Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen

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WeinencropThree hundred years ago, on 22 April 1714, Bach’s cantata, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12) was first performed in Weimar.

At first hearing, today’s listener may be struck by the thought, “I’ve heard this somewhere,” before realizing that the first chorus of the is the basis for the partially re-written and transposed Crucifixus of Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232). The history of the cantata in Bach’s hands, therefore, stretches over three decades: from its inception before Bach had turned thirty, its initial presentation to the Leipzig congregations in 1724, possible reprises in the 1730s, and its final flowering in Bach’s last decade.

In 1854 and 1862, Liszt based works for piano or organ on the same chorus from Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.

Julian MinchamThe Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach

A Visitor’s Guide to the St. Matthew Passion

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CrucifixioncropJohann Sebastian Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) for a single purpose – to present the Passion story in music at Good Friday vesper services, and it continues to move audiences nearly three centuries after it was first heard in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Standing as one of the pillars of Western sacred music, it is at once monumental and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.

The audio program presented here, hosted by Lynn Neary, is from the NPR series Milestones of the Millennium. It’s a journey through the St. Matthew Passion guided by acclaimed scholars, conductors and singers (including Ian Bostridge, Joshua Rifkin, Ton Koopman and Christoph Wolff), all closely associated with Bach’s masterwork.

With gripping drama, Bach’s Passion retells the compelling story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Bach divided the music into two parts. Highlights of the first part include the last supper and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In the second part, the music turns softer and more somber – signaling the inevitability of the story – as it depicts the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Passion ends with the darkly textured chorus “In tears of grief.” Bach could leave his parishioners in a sorrowful mood, knowing that they’d be celebrating Christ’s resurrection in just a few days.

Bach built his Passion from choruses both small and large, and arias for specific characters such as Jesus, Judas, Peter and Pontius Pilate. The Evangelist, a role for tenor voice, is the principal storyteller, moving the drama along through through a kind of half-sung, half-spoken recitative. Supporting Bach’s massive structure are three grand choruses – at the beginning, middle and end – standing as tall pillars, holding up the surrounding music.

The Passion begins with an immense wave of sound – an opening chorus constructed of an interlocking double choir with a children’s chorus soaring over the top – building with intensity and sweeping the listener into the drama.

English tenor Ian Bostridge is so taken with Bach’s music that he has made the role of the Evangelist a staple of his repertoire. “I think the St. Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of music in the Western repertory,” Bostridge says. “And to start one’s journey toward understanding that piece is a very important point in anybody’s life.”

Tom HuizingaNational Public Radio

Conveying the Horrors of Apartheid

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Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa

Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa

The earth did quake; the rocks rent, and the graves were opened. Then peace was made with God as Jesus’s body came to rest. That peace, and with it the ability to notice beauty in all things, is expressed in the last aria of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) which begins with the text, “Make thyself clean, my heart.”

This aria is among the most sublime gifts given in all of music, a vision far better suited for the soul than the stage. Yet Peter Brook tailors it meticulously to The Suit. The 89-year-old British director’s production of a short play based on a story by South African novelist Can Themba ends with this astonishing aria plucked out on dinky electric keyboard rather than sung as though musical lava profoundly pouring from a deep bass. Brook has no pretense to present Bach as a call to hope on a cosmic, landscape-altering scale. It is enough that we carefully sustain beauty in the atmosphere of tragedy.

The latest production from Brook’s French company, Thèâtre des Bouffes du Nord, has arrived in Los Angeles. Under the auspices of Center for Performance at UCLA, The Suit is currently finishing up a two-year international tour and will run through 19 April 2014 at Freud Playhouse. A simple show, it employs only three actors, three musicians and a few basic stage properties, such as chairs and clothes racks.

Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah) discovers his wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in bed with another man. The lover flees, leaving his suit behind. The earth does not quake. There is no violence, no lack of civility. Philemon merely insists that the suit be treated as a guest of the house, a diplomatic reminder of his wife’s offense. Otherwise life goes on.

But life going on is no small thing. The setting for The Suit is the township of Sophiatown west of Johannesburg during apartheid. It wasn’t pretty and pink, Philemon’s friend, Maphikela (Jordan Barbour), tells us. But it was alive.

People lived ordinary lives, indulged in pleasures and tried not to think too hard about the oppression lurking around the corner, about the white police who took pleasure in cutting off the fingers, one by one, of a black guitarist before shooting him. They tried not to think about the fact that Sophiatown would soon be leveled and its residents relocated to a camp.

Brook lets the story tell itself. These are gracious characters, enormously appealing. But humiliation is discretely poisoning the atmosphere.

The play has the quality of a twentieth-century South African Othello. In Shakespeare, jealously is like an unsubtle Newtonian force, namely explosive. A Moor stands apart and is unable to control his emotions. There is clear-cut black and white. Iago, who taunts Othello, is all bad. In Sophiatown, white suppresses black. But Themba’s story – as adapted by Brook, Marie-Hèléne Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk – is of blacks. Maphikela is not Iago. He reluctantly tells Philemon of the adultery and encourages Philemon to forgive and forget. Philemon does not mean to kill Matilda, on whom he dotes. But humiliation has a terrible power, and every gracious gesture on stage is the unspoken (though not unsung) reminder that this township is victim of the terrible humiliation of apartheid.

What makes The Suit exceptional theater is the sheer graciousness of those gestures. Every actor moves like a dancer. Every actor speakers like singer. And song pervades all. Pianist and accordionist Mark Christine, trumpet player Mark Kavuma and guitarist Arthur Astier underscore the production with arrangements of Schubert songs, South African songs, African American blues, The Blue Danube and, of course, Bach.

The music mainly serenades. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden may not be a subtle indicator but, heard played by a wandering accordionist, it is easy to ignore its significance. And that is the brilliance of The Suit. Brook has long been streamlining theater and opera, breaking down the distinctions between the narrative and the lyric stage. Movement is, for Brook, a purifying process. Music and speech only have meaning if movement does.

Three years ago, also with the help of Estienne and Krawczyk, Brook reduced Mozart’s The Magic Flute down to its ritualistic essences, removing the magic and retaining the humanity. In The Suit, however, the horrors won’t go away. But by making theater, music and dance inseparably one, Brook’s art reaches that cleansing Bachian peak where beauty and humanity endure.

Mark SwedThe Los Angeles Times

Kennedy, the Potty-mouthed Virtuoso

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Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy, the enfant terrible of classical music, is always good for a quote. Try this from an interview last year with The Guardian newspaper after the interviewer pointed out that his concert will be conducted by a woman: “I really don’t see what’s so important about gender. I think conductors are completely over-rated anyway, because if you love music why not play it? . . . I don’t think the audience gives a shit about the conductor. Not unless they’ve been pumped full of propaganda from classical music writing or something . . . no one normal understands what the conductor does . . . they just wave their arms out of time.”

It’s a typical Kennedy rant – the sort of one-sided expletive-filled generalization we can perhaps dismiss as trash talk – or simply Kennedy being Kennedy. He might sometimes be wrong, or perverse, but he’s lovably wrong or irresponsible in the way of the naughty child.

And speaking of children, there is another great quote from comedian Bob Monkhouse who said: “Growing old is compulsory, growing up is optional.”

As Kennedy told an audience at a performance last year of music from his recent CD Recital, which blends Bach with Fats Waller and his own compositions: “All this repertoire is music which I have either grown up with, or feel I’ve grown up with, bearing in mind that growing up is something I haven’t been overly interested in so far.”

Perth fans of this violin virtuoso with the potty mouth, extreme opinions and arrested development will get the full flavor of his personality in an intimate recital on 29 April 2014. Kennedy will divide his concert into two distinct halves – the first half solo violin compositions by Bach. After interval he will introduce his four-piece combo of acoustic guitars, bass and drums playing his own compositions and jazz improvisations.

For some reason I’ve got it into my head that his Australian tour will feature music from Fats Waller, recorded on his CD Recital. “Nuh, man, Fats is not on the list, although Fats might find his way in there at the end,” he says on the phone from London.

Of the Bach violin compositions, Kennedy says: “I love the geezer, man. I’ll be playing his Chaconne in D minor (BWV 1004), a set of variations which are just phenomenal.” (It’s been praised as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written). And on his own music, Kennedy searches for a comparison: “It’s intimate stuff with acoustic guitars and the drummer just on the brushes, very quiet really: somewhere between the Modern Jazz Quartet and Fairport Convention.”

Kennedy is one of the few classically-trained musician who feels comfortable playing jazz, particularly that distinctive sense of freedom that comes from improvisation. In his youth he played on stage with the great jazz violinist and improviser Stéphane Grappelli and he has created music in homage to the equally celebrated rock guitar improviser Jimi Hendrix.

It’s rare to find someone who can move so easily between strict classical music and the spontaneity of jazz, I suggest. Why do so many classical musicians find it so difficult to play jazz or improvise? “I think it is because classical musicians are over-taught and over-trained,” he shoots back. Improvisation is a lost art in classical music. Bach used to do it a lot but somehow it got lost in the eighteenth century. “Classical musicians now just read the notes. But you can’t just play the notes: you’ve got to bring emotion to it. Jazz improvisation is like the real truth behind the music.”

He might buy an argument with classical musicians over that one, but Kennedy is never far from controversy over his views. Even his off-hand remarks are likely to get him into trouble.

Take the controversy that erupted at last year’s Proms concert, where Kennedy played with a group of Palestinian musicians. At the end of the performance, Kennedy told the Albert Hall audience: “We all know from experiencing this night of music that giving equality and getting rid of apartheid means there is a chance for amazing things to happen.” His apartheid comments were interpreted as an attack on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and were edited out of the BBC’s television broadcast which went to air later. Kennedy furiously denounced the action as an attack on freedom of speech, a response lapped up by the British media.

In our phone interview Kennedy is more philosophical, saying he was only making a remark about how good it was to be able to play with Palestinians. “Then some baroness, who is not worthy of that name, got it into her head that my remark should be banned,” he says, clearly annoyed that the comment had gotten out of hand. (He is referring to a former governor of the BBC, Baroness Deech, who said Kennedy’s remarks were offensive and untrue and that there was no apartheid in Israel.)

But, really, should he have been surprised? Kennedy has spent a career developing a reputation for his “punk” attitudes to classical music, of debunking myths and being provocative about how he feels about music and life in general.

Ron Banks – The West Australian

Sven-David Sandström’s Choral Masterworks

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Sven-David Sandström

Sven-David Sandström

Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström enjoyed an international breakthrough in 1972 when his orchestral work Through and Through was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam two years after its premiere in the composer’s homeland. From that point, leading musical assemblages worldwide have performed his compositions, making him one of Sweden’s leading composers. Within contemporary choral music, Sandström’s music occupies a unique position that is both firmly rooted in the traditions established by predecessors like Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, yet also rigorously twenty-first century modern.

American Bach Soloists first performed one of Sandström’s works an all-choral program that presented different approaches to consonance and dissonance in works by William Byrd, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and others. On that occasion, Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Choir performed Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and it made a terrific impression on audiences and critics. San Francisco Classical Voice commented, “The final piece, Sven-David Sandström’s Agnus Dei, was the clearest example on the program of a contemporary composer’s upsetting the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance. Because the choir performed the piece with such virtuosity and ease, however, the difference in dissonance treatment in this piece seemed like just another change of color. The slow collapsing of the dissonant final chord into triadic consonance was exquisite.” Jeffrey Thomas adds, “I think that everyone who heard our performances of Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and certainly every singer who participated in those concerts, has never forgotten the experience.”

Sandström’s deep admiration, even love, for Bach’s music is undeniable as his output of vocal music includes a series of six motets composed after Bach’s originals. During upcoming concerts, Jeffrey Thomas will direct the American Bach Choir in Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm! (BWV 229) as well as Sandström’s 2005 setting.

American Bach Soloists

Modulating to Every Key

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Royaumont Abbey

Royaumont Abbey

The exploration of the mysteries of harmony that began in the sixteenth century has much in common with the exploration of the real world with the help of the natural sciences and critical thinking. Similarly, the journeys into the most remote key areas were only possible after composers had learned to look behind the rigid system of modes and hexachords and began to see the sheer unlimited possibilities of transposition and modulation. Since these harmonic experiments were long considered a secret art, it is no surprise that they were confined to solo keyboard instruments, where chords and their progressions could be handled by the ten fingers of the two hands and where the composer and the performer were often the same person. Yet at first the keyboard with its preset and fixed tuning allowed excursions into remote key areas only to a limited degree. As a consequence, adjustments to the old Pythagorean tuning were necessary, and this led to various forms of mean-tone and irregular temperament culminating in the establishment of equal temperament in the early nineteenth century.

J. S. Bach’s monumental double cycle of The Well-tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93) has always been regarded as a major landmark in the history of keyboard music and the utilization of the full spectrum of keys. The first part, containing preludes and fugues through all twenty-four major and minor keys, was completed in 1722; the second, of the same scope, followed around 1739/40. Although The Well-tempered Clavier is often associated with the use of equal temperament, we know from various documents that Bach – like most of his contemporaries – actually favored a pragmatic temperament that made playing in remote tonal areas possible but at the same time kept the variegation of the individual keys. The unique artistic value of Bach’s double cycle lies not merely in the comprehensive treatment of this key system, but rather in the idea of combining the richness of harmonies he explores with an equally comprehensive richness of musical styles and composing techniques.

Bach drew his inspiration from various models – some of which will be introduced 22-27 June 2014 during the keyboard program presented by Andreas Staier and Peter Wollny at the thirteenth-century Royaumont Abbey north of Paris. One of the earliest journeys through the key areas is taken in John Bull’s Fantasia Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, which leads a simple diatonic subject set in a strictly contrapuntal fashion by means of transposition through a labyrinth of harmony. Another way of exploring the spectrum of keys is the free improvisatory style called stylus phantasticus in the seventeenth century. A fine example of this type of composing is Georg Böhm’s Praeludium, Fuga et Postludium in G minor, a piece transmitted in a manuscript copy from Bach’s circle.

Bach and his German contemporaries devoted much of their compositional efforts to adapting and merging the French and Italian national styles. Thus Bach studied and held in high esteem the works of Antonio Vivaldi and François Couperin. The combination of German, Italian and French elements eventually yielded the highly expressive and galant mixed style that became the great composer’s legacy to his sons and students.

Peter Wollny La Fondation Royaumont

Joanna MacGregor Crosses Tonal Grounds

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Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor

Pianist Joanna MacGregor heads, Rapunzel-like, to the top of a tower and stares out across to where the pebbled lips of the coastline kiss the slate blue waters of the English Channel. Here she will stay for hours, because this is where she keeps her Steinway; safely out of earshot “which is really important for the neighbors.” You’d think in the seaside town of Brighton that the locals would be queuing up to hear her perform on a daily basis (without having to shell out), but clearly MacGregor is as anxious as the rest of us when it comes to maintaining diplomatic relations with the residents in her street.

She is busy preparing for her latest globetrotting tour, which will take in Portugal and New Zealand, before she arrives in Melbourne for the Metropolis New Music Festival. It might be a celebration of the contemporary, but of course MacGregor will be playing Bach – almost three hundred years dead but still sounding deliciously “modern.” The innovative pianist might be known for casting her net wide in search of distinctive collaborations, but Bach is never far behind. The ”new music” part comes from the presence of Shostakovich, Messiaen and English composer Harrison Birtwistle, whose pieces are interwoven throughout the program.

Like a giddy journey in a time-machine through collisions of era and continent, her concert program begins in Germany during the Baroque period before heading east to a chilly Soviet Union followed by a hook turn through France, then back to a thawed-out Russia via Britain. She finishes in Buenos Aires with Four, for Tango from the master of the bandoneon, Astor Piazzolla.”Yes, I suppose it is quite a journey,” she laughs. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

It all starts with a handful of Bach’s now-famous preludes and fugues – the Old Testament of keyboard repertoire – made up of forty-eight short pieces in every key imaginable, from which she segues into Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues. But don’t be deceived by the somewhat pedagogical title. Wrapped up in each of these little pieces, only a few minutes long, is an entire musical world in microcosm where fiery toccatas, ceremonial entrances, operatic arias meet comic moments and tragic dramas.

How Shostakovich, who found Bach “boring,” came to emulate his iconic keyboard work is, says MacGregor, a classic Cold War tale. Sent against his will as a cultural ambassador to Leipzig in 1950, the composer found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. But his ears pricked up when a Russian pianist sat down and played from The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93), as the Bach collection is known. Impressed, he returned to Moscow and penned twenty-four of his own. “It’s interesting how the two hundred years between the composers completely dissolves when you play them,” says MacGregor. “I do a little trick at the end when I play two Shostakovich fugues, one after the other, and then finish with Bach. By then the audience shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Maybe, but when it comes to the crunch, which does she prefer? “Bach,” she says without missing a beat. “He’s the main man. With a lot of Western music it all goes back to Bach. All the harmonic progressions and techniques are absolutely watertight. You can’t get away from him. He’s like a godfather in a mafia way. He’s just there and present in everything.”

In keeping with this year’s festival theme, the natural world, she has selected a number of works that revolve around birds. Hot on the heels of the winged medley comes works by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, innocently entitled Musical Toys, which, she says, like the best fairy tales, are a perfect mix of enchantment and fear.

MacGregor has spent her life nudging classical music into new territories and has collaborated with the likes of jazz musician and composer Django Bates, Talvin Singh, the father of modern Asian electronic music, and the French pianist, composer and writer, Pierre Boulez. In line with her determination to dismantle musical barriers, she also runs her own record label, SoundCircus.

Her drive towards the eclectic and intuitive modus operandi comes, perhaps, from not having been hot-housed as a child. Despite being the daughter of a piano teacher, MacGregor says she never felt pressure to practice; there were no Tiger Mother schedules to uphold. “Playing for me is as natural as breathing. To be a musician, you have to have a desire to listen and explore music. If you are one of those kids who are forced to practice you end up utterly miserable.” At the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she is head of piano, there are only a handful of students who have been hot-housed. “What you are looking for in young people . . . is this absolute natural response and enthusiasm and ebullience when they hear music, rather than cracking the whip.”

It is time for MacGregor to head back up the tower to revisit those tonal universes of the preludes and fugues or to recapture the trills and ornamental chirrups of Couperin’s birds. She does so with a cheerful heart. “It’s all so enjoyable, I can’t think of anything better.”

Kathy Evans – The Sydney Morning Herald

Viola for Sale

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MacdonaldviolacropIt may well prove to be the most expensive musical instrument in the world – a Stradivari viola, whose asking price will start at $45 million when it is offered for sale this spring – but, just for a moment, it was held up with no hands.The viola was tucked firmly under the chin of the violist David Aaron Carpenter, who briefly needed both hands to adjust his bow, which had frayed a little during a virtuosic run-through of Albéniz’s Asturias at a demonstration of the instrument arranged by Sotheby’s. “I won’t go that crazy on this again,” Mr. Carpenter said with a smile after trying out the viola in an empty showroom at Sotheby’s. “It’s possibly the most expensive instrument in history, and I don’t want to break it.”

If the viola fetches anything near its asking price, it will dwarf previous sales records for musical instruments. The “Lady Blunt” Stradivari violin set an auction record when it was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million. While some instruments may have been sold privately for more, none are believed to have gone for anything near the $45 million being sought for this viola, which was owned and played by Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet until his death in 1987 in England.

It is a staggering sum for a fiddle: Its $45 million base price is more than enough to have saved both New York City Opera, which has folded, and the San Diego Opera, which is also closing because of money woes, or to buy several hundred top-of-the-line concert-quality grand pianos. And it underscores the way collectors have driven up the price of rare instruments in recent decades, with inflation far outpacing, say, musicians’ wages.

Violas are sometimes thought of as the unloved stepsisters of violins – rarely in the spotlight, played by fewer famous virtuosos, with less music composed specially for them. But it is precisely their status as second-class citizens that has made this viola so valuable: While there are roughly six hundred violins made by Antonio Stradivari, only around ten of his violas are known to have survived intact. That makes this instrument, the “Macdonald” viola, rare indeed.

The viola, owned by Mr. Schidlof’s family, will be sold in a sealed-bid process by Sotheby’s and by Ingles & Hayday, which specializes in the sale of valuable musical instruments. Buyers will be asked to submit bids of $45 million or more – not knowing how much their competitors have bid – and the viola will be sold to the highest bidder.

“The value is a combination of factors,” said Tim Ingles, a director of Ingles & Hayday. “It is a Strad, which is the first thing, made in the very best period of Stradivari’s work, which is between 1700 and 1720. It’s incredibly well preserved – one of the best-preserved Strads in existence. It’s one of only ten violas in existence. Then you add to that the fact that one of the most famous violists of the twentieth century played it for over twenty-five years.”

Still, setting a price for such a rare item is not easy.

Mr. Ingles said that the “Macdonald” viola – named for one of its early-nineteenth-century owners – sold in 1964 for $81,000 to Philips, the Dutch electronics company, which owned the Deutsche Grammophon record label and bought the instrument for Mr. Schidlof to play with the Amadeus Quartet, which recorded on the label. (The ownership of the viola eventually passed to Mr. Schidlof “by a process we don’t fully understand,” Mr. Ingles said.) But the valuation is not as simple as adjusting the 1964 price for inflation – $81,000 in 1964 would be around $613,000 today – because the value of rare instruments has far outpaced inflation in recent decades.

Mr. Ingles said that the sellers determined the viola’s asking price partly by examining how its value compared with other instruments over time. The $81,000 it cost in 1964, he noted, was more than three times the auction record for a Stradivari violin then. The $45 million base price now is a bit less than three times what the “Lady Blunt” sold for.

It is unclear who might offer such a sum for the viola, which will be first on view in New York. It then goes on display in Hong Kong and Europe. Collectors, foundations and patrons have often purchased rare and valuable instruments, which they then sometimes let musicians use. But David Redden, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, said that the instrument might appeal to another kind of buyer: the type who will pay $7.6 million for a coin or a fortune for a rare stamp. “We see them at Sotheby’s quite frequently – the sort of person who is absolutely fascinated by, sort of, the greatest object of its kind, in every category, and is able to participate at that level,” Mr. Redden said.

Of course, no one would try to spend a $7.6 million coin, or mail a letter with one of those postage stamps made famous by a printer’s error. The viola is still meant to make music. “Musical instruments and string instruments are quite different from selling some of the other things,” Mr. Redden said. “Because they need to be played.”

David Aaron Carpenter plays Bach’s Suite in C Major (BWV 1009) on the “Macdonald” viola.

Michael CooperThe New York Times

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen

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JerusalementrycropThree hundred years ago, Bach was in Weimar, serving as court organist to Johann-Ernst III of Saxe-Weimar. He had just been promoted to the role of Konzertmeister, a position that required that he lead a monthly performance of a church cantata in the Palace Church.

Alfred Dürr has determined that the first cantata by Bach performed at Weimar on 25 March 1714 was Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182). Depicting the Palm Sunday theme of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta suspects that the poetry was written by the court poet Salomon Franck. The chorale movement near the end of the cantata quotes Paul Stockmann‘s Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod, originally composed in 1633.

The score of the cantata acknowledges the reverberant acoustic of the church building by directing the divided violas and the continuo to play pizzicato when accompanying a recorder and violin duo. The chorale is arranged in the manner of Pachelbel: every line is first prepared in the lower voices, and then the soprano sings the cantus firmus while the other voices elaborate upon the text. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes the closing chorus as “a sprightly choral dance that could have stepped straight out of a comic opera of the period.”

Although church authorities in Leipzig typically forbade the performance of cantatas during Lent, an extraordinary opportunity for Bach to reuse Himmelskönig, sei willkommen occurred shortly after his arrival in Leipzig. On 25 March 1724, the solemnity of the Marian feast of the Annunciation outranked the Palm Sunday observance.

A Red Letter Day

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The Fourteen Diverse Canons (BWV)

The Fourteen Canons

The 329th birthday of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach may not strike most people as a very significant anniversary, but for Bach scholars, 21 March this year is a very special day. Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number fourteen, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this fourteen years into the twenty-first century. Coincidence?

To mark his birthday in 1685 – which is sometimes dated to the thirty-first of the month these days due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in Germany in 1698 – the Bach museum in the composer’s hometown of Eisenach will take a closer look at his esoteric interest in number puzzles. Among the items on display from 21 March until 9 November 2014 will be a famous 1746 portrait in which the composer wears a waistcoat with fourteen buttons, a personalized drinking cup with a fourteen-point monogram, as well as Bach’s annotated score for the Fourteen Canons (BWV 1087) built on the baseline of his Goldberg Variations (BWV 988).

A series of films and interactive displays will explore and sometimes question the validity of the most common theories.

Until the discovery of the fourteen canons in Strasbourg in 1974, looking for numeric patterns in Bach’s work had been considered a niche activity, said Jörg Hansen, the curator of the exhibition. But these days “most scholars accept that Bach shared other baroque artists’ passion for gematria,” an ancient system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases.

“That’s not to say that music came second to number games,” said Hansen, who was sceptical about some of the wilder theories, such as that the composer mathematically predicted the date of his own death. In the late 90s, one Bach scholar developed a computer program just to show that any given number could be found to reoccur in Bach’s work once you started searching for it. The number thirteen, for example, occurred just as frequently as the number fourteen.

But in those days, Hansen said, there were few academics who denied that Bach had a playful mind, and the theory that he enjoyed encrypting his personal signature in the texture of his compositions was seen as less fanciful. “[Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach was recorded as saying that his father ‘was not a fan of dry mathematical stuff.’ Increasingly, I think that statement should be read with an emphasis on ‘dry’ rather than ‘mathematical,’” Hansen said.

The curators of the Bach House in Eisenach are not alone in their renewed interest in Bach’s number puzzles. Danish director Lars von Trier‘s new film, Nymphomaniac, features a series of earnest conversations about Fibonacci numbers and Bach’s polyphonic theory.

Philip Oltermann – The Guardian

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