Ah, Bach

One of the glorious windows at Melrose United Church

Ah, Bach.

Any fan of the classic TV show M*A*S*H* knows that reference, in which Hawkeye coaches Radar in how to attract the attention of an intellectual nurse by faking his way through an interest in classical music.

I never had to fake my interest in Bach.  It began with an adapted version of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto #3, which I encountered as a young orchestra player in junior high.  I practiced it over and over and over, so much that my mother came to know and love it, too.  From there, it was a short step on to the spectacular organ works (I am partial to the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor), the Italian Concerto (played on harpsichord, of couse) and the complete set of Brandenburg Concerti (there are six).  I never dived very deep into the massive Bach catalogue, but I never heard anything he wrote that I did not enjoy.

Earlier this year, after attending Tafelmusik’s Leipzig-Damascus Coffeehouse concert, I resolved I would jump at any opportunity to attend another of their multi-media concerts.  I got my chance last night, when local concert organizers Hammer Baroque brought Tafelmusik to the Melrose United Church for “Bach and His World.”  This was the same exquisite Gothic Revival church where I saw Metropolis earlier in the year, an acoustically wonderful space.  And for $25, I got to spend two highly enjoyable hours not only listening to excerpts from a number of Bach’s works for orchestra and harpsichord, but learning more about the context of his compositions.

Like the earlier program, this one focused on the city of Leipzig as the crossroads of trade routes.  The narrator told a story of the intersection of music and commerce in the city, as personified in the figures of Apollo and Mercury–the latter, who gave the former the first lyre in exchange for his cattle and a staff to lead them.  I learned about the city itself–its two churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, and the bells that would call back and forth, and how Bach’s appointment as cantor of St. Thomas’ Church in 1723 made him master of music in the latter church as well.  He held the position until his death.  Through illustration of how sumptuary laws governed the city’s citizens, we were able to place Bach in his social context by what he wears in his famous portrait.

But what made this presentation so fascinating was the look at the industry related to making music.  Whether it was the process of making paper, of building musical instruments (both wind and stringed), or of creating the strings themselves from sheep intestines, the presentation not only illustrated the process and the materials, but gave names to the craftsmen who made the instruments used by Bach’s musicians.  I was most fascinated by the process of making gut strings from sheep intestines–how they were processed, cut, and then twined together.  I also learned about how the plucking mechanism of the harpsichord is constructed with feathers and a damping mechanism using heavy rag paper.

Bach’s own craft was a major part of the presentation as well.  Through well-chosen examples (and an audience participation exercise), we learned about the canon, the practice of figured bass, how the Goldberg Variations were constructed on the very motif the audience had just learned, and how this was all the foundation of the training that Bach provided the young students at St. Thomas’ school.  Returning to the famous portrait of Bach, the presentation focused in on the sheet of paper he holds, which contains the Canon triplex a 6 (BWV 1076), his signature work, similar to the one which the audience had earlier sung and the orchestra had played.

Throughout the concert, Tafelmusik’s playing was crisp, clear, and balanced.  Solos were traded among most of the players throughout the concert, and positions and numbers were shifted to produce particular effects.  At one point, violinists were placed in the choir lofts and the side aisles, trading the performance of the Partita in d minor (BWV 1004) from front to back, and then from left to right.  In the second half, the lights were also dimmed to create the effect of evening, in keeping with the presentation’s descriptions of the Friday evening concerts at Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzing–which the works performed were chosen to resemble.

Bach’s music can certainly be understood and enjoyed on its own, but concerts like these open up a richer understanding of history–not just of the music itself, but also the greater context in which it is performed. When it is so impeccably researched and presented, music and history together combine to produce a much more indelible portrait for the listener–one that is at the same time deeper yet more accessible.