For over 300 years, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has touched and moved millions and millions of people. In the January 21, 2011 edition of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote that after having collected over 1,500 comments, polling countless musicians and music lovers and drawing on a lifetime of music study and criticism he concluded that – beyond a doubt – J. S. Bach was the greatest composer of all time. The writing of cantatas (which Bach called ‘Stücke’ [“pieces”]) comprised the bulk of his creative energies over his lifetime. It is more than fitting that the (Baltimore) Bach Concert Series choose to devote itself to both the performance and the understanding of these magnificent musical gems.
Most people have had the good fortune to have learned about music in a variety of ways: through the study of a musical instrument, singing in a school or church choir and/or music appreciation courses in college. While all of these vehicles afford a terrific way to learn about music they all tend to focus on historical facts, musical forms, dates of composers and compositions and where the music fits into the larger picture of world history. They omit another dimension, just below the musical surface, which offers immense returns to those who look for it.
I hasten to note that it is indeed quite rewarding to listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and appreciate it for its inventive melodies, captivating forms and imaginative use of rhythms. My point is that to stop there is to miss the tremendously developed and immeasurably rewarding subjective aspect of Bach’s music. Bach inevitably focused on key words and phrases when he wrote his cantatas. I think it a good use of time and intellect to probe Bach’s music for the deeper meanings that he had in mind as he wrote his compositions.
The form Bach derived from his sacred texts motivated him to produce an intensely personal music which was designed to elicit an emotional response from his audience. In his magnificent book The Cantatas of J. S. Bach Alfred Dürr notes: “Artistic peaks generally owe their origins to a happy concurrence of various contributory factors. Hence a variety of causes may be adduced for the cultivation of the Protestant church cantata. Perhaps the most important of these is the theology of Martin Luther. The conviction that God’s Word, as laid down in the Bible, is dead and ineffectual unless it is proclaimed, that everything depends on making it current, increasingly resulted in a new orientation of church music. A close link between words and melody is already found in Luther’s own hymns, and in liturgical singing – increasingly in the vernacular rather than in Latin…. German composers sought a declamation of the sung word that was no longer merely correct but animated and impassioned.”
My goal at the beginning of each cantata concert is to shine a light on the magical world of music that Bach created in each of the cantatas. In Dürr’s words “to make it current.” To achieve that goal I point out some of the key examples of World Painting or Doctrine of Affections utilized by Bach in the composition. [Word Painting is music that has a visual conception behind it. Action verbs such as turn, leap and stray offered obvious suggestions to Bach who composed melodies designed to represent them. Doctrine of Affections was a system by which composers believed that short, repetitive musical ideas (rhythmic or melodic) could literally change a person’s ‘affect’ – or what we today would more likely call a person’s ‘mood’ to one of happiness, sorrow or joy.] Of course a complete libretto with a good English translation is also provided. Lastly, the theological commentary that Bach often inserts into his music, through the symbolic use of musical intervals, harmony and melodic patterns is explored prior to the complete performance of the cantata. I find this facet of Bach’s cantatas to be particularly fascinating and illuminating. There are many places in Bach’s music where a sophisticated commentary may be found purely in musical form – no libretto or other hint of the commentary is contained elsewhere. These are inevitably magical moments in the music and I strive to point out as many as possible within the time constraints of each individual concert.
I hasten to add that for me the enjoyment, appreciation and admiration of Bach’s music exists on many levels. These levels include Bach’s mastery of counterpoint, his imaginative use of forms, his marvelously expressive melodies and his unsurpassed ability to elicit an emotional response from the listener. Nonetheless, to appreciate Bach just for those qualities is to miss arguably the most compelling part of it all: Bach’s total embrace of the complete preoccupation of Reformation-era musicians that their music “do more than entertain.” (Paraphrase of Handel) Rather, they sought to construct sacred music that was open to Sermon-like interpretation that would be transformative to the listener.
In my judgment, Bach succeeded in this challenging quest better than anyone in the history of music.
The (Baltimore) Bach Concert Series presents Bach’s cantatas on the first Sunday of each month (October through June). These concerts are performed in a beautiful space with superb musicians and are offered free of charge as a gift to you and the entire community. I hope that you find that our attention to these oft-hidden dimensions of the music of J. S. Bach serves to deepen your pleasure as you enjoy the sublime music of J. S. Bach.
T. Herbert Dimmock
Founder and music director
Bach Concert Series