March… have we had enough of winter? Are we longing enough yet for spring? Dare we dream of summer and the beaches of Chicago… and Tuesday Rush Hour Concerts? We’ve paid our dues this winter, to be sure.
Yes, March… that odd “lion/lamb” month – St. Patrick’s Day mixed in with the Christian church’s Lenten season of fasting and longing for the light and lush of Easter. All these sentiments swirl in my head during this month, but foremost among them is the happy reminder that it is Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday month.
March 21, 1685: The man who considered himself a “servant of God and the King” in his work of composing, whom the Classical period composers studied and revered, whose music has served as a pillar of the Western canon, entered this world. By the time he left it at age 65, he left behind a staggering body of music and 21 kids.
Bach was my favorite composer as a kid. To this day, my day isn’t complete unless I’ve played something of Bach. It makes my hands and soul feel good. I love teaching Bach to all ages (from five to seventy-five), I love playing Bach with colleagues, and I love the stories around Bach’s life. Here are a few of my favorites:
- He wrote the “Goldberg” Variations to ease Count Keyserlingk’s insomnia.
- He walked several hundred miles to hear Dieterich Buxtehude, then considered the best organist in all Europe.
- He underwent a procedure to remove cataracts without anesthesia!
Many people do not realize that Bach’s music underwent a period of being “out of favor.” From the time of his death in 1685 until the early 1800s, only composers knew Bach’s music. Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert all played “the great Bach” in their studies and strived to be able to produce a fugue at least in the same league as Bach’s. It wasn’t until Mendelssohn came along and premiered the St. Matthew Passion on March 11, 1829, in Leipzig, however, that Bach’s music came back into public life. From that moment on, his music began to be published, taught, learned and played worldwide.
While we’re on Bach, let me circle back to the “Goldberg” Variations and recommend two of my favorite Bach recordings: Pianists Andras Schiff and Daniel Barenboim have each made splendid recordings of this great work. Venturing beyond the keyboard world, Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the Bach Cello Suites is a testimony to the magic Bach can weave with one line.
And, to stave off those last throes of winter, let me recommend delightful reading in “Hoffnung,” the biography of one of the world’s most brilliant musical cartoonists. It is authored by Gerard Hoffnung’s widow Annetta and originally published by Amadeus Press in Portland, Oregon.
And finally, a quote, circling back to Mr. Bach, from The Musical Visitor, Aug. 1897: “There is nothing wonderful in that [playing the organ]; you have only to hit the right notes in the right time, and the instrument plays itself.” Easy for him to say…
— Deborah Sobol