy F# minor resonance physically rocks my auditory cortex.The role of intentionality is tricky becausemusic is not a language.It can claim a semblance of syntax but no semantiusmam.org to speak of.The Ode to Joy could as easilybe about fly fishing. It don"t mean a thing if it ain"t got lyriusmam.org. Yet we all know that minor modes sadden,dissonances grate,leading tones anticipate, andcadences bring home,so surely meaning lurks behind.Augmented with the proper acculturation, music can indeed trigger emotionsreliably, which in turn grants the composer a mesure of communicable intentionality.Bach stretched the idea further by decorating his texts with generous aural imagery. Bear with me and soonyou"ll be hearing chirping birds, rolling dice, rocking babies, and flames dancing in the wind. Each time, the accompanying text lifts the ambiguity(at least if you speak German).Add to Bach"s legendary sound painting the daunting complexity of his musicand you"ll understand why the curious mind will rush to chop it into bits and stick it under the microscope.Having indulged in this pastime, I know the feeling.Yet to reduce the man"s genius to the vastness of his musical brainwould be a mistake.My fanhood is shamelessly unintellectual.I love Bach because his music is the most formidableelation machine ever engineered. To be sure, there is a widespiritual canvas on which to draw our analyses, but analysis is optional. The thrill is not.So forget the cerebral razzle-dazzle.The music is corporeal, sensuous, and intoxicating. Bach, the most human of all composers, gets to your soul through your body.As ill fate would have it, his public image has been defined by difficult pieces(eg, the Art of Fugue)or lesser works of dubious attribution (eg, the Toccata in Dm).While Bach continues to be more admired than loved, his glorious cantatas, accessible and breathing with humanity, remain largely ignored.No doubt this humble web page will take care of that…
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A newly discovered Bach aria
If, as they say, all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then all of Western music is a commentary on the Thomascantor. Although it took Mendelssohn"s 1829 performance of the St Matthew Passionto popularize the Baroque master, it is a common misconception that Bach was ignored until then.Mozart, not a person afflicted by low self-esteem,said of him: "Now there is music from which a man can learn something."Brahms admonished his contemporaries to "study Bach;there you will find everything." For Beethoven, who looked after Bach"s impoverished daughter,he was the "immortal god of harmony";for Wagner, "the most stupendous miracle in all of music";for Pablo Casals, "the supreme genius of music";for Debussy, "a benevolent god to which allmusicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity."For Schumann, "music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder";for Rimsky-Korsakov, "all modern music owes everything to Bach";and, for Albert Schweitzer, "everything leads to him."OK, you get the point. Composition aside, Bach didn"tentirely disappoint as a performer either. Not content with being Europe"s foremost keyboard player and one of itsfinest violinists, Bach could play all the instrumentsof the orchestra. The composer of the Mass in Bmloved to jam on the pop tunes of the day:the Bach family"s celebrated quodlibets;the gigs at Zimmermann"s Café; etc.The man was quite the artist. Except that Bach didn"t regard himself as an artist but as a scientist, a cosmologist of music. Just as Newton had worked out the laws ofplanetary motion, so Bach set out to discover the laws of the musical universe.More Galileo than Michelangelo, this deeply religious mansearched for "God"s music" rather than for his own.Therein lies the reason for his breathtaking versatility.Faith informs so much of Bach"s art that to push it aside isthe surest way to get the story wrong. For example, religion explains why the trumpetwas his favorite instrument (think heavens-reaching pitches)or why Bach didn"t seek beauty as an end in itself but as a means to an end (honoring God). His music was, in Taruskin"s words, "a medium of truth, not beauty."Wedded as we are to the Romanticnotion of art-for-its-own-sake, it is not easy for us to appreciateBach"s artistic mindset.With rare exceptions—the St Matthew Passion and his didactic workscome to mind—Bach showed little interest in preserving his art for posterity.Pressed to make his music less "bombastic"by his Leipzig paymasters, Bach ignored their demands. This is perfectly rational.No need to believe in god to see that, if your purpose in life is to divine the secretsof music to please the Lord, why worry about your earthly legacy or the ravings of a town councilman?Bach was also a humble man, who attributed the quality of his musicto hard work. Yet he couldn"t understand why gettingtop jobs had to be so difficult. The head of the search committee thathired him in Leipzig famously remarked: "Since the best men are not available,we"ll have to do with mediocre ones."Some things you can"t make up.
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Thomaskirche
Although Bach produced his greatest music in the provincial backwaterof Leipzig, a commercial town, working in an idiom that had fallen out of favor,his musical culture was prodigious. He absorbed, sponge-like,the Dutch organ tradition, the Italian musical theater,and the dance & keyboard music from France.With his personal music library one of the best in Saxony,Bach was able to indulge in the common practiceof the day: retooling the works of the greats.His composition quilt wove together all of the musical strands of Europe,reaching as far back as Palestrina and even the Gregorian chant (cf. Mass in Bm).Concerned that his openings lacked Vivaldi"s punch,he studied the Italian master assiduously. Charles Rosen commented that Vivaldi was good with openings but had the unfortunate habit of running out of ideas almost immediately.Bach didn"t suffer from that affliction. Beethoven quipped that his nameshould not be Bach ("brook") but Meer ("ocean").Perhaps the biggest mystery is how one person could havemaintained, week after week, such heights of creativity.The great Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, observed thata professional composer today would probably need a three-year leave of absence to write a piece on the scale of the St Matthew Passion: Bach did it in a few weeks. I"ll close this introduction on a nicely solipsistic note.The compositions may be Bach"s but the exhilaration is ours.Does this mean the music was in our head all alongand Bach merely switched it on?Not quite, but think about it this way.New gym exercises acquaint us with muscleswe didn"t know our bodies even possessed.Likewise, Bach"smusic awakens in us a multitude of sensibilitiesthat would lie dormant without it.It reminds us of the aesthetic virtues that live, often hidden, inside each one of us.
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The audio samples are sorted more or less in order of increasing scope.From the smallest musical phraseto the palindromic vistas of the St John Passion,Bach shines at all scales. It is thus borderlinecriminal to excerpt 5-minute snippets from Bach"s oeuvre as one wouldditties from a pop album. Mona Lisa"s smile may well be "everything,"no one in their right mind would crop out the rest.So may this gourmet sampling make you ask for more.How did I choose the tasty morsels?While aiming for diversity, I tried to avoid the über-famous pieces:the Brandenburgs, Goldbergs, Cello suites, etc.Instead, I gave precedence to my beloved cantatas,the loyal repositories of all of Bach"s genius.Conducting JSB is a lifetime commitment and only scholars of the music can pull it off.By Bach"s own admission, his choral performances didn"t sound allthat great (the trouble with living in an artistic backwater),so I am unsure why we need to recreate "that" sound. As you"ll notice, however, I am quite fond of HIP(historically-informed performance). I like it mainly for the instruments that come with it. I am open to all manner of interpretation butrhythm is my red line. Bach dances andconductors who can"t should stick to Brahms.The Mass in Bm and all the cantatas are conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Helmuth Rilling/YouTube) and the Passions by Philippe Herreweghe.The Partita is performed by Glenn Gould, the Art of Fugueby Andrew Davis and Christopher Hogwood, and the Passacaglia by Karl Richter.The Gloria from the Mass in Gm is performed by theRicercar Consort.Be warned that, following Bach era"s tuning conventions, most of the pieces beloware played a semitone lower than today"s pitch.If the audio player doesn"t work, click on the blue notes on the left(or update your Flash player).The discussion below was facilitated tremendously by having free access to the musical scores of Bach"s works. I can"t heap enough praise on the good people who made this possible.
Mass in G minor (bwv 235) Chorus Gloria in excelsis Deo… The missae brevis (short Masses) were an opportunity for Bach torepackage his favorite cantata tunes into the safe space of a Latin Mass(safe because presumablyno one understood the words so the pieces could be performed more often). This first movement of the Gloria is conducted atan exhilaratingly brisk tempo. It opens witha canon pulsating with dotted eighths on the downbeat asthe voices get into action in descending order, with the oboesmerrily joining in.At 0:13, the bass and continuo sync their lines in octaves,as though the soprano wants to skip over the alto and tenor lines to pass thebaton over to the bass.The tune reaches cruising altitude at the 13th bar (0:21),with all the sixteenth notes relegated to an accompanying role.The music gets increasingly fugal following the last "gloria"past the one-minute mark (in terra pax).The rising chorus of imitative voices suggests that, in Bach"s hands,praising the Lord is a diverse, plural undertaking.
Chorale (bwv 450) Sacred song Die bittre Leidenszeit beginnet abermalThe melody may not be Bach"s but the arrangement is.It is my view thatthis brand of simple, tender hymnholds the key to Bach"s art more reliably thanhis complex keyboard pieces.
Cantata Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (bwv 7) Aria Des Vaters Stimme… Warning: this music is dangerous! It will stick in your head and won"t let go for days.Catchier than a pop tune, this intoxicating tenor aria conjures up the Trinity in countless ways:three voices, three sections, three beats to a bar, a triplet per beat, and a breathtakingvocal entry (0:38) in the shape of three quarter-notes (E A E)—Des Vaters Stimme ließ sich hören ("The Father"s voice can be heard.")The melisma on getauft ("baptized") at 1:07 evokes the immersion at an infant"s christening.Just as Schubert can often make a major key sound minor, Bach likes to liven up a minor key (here Am) with a rhythmic beat of aerial lightness.The assuredness of the tone reflects the theme of the piece, ohne Zweifel glauben ("to believe without doubt"),while its levity suggests the flight of a bird:Der Geist erschien im Bild der Tauben("The Spirit appeared in the image of the dove").Bach"s music swings but, unlike jazz, it seldom breathes:its pace is unrelenting.
Cantata Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (bwv 162) Aria Ach!… During several of his Leipzig years, Bach wrote one cantata a week.With Friday-Sunday devoted to copying, rehearsals, and performances,the entire composition, packing more musicthan a Beatles album, had to be wrapped up in four days.Bach wrote over 300 cantatas in his lifetime, two-thirds of which are still with us.Together they form the greatest body of vocal works in Western music.In this early, pre-Leipzig aria, Bach, the blues master, loves to juxtapose contradictory sentiments, Wohl und Wehe ("bliss and misery") at 0:46.The bass voice is grateful to be a guest at the wedding feast, a metaphor forthe Last Judgment, but is fearful he won"t be welcome:"Heaven"s rays and hellfire";"Jesus, help me to survive now."The hook is a tight canon (EAFEFFAF) over the standard progression Am-Dm-G7-C, which is repeated four times on three instruments (two violinsand viola) in the first six bars alone, with the bass voice joining the actionin bar 8. (The key is a semitone higher.)The wide, obstinate leaps in the continuo (the harmonic roadmap) add to the sense of confusion. In a lovely shot of Bachian sound imagery,the melismaticHöllenflammen at 1:53 ("hellfire") conjures up visions of wavering flames.
Cantata Selig ist der Mann (bwv 57) Aria Ich ende behende… Bach was often accused of mistaking the Thomaskirche for a dance hall,and one can only wonder what he was thinkingwhen he set this enchanting aria to the words:Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben ("I eagerly end myearthly life"). The soprano can"t emphasizeenough her "joy" to "depart" (0:57):Mit Freuden zu scheiden verlang ich itzt eben("now I even long to depart with joy").The time signature of 3/8 gets its syncopation fromthe alternation between four half-beats and a single full beat.The ending leaves you hanging on the relativemajor Bb of the key with the question, Hier hast du die Seele, was schenkest du mir? ("You have my soul, what will you give me?")The answer is provided in the closing chorale.
Cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (bwv 1)Aria Unser Mund… Bach at his bubbly exuberant best pens one of themost brilliant bridges (2:10) in the history of music.The Annunciation to Mary that the "Morgenstern" (ie, Jesus) is on the waytakes the form of a virtuosic triple-time minuet in the purest French dance tradition. Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten ("Our mouths and the tone of strings <…> shall be ready for thee"),a statement by which the tenor and the violins abide in a breathless duet.As often with Bach, the aria climaxes in the middle section, starting with the melismatic emphasis (2:18) on Gesang ("singing"). At 2:23, while the tenor holds that E note, the violins reprise the first bar"s ritornello, a minor third higher.The wealth of melodic ideas in this passage leaves me speechless, so I"ll leave it at that.
Cantata Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (bwv 65)Aria Gold aus Ophir… A Christmas aria bathed in Bach"s customary ambiguity: dour or festive?A near-eastern feel is created by the dominantpresence of recorders, horns, and oboes.The melismas on Gaben ("offerings")at 0:36 and 0:51 express the nauseating quality of earthly treasures. Jesus, apparently, wantsyour heart, not your gold: Jesus will das Herze haben. What followsis a triple canon between two oboes and the continuo in an imitative dialogue among the gold, incense, and myrrh.
Cantata Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (bwv 96)Chorus Herr Christ… Piccolo flutes and violins imitate the lights of twinkling stars and the sounds of chirping birds (angels in the sky) while sweetly lilting to a 9/8 time signature (three-within-three). The cantus firmus (the basic tune) is uncharacteristically given to the altos, perhaps to keep the sopranosfrom interfering with our angels.The first half of the fantasia seems a preparation for the climax at 4:11when the imitative discourse comes to an endand all join forces for a chromatic modulation to E major (from F major): Er ist der Morgensterne ("He is the morning star," ie, Jesus).This is sublime craftsmanship.
Cantata Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes (bwv 40)Chorale Jesu, nimm dich… A four-part chorale in Fm, the darkest of minor keys, of the sort Bach could whip out in a Leipzig minute. The ending is radiant (0:37), Freude, Freude, über Freude!Christus wehret allem Leide ("Joy, joy, beyond joy! Christ wards off all sorrow").
St John Passion (bwv 245)Chorus Lasset uns den… A brilliant example of sound imagery: soldiers roll the dice to decidewho will snatch Jesus"s coat. You hear the rattling sounds at 0:13-1:30,ending on the victory cry of the soprano, standing in for the youngest soldier. A canon introduces the voices in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) over one measure each,as in this run of eighth notes: las-set-uns-den-nicht-zer(teilen).
Cantata O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe (bwv 34) Chorus O Ewiges… This wedding cantata, "O eternal fire, O source of love,"features the trumpet, Bach"s favorite instrument.The piece is in D, which is the trumpet"s native key andthe richest in acoustic resonance. The dramatic buildup of this opening chorus is a model of power, control, andcompositional wizardy. At 2:59, Laß HIMM-lische FLAMM-en durch-DRING-en und WAL-len("Let heavenly flames penetrate and surge") leads to whatcan only be described as early Count Basie: driving swing,call-and-response (counterpoint-style); all that"s missing is Jo Jones on drums.Rhythm aside, the melodic density of this music is positively humbling.And while you"re at it, you won"t want to missStéphane Grappelli and Eddie South"s delightfuljamming on the double violin concerto. What"s striking is how, unlikethe lame attempts at rock-and-rollifying Beethoven and his ilk,Grappelli and South remain squarely within the confines of Bach"s idiomand yet sound completely modern.
Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen (bwv 21)Sinfonia Ich hatte… The largest of the sacred cantatas, bwv21 was written during Bach"s Weimar years in memory of a friend who had passed away.The duet between the oboe and the first violinsis evocative of the title "I have much sorrow in my heart."Bach preferred the word "concerto" to "cantata" andthis example tells us why: the oboe is a plaintive human voice"concerting" with the strings over a steady continuo of eighth-note half-beats.At 1:58, the melody loses its flowand the harmony substitutes a striking diminished seventh chord (2:19) for the expected resolution to the root of Cm. The walking bass line resumes at 2:35 anda jazzy oboe flourish of 32nd notes (2:58) spelling a C diminished arpeggio brings us home.The call-and-response, the walking bass, the clean melodic lines,and the meticulous constructionbring to mind this exquisite Clifford Brown solo.
Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (bwv 140)Chorale Wachet auf… Wakey, wakey, Jerusalem, someone"s marchin" in.Based on a famous hymnwritten by Philipp Nikolai after a devastating plague epidemic in the 16th century,this chorale fantasia opens with a French overture, almost courtly withits triple-time dotted rhythm. The music builds up to its first climax at 4:07, which deliversthe most sensational Alleluja in the history of hallelujahs.The repeated melismas over the first syllable of the word never fail to give me goosebumps.It"s got the sort of driving rhythm that always attracted me to jazzand whose tragic absence from classical music is, pace Kipling, the actual"white man"s burden."At 4:45, when you come back to your senses, Bach doubles downwith another, even more extraordinary passage, Macht euch bereit("Make yourselves ready"). Sopranos sing the cantus firmus in long ascending lines suggestive of an angelic flyover.The great man never wrote an opera, but how many composers have matched the dramatic flair of these last two minutes?
Cantata Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (bwv 28) Chorale All solch… The final movement of this year-end cantata isa conventional harmonization of a simple melody and, being a chorale, an invitation to the congregation to sing along. I use these gorgeous tunes here as cleansing transition pieces,musical trous normands if you will.
Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (bwv 110)Aria Wacht auf… Another Christmas cantata and another wakeup call. You won"t want to missthe word painting over Geist erfreun ("delighted spirit")with the gorgeous melisma at 1:48. With the first violins gyrating around the melodywith breathless runs of sixteenth notes, the orchestration has a distinctMozartian feel: further evidence, if any was needed, that Bach anticipates all of classical music.At 1:15, the oboes bow out in deference to the words,Und ihr, ihr andachtsvollen Saiten ("And you, you strings of deep devotion").Now how cute is that?
Partita No.2 Sinfonia (bwv 826)The first part of the opening movement, performed here by Glenn Gould,could have been written by Schumann and the second (2:42) by Art Tatum. Now try to wrap your head around this if you can: in his day, Bach was considered old-fashioned even byhis own sons, who couldn"t be bothered with his stile antico.A solemn opening adagio segues into a brisker andante at 0:50, with the left hand marking the rhythm in eighths.If the four repeated Gs (the dominant of the key), beginning at 2:07, do notpierce your musical heart, it may be that you have no such thing.They"re a pedal tone over which the left handplays the descending line Eb-D-C-Bb.This leads to a flatted sixth Ab (still in the homekey of Cm) at 2:16 that turns the pageand signals the approaching end of the Schumann part. At 2:41, with no break, Art Tatum takes it away on the dominant while the time signature switches to 3/4,a chance for the master to demonstrate his swing chops. The final capriccio also shows the Baroque King of the Righteous Riff (as I like to call JSB) in fine form. As a bonus, Glenn Gould seems to have forgotten to mutter to himself.Also, you won"t want to miss Martha Argerich"s masterly take on that last movement.
Mass in B minor (bwv 232)Chorus Gloria: Qui tollis…A man well versed in tragedy, having lost his parentsby the age of ten, then his wife and ten children of his own,Bach never succumbed to cynicism.His darkness is deep yet gentle, sad yet sweet.A retooling of the first movement of a cantata (bwv 46) that he wrote 25 years earlier,the Qui Tollis of the Bm Mass could have been composed at any time inthe last 300 years. (Which of Mozart"s operas is not timestamped?)A distinctive feature is the anxious sequence ofthrobbing pulses of the bass linewith the viola playing two-note successions. Beginning at the 8th bar (0:25),the flutes come in to relieve the weight of perpetually falling thirds.Don"t be surprised that the piece ends not on the tonic chord (Bm) but, in anticipationof the next aria, on its dominant (F#).The Qui tollis ispart of the Gloria and must be fully appreciated in that wider context.Bach never stopped finetuning his monumental Mass, adding enoughliturgical material along the way to make it unacceptable to Protestants and Catholiusmam.org alike.Like the Art of Fugue,the work recapitulates all of Bach"s learning. It is likely that he intended the former as a treatise on the instrumental science of musicand the latter, pragmatic considerations aside, as its vocal counterpart. In particular, the Mass is the culmination of all choral music, past and present,to the extent that it features every single idea known to mankind about singing in a group.Bach never heard the Mass performed in full in his lifetime.
St Matthew Passion (bwv 244)Aria Erbarme dich… Peter begs for mercy after betraying Jesus. Falling over a steady bass line of descending eighths,the plucked cello strings sound-paint teardrops: B A G F# | Em/E B7/F# Em/G...with, in that second measure, a full modulation to the fourth Em of the home key of Bm.Meanwhile the violin solo, Yehudi Menuhin"s favorite,weaves its way around it with frequentrhythmic changes. There is a harmonic switch virtually at eachtriplet, implying four chords per measure (the time signature is 12/8, like a slow blues).Andreas Scholl, the world"s greatest countertenor, shines.There"s no describing the heart-rending beauty of this music;so, bowing to Wittgenstein"s wisdom,"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
St John Passion (bwv 245)Chorus Ruht wohl… The most gorgeous lullaby ever composed. This musical "Goodnight Moon"bids Jesus farewell with the words: Ruht wohl ("Rest well").At this most solemn juncture of the most solemn hour of the most solemnday of the Christian calendar, what does Bach give us? A sweet, gentle dance!Only the achingly beautiful motet-like bridge at 2:33 departsfrom the basic homophony of the piece, with short canonic phrasesand a measure of vocal independence. The whole chorus isstructured as a pair of nested palindromes: Iaba-II-Iaba.Bach was big on those.
Cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele (bwv 78) Recitative Die Wunden nägel… It speaks to the richness of this cantata that this recitative is not even thebest movement. The music dissolves into a choraleof exquisite beauty (1:19): Dies mein Herz, mit Leid vermenget… geb ich dir ("This my heart, crowded with sorrows… I give to you").If more grace and tenderness can becaptured in a simple melody, I haven"t heard it yet.
Mass in B minor(bwv 232)Chorus Kyrie That the Lutheran Bach wouldwrite a Catholic Mass should not raise eyebrows. As Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out,Bach"s theology was supple and nonsectarian.In any event, the Kyrie and the Gloria of the Bm Mass were part of a job application with the new Elector of Saxony,who being a Catholic would not have looked too kindly to a Passion.Bach thought that a Court appointment would raise his standing with theruling doofuses of the Leipzig council. Sadly, crafting one of the crown jewels of Western civilization didn"t quite cut it and Bach was turned down—though he did get the job three years later.After three kyrie (for the trinity) and an eleison ("have mercy"),Bach segues into a long five-part fugue. At 0:37, the first oboe and the fluteintroduce the theme. After an interlude, the theme is reintroducedsuccessively by the lines oftenor (2:25), alto (2:36), soprano (2:57), and bass (3:33).The rest is a typically Bachian fugal development with a staggeringnumber of melodic motifs vying for attention.
Cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (bwv 76) Recitative So läßt sich Gott… If you have in you such a well of musical genius that you can spare a melodicgem and toss it in the middle of a recitative, then surely your initials must be JSB. In Daß sich die Himmel regen ("so that the heavens move")you feel the word painting at "RE-gen" at 0:33. Likewise inGeist und Körper sich bewegen ("Spirits and bodiesstir themselves") the melismatic be-WE-gen (0:47)bobs up and down on the ocean between body and soul.Not enough attention is given to recitatives. While Mozart"s seemlittle more than random sequences of notes that try hard not to intrude, Bach"s recitatives are extraordinaryworks of art in and of themselves. I"ll admit to having been slow tograsp this fact, which only repeated exposures to his sacred music made increasingly "obvious."
St Matthew Passion (bwv 244) Chorus Kommt ihr Töchter… My nomination for the greatest seven minutes in the history of written music.Featuring a double orchestra & choir, the opening movementis set to an Agnus Dei that begins at the end:Jesus is dead and the title, "Come,you daughters, help me lament," is an injunction to the Church (aka the daughters of Zion).In the key of Em, the organ holds a low droning pedal tone E for five measures (0:24).The two orchestras play together until (1:14) the most rousing vocal entry ever heard this side of the Milky Waysees the chorus spell the Em chord in rising thirds and climb upto the root, followed by a brief modulation to E major at the next measure,then right back to the key. Now you know where Wagner got the ideafor his blitz modulations. The melody culminates (1:41) on a descending line from G to E thatis sustained over nearly two measures by the sopranos.In parallel, the bass marks the chromatic descent from C to B to A# (1:46) with dottedrhythms (actually, quarter+eighth notes) in striking fashion.Herreweghe rightly highlights this syncopated bass line, which other conductors too often neglect.This is followed by a repeated call-and-responsebetween the two choirs (1:56): sehet—WEN?—den bräutigam, sehet ihn—WIE?—als wie ein Lamm ("Behold—WHOM?—the bridegroom , Behold him—HOW?—as a lamb").The ending features an immensely rich counterpoint, perhapsthe most complex music ever written.The SMP is a composition over which Bach gushed with pride.
St Matthew Passion (bwv 244)Chorale Herzliebster Jesu… This chorale follows the opening to the St Matthew Passion. I"ve come to regardthe two movements as inseparable, so there it is. The melody on which it isbased is also used in the St John Passion.
St Matthew Passion (bwv 244) Chorus Sind Blitze, sind Donner… Upon the capture of Jesus, his disciples wait for "someone"to do something. When nothing happens (0:35), they get mad! The piece is in Em but the theme is introduced by the bass starting over Bm and then proceedsalong the cycle of fourths (tenor over Em, alto over A, soprano over D)to end on a G chord, the key"s relative major, with the flutes and oboes making their entrance.The time signature of 3/8 gives each voice three eighth notes per measure—as in Blit-ze-sind, with each voice switching to sixteenth notes for urgency as soon as it"s done with the words. The sense of risinganger is amplified by the presence of two choirs.The Picardy third on the final blut (minor-to-major modulation caused by the G#)ends the piece on a note of hope, a common device in liturgical music.
Mass in B minor(bwv 232)Chorus Credo: Et incarnatus est This 5-part chorus in Bm, one of the Credo"s nine movements and oneof the few original to the Mass (and last one to be added), begins withthe violins playing a series of descending runs in unison. After going through a i-iv-V7 run (with A#dim7 subbing for the V7),the voices come in one at a timeat the 4th bar (0:13)—alto, second sopranos, first sopranos, tenor, and bass—to form a 5-voice counterpoint starting at the 8th measure (0:28);during all that time, the continuo holds the root as a pedal note.The voices reenter canonically at 1:28, this time in the order: T, A, S2, S1, B.The piece ends on an imperfect cadence—the V chord isplayed in its first inversion, with the bass set to A#, the third of the chordand the leading tone of the key.This detail matters because, despite the final Picardy third,it contributes to the weak sense of resolution.Mozart"s Requiem was heavily influenced by Handeland the Bach lineage, and it shows.After Gardiner"s, here is Rilling"s slower version in modern-era tuning.
St Matthew Passion (bwv 244) Chorale Erkenne mich… The most important chorale in the SMP, it appears no fewer than six times.This defensive request from the disciples, Erkenne mich, mein Hüter ("Acknowledge me, my guardian"),brings out this stern response from Jesus:"Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times."It won"t be long before a remorseful Peter is reduced to singing Erbarme dich (see above).Bach composed chorales by takingold melodies and making them his own. So did Paul Simon, paring down Bach"s chorale to lovelyeffect.
Motet Komm, Jesu, komm! (bwv 229) Chorus Komm, Jesu… This excerpt from a two-choir motet (roughly, a cantata with minimal accompaniment)opens with a pleading, rising "Come, come, come, come Jesus" of stunning power.(All that Vivaldi study paid off after all…)The plaintive quality of the request begins to weaken at 0:45as the two choirs lose their unity and go their separate ways over die Kraft verschwindt je mehr und mehr("my strength wanes more and more"). It is striking that each verse beats to a different rhythm.At 2:03, a descending diminished seventh interval brings a striking dissonance (A Bb C# D) over the text in Der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer ("the bitter path becomes too difficult for me").At 3:51, the chorus switches time from 3/2 to 6/8, giving the melodya lilting flow to match the famous line from John"s gospel: du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben ("You are the way, the truth, and the life").

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The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 13, rectus (bwv 1080)The seal shown above displays the initials JSB and their mirror image.It"s roughly the principle of a mirror fugue, which consists of two"inverted" fugues. Bach uses six mirrors at once,which is nothing short of miraculous. The result isbouncy carnival-like music of catchy elegance.The Art of Fugue is a précis of Bach"s instrumental science: think of a textbook where Newtonmight explain how the universe works. Just asthe motion of the stars does not depend on any telescope,the Art of Fugue is not bound to any particular instrument.Here"s contrapunctus2, which highlights the basic melodic theme: D A F D C# D E F F G F E D.There is no evidence that Bach ever intended this materialto be performed in public. It"s an instructional vehicle.The last (unfinished) fugue builds on the melody, Bb A C B, which, in Germannotation, spells B A C H.
St John Passion (bwv 245)Aria Es ist vollbracht! In his last words on the cross, Jesus declares himself done with his work: "It is finished." This is one of Bach"s most enigmatic arias.The title comes from the word Tetelestai, meaning"Paid in full." This is what your invoice would sayafter the plumber came to fix your sink in first-century Anatolia, where the gospel of John is thought to have been written. Instead of the sink,make this the sins of the world and you get the idea.At 1:43, vor die gekränkten Seelen ("for the ailing soul"),Scholl (remember him?) drops from B to C#, almost a whole octave!Unlike most opera writers, Bach treated the voice like any other instrument,sometimes overlooking minor technicalities such as the need ofsingers to breathe. At 2:30, the countertenor holds that C# for 13 seconds on Die Trauernacht ("woeful night")!The middle part (3:43), Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht("Judea"s hero conquers with might") breaks the tone of despondency.It features long melismas on kampfand macht to end abruptly with the voice, a highly unusual signoff.No one can touch Andreas Scholl but such is Bach"s universal "plasticity"that Marian Anderson"s Hollywoodianvollbrachtworks for me.A technical point. In the second measure, Bach modulates to Em, the fourth of the key (Bm). Insteadof just going there, as any rock song would, he first modulates to B major perhaps to set the cadence V7-i and land in the desired Em.But that would be too simple, so Bach does it in two steps: V-iv followed by V7-i.By adding the leading tone D# to the mix (to resolve to the new root E),he uses a diminished-seventh substitution to produce B-Am-D#dim7-Em. This is modulation ofthe highest caliber. Surprised?
Passacaglia and Fuguein C minor (bwv 582)As a teenager given to sweeping pronouncements, I once declaredthe Passacaglia in Cm the mostbeautiful piece of music ever written.As much as I loved themonumental Chaconne in Dm (which I learned to play on the guitar, badly), the Passacagliastruck me as the superior piece, unconcerned whether such a judgment even made senselet alone was true.The Chaconne is the work of a grief-strickenhusband who"s just lost the love of his life.Like much of hip hop, but unlike the blues, it is sad on the inside.The Passacaglia is dramatic on the outside but achingly gentle inside.It is remarkable that Bach wrote such a mature piece in his early twenties(or so historians think).It shares with the Chaconne, the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fuguethe basic quality of an extended variation on a short, fixed theme: here,C G Eb F G Ab F G D Eb B C F G G C (all those flats because the key of Cm has three of them).After the head, the composer is supposed to goon as long as his creative juices allow him.Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins practiced this sport in Kansas City. The gradual buildup climaxes at 5:00but it"s the calm after the storm that chokes you with emotion:the arpeggios at 6:06. I can"t overstate the power that passagehas had over me throughout my life. It"s like the second movement of Beethoven"s seventh, only meatier.The piece goes through 21 iterations and then abruptlyswitches to a double fugue (8:58) whose 12 segmentsconclude with an enormous fermata on a Neapolitan chord:that"s the big pause on the Db chord, half a step above the root,which you hear at 13:38.A short coda signs off with the final C major chord, the restorative modulation of church music.The passacaglia is a difficult piece to appreciateto its fullest and I still discover something new every time I hear it.While not a huge fan of his conducting,I think Richter nails this one. Bravo, maestro!
— Bernard Chazelle, 2013/2018