Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

telling tales

what was bach really like?

October 31, 2011

When I think about J.S. Bach, I think first about the music. I think about my favorite pieces: the St. Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos, the “Wachet Auf” Cantata (and a ton of others). Next, I think about the well-known anecdotes I’ve heard about Bach’s life. I think of his two marriages and twenty children (only half lived to adulthood). I think about Bach’s kids who went on to great success as composers. I think about the time when Bach left his job without permission to walk 250 miles to study with noted organist Dieterich Buxtehude. He learned a lot when he was there, and was very interested in taking Buxtehude’s position, but he would have had to marry the man’s daughter. Despite how much he wanted the job, he said no, and then he had to walk the 250 miles all the way back home again. I think about the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble that Bach directed, and I wonder what their coffee house performances were like.

But if I really let my imagination go, I think about the little details of Bach’s life, because Bach was just a man, and for a while he lived and breathed and inhabited this planet. I think of little Wilhelm Freidemann or Carl Philipp Emanuel silently watching the elder Bach sketch out music. I wonder what kinds of conversations he had with his sons as they were growing up. Was he a patient teacher? Did he look at their compositions and encourage them? When he was an old man and his style was considered old fashioned, what did he talk about with C.P.E. or Johann Christian? We know that they encouraged their father to try to write in the new style. How did that conversation go?

Did Bach get stressed out? When he worked at St. Thomas’ church, and he had to produce a new cantata every single week, did he ever work through the night? Was he pulling his hair out on Saturday morning, worried because he still had another movement to write and only fifteen minutes before the singers were supposed to show up for rehearsal? When he wrote the Brandenburg Concertos to get a new job, did he get his hopes up? When he was writing those pieces, was he psyched at how well they came together? Did he wait every day for a response? How long passed before he gave up on getting the new job? This is what musicologists think about when they let their imaginations go.

There hasn’t been a Hollywood movie made about Bach. No Amadeus, no Immortal Beloved. His life just wasn’t that melodramatic. He worked constantly, wrote all the time, and barely gave a thought to his own legacy. When I picture Bach in my mind, he’s just the man from the famous Haussmann portrait, jowly, thick fingers holding a piece of music. No smile, just a neutral expression for a man who was probably thinking about what was next on his to do list after “sit for portrait.” Maybe he was turning over a theme in his mind from Art of the Fugue. Maybe he went right to his desk and wrote some music as soon as he got home. Or maybe he took a nap. He was just a man, after all.

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