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Posts Tagged ‘J S Bach’

Bach at Keyboard
Bach at the Organ

It’s one of the hazards of concert-going. You’re deeply engrossed in the music. Comes a diminuendo to pianissimo and beyond. You scarcely breathe as the music falls to the limit of audibility.

From three seats over comes a quiet snorfff. The gentleman there has fallen asleep.

It’s hard to imagine a greater insult to a composer. Yet there’s a very well known work which was designed to have this exact effect — well, maybe. Or so legend has it.

J N Forkel
J N Forkel

The story comes from Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1749 – 1818).

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was one of Bach’s students. He was attached to the household of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Keyserlingk. The count often traveled to Leipzig. Goldberg usually accompanied him and would visit with Bach for a lesson.

Count Keyserlingk had health problems. Too often, his nights were filled with pain rather than sleep. On those nights he would call for young Goldberg, who would play the harpsichord for him in a room adjoining his bedchamber.

Count Keyserlingk
Count Keyserlingk

Could Bach compose some keyboard music for him? Perhaps Bach could make the pieces "of a soft and somewhat lively character." Then they might cheer Count Keyserlingk up on his sleepless nights.

Good story, so far. The first question is — assuming it’s true (and we’ll get to that in a moment), is the count asking for music to divert his mind when he can’t sleep, or music that might lull him to sleep?

The usual interpretation of this passage is the former. I might think that too if I were a keyboard player. Trying to sort out these challenging pieces at the harpsichord is definitely not going to lull you to sleep, and playing them on the piano is even more finger-twisting.

The fact that Count Keyserlingk is (according to Forkel) asking to be cheered, not lulled or soothed, is further evidence for the pianists’ side.

But note what Forkel says the count asked for: music "of a soft and somewhat lively character." Is he asking for pieces that are both soft and lively, or does he want some pieces to be soft and others lively?

Well, could "soft" be just a mistranslation? I don’t think so. Forkel writes sanft. I’m no German expert, though I speak a little, so I asked my old friend Herr Langenscheidt. Here are some possible English equivalents he suggests: soft, gentle, mild, calm, sweet, and smooth. In my book that doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiation about what Keyserlingk was looking for.

You can’t say that the Goldberg Variations’ opening aria doesn’t fit that description — though some might call it a bit melancholy instead — and there are plenty of variations in the set which could easily fall into the "soft" category.

Goldberg Variations First Edition
First Edition of the Goldberg Variations

Forkel never says that Goldberg played the entire set of 30 variations from beginning to end. On the contrary, he tells us that "when the sleepless nights came, he [Count Keyserlingk] used to say: ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’" (Emphasis added.) Don’t you think that a reasonable and thoughtful Goldberg would try to choose an appropriate variation for that night’s situation?

Forkel also says that "Bach thought he could best fulfill [the count's] wish by variations, which, on account of the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony, he had hitherto considered as an ungrateful task." The implication is pretty clear here: Bach thought that variations, as a musical form, tended to be dull. One interpretation of this sentence might be that Bach took this as a challenge — to make his Goldberg Variations stimulating and engaging. But you could just as easily take it to mean that Bach used variations because they (or at least some of them!) were more likely than other forms to send the count into dreamland.

Either way, he seems to have pleased the count. Forkel tells us that Count Keyserlingk never tired of his variations. He rewarded Bach with a golden goblet, filled with 100 louis-d’or. A louis d’or was a gold coin with a weight of 6.75 ounces. Today that much gold would be worth a cool $935,550.

It’s a fine tale, but is it true? Good question. I have to admit, there’s evidence to the contrary.

First, a big one: no other source has yet appeared to corroborate Forkel’s yarn.

Nor is there in the published variations any hint of a dedication to either Count Keyserlingk or Goldberg. You’d certainly expect one, especially given the count’s rather generous payment. But Bach’s title page says only Keyboard practice, consisting of an aria with different variations for the harpsichord with two manuals, prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach, Polish royal and Saxon electoral court composer, director and chorusmaster in Leipzig.

Third, the inventory of Bach’s estate lists no golden goblet.

And finally — most damning in the view of generations of pianists who have struggled mightily with the Goldberg Variations — at the time the Goldberg Variations appeared, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was only 14 years old.

It’s pretty tough to argue with the lack of corroboration, but remember that Forkel got much of his biographical information directly from two of Bach’s sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, who seem to have been generally pretty reliable. The lack of a dedication is telling, though; it definitely runs against common practice at the time.

However, the goblet could have been sold, lost, or given away by 1750. And Goldberg’s age? At 14, Mendelssohn was composing symphonies and Mozart created a full length opera (Mitridate, Re di Ponto). It’s remarkable what a talented kid can accomplish when he’s not distracted by Wii and Facebook, eh?

All that said, until some further documentation turns up — a dedicated copy from the count’s library, for example — I’m afraid we’ll have leave Forkel’s tale of the Goldberg Variations’ origins and use in the "legend, possibly apocryphal" department. But the next 3am when your sheep-count gets into five figures, why not see what the Goldberg Variations will do for you? I’ve listed a few recordings below, and there are many, many more in print.

Further reading:

The Goldberg Variations by Yo Tomita

Further listening (recommended recordings of the Goldberg Variations):

Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord (1976) stocked item at Amazon Germany

Pierre Hantai, harpsichord (1993) at Arkivmusic

Glenn Gould, piano (1955) at Arkivmusic

Murray Perahia, piano (2000) at CD Universe

Note: The vendor links above are provided solely for your information. WKSU doesn’t endorse these suppliers, nor does it receive any financial benefit from your use of the links.

This article is an updated version of one originally published in WKSU Classical on 20 August 2009.

Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 19 in 1704, working at his first church gig (or second, depending on how you count what amounted to lackey toil at Weimar) when a rare opportunity arose.

I’m neither clergyman nor Lutheran, but my understanding of the Lutheran Church Year – the calendar by which Bach effectively lived his work life – is that it begins with Advent, the 4 weeks before Christmas. The calendar’s other major anchor point is Easter, if I can call a floating date an anchor. Easter is the first Sunday after the full moon after the Spring equinox, and that date determines all the dates from Epiphany on.

To account for this movable feast, the Lutheran calendar has a variable number of Sundays after Trinity. Usually it’s between 23 and 26. Only rarely – when Easter falls between the 22nd and 26th of March – does the Lutheran calendar have a 27th Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s rare opportunity to compose a work for Trinity 27 came in 1704. And for that special day, Bach composed – nothing special.

But that shouldn’t be a surprise. It wasn’t in his contract! Bach’s job was playing organ at Arnstadt’s New Church. Yes, he was one of a long line of Bachs who had done that job (and a well paid one it was, despite the church’s feeble budget). But nothing formally or legally compelled him to compose a special large-scale work for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in 1704.

Special large-scale works weren’t part of his job; yet not even a year hence, Bach would feel the sting of rebuke when the church’s elders berated him for not composing enough of them. (Of course, that might have been just piling-on, while they were about chastising him for getting into an altercation with one of the church’s musicians. Remember, Bach was then what we would consider college age.)

Did Bach carry a vivid memory of this verbal caning for over a quarter-century? Is it possible that he simply regretted not having written anything for Trinity 27 in 1704? Could one or both of these be the reason, or reasons, that the cantata he composed at Leipzig in 1731 is such a masterpiece?

Some historians and commentators think Bach put the extra time and effort into Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme simply because Trinity 27 was such a rare event. Maybe. But Bach was an eminently practical musician. Many of his Leipzig cantatas show clear evidence of his compositional short-cuts. Wachet Auf, though, is as finely wrought as anything he could have expected to use year after year, despite the fact that he had only one other chance to use it in his 16 years in Leipzig.

Bach did borrow his chorale melody and part of his text – an entirely normal practice. He got them from Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. In 1599, when he composed it, Nicolai had just survived a plague epidemic. If that left him feeling especially inspired, that would certainly be understandable!

Nicolai’s work accounts for 3 movements of this symmetrically-structured cantata, including the most famous, the central one. Who wrote the text for the other movements? We don’t know. Picander is one possibility; Bach mined his words for other works. Some scholars even suggest that Bach himself may have been the poet.

Nicolai’s text is the Biblical parable of the bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom. There’s a visual trick behind this text that Bach, numerologist that he was, surely would have appreciated. Look at the shape of the lines when you center them (first verse only shown):


Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne,
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde
Sie rufen und mit hellem Munde:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen?
Wohl auf, der Bräutgam kömmt;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt!
Alleluja!
Macht euch bereit
Zu der Hochzeit,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn!

It’s unmistakably the chalice, the symbol of the Eucharist – and in fact in early editions Nicolai’s hymn was printed this very way.

But Nicolai and Bach are not so pious that they miss the chance to connect at a worldly, even earthy, level with their readers and listeners.

For one thing, Nicolai evokes the medieval song form called Aube (morning song) in France and Wächterlied (watchman’s song) in Germany. These are thoroughly secular love poems! The watchman’s role in these songs is to alert the (illicit) lovers to the impending dawn, when they must part to avoid discovery and preserve their reputations – or their lives. In Wachet auf, the watchman’s job is to alert the negligent bridesmaids (the Church) to the approach of the bridegroom (Christ).

But that’s not all. Picander’s (or Bach’s) verses include an ardent love duet (movement 6), and introduce vivid images from the Bible’s fevered, almost erotic Song of Songs.

Here we find "My beloved is like a roe or a young hart" (2:9); Bach says, "The bridegroom comes, like a buck and a young stag." "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me." (2:6); Bach’s bridegroom tells his bride, "At my left hand you shall rest, and my right hand shall embrace you." The Song of Songs poet writes, "My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." (2:16) Bach says, "My beloved is mine, and I am his … you shall revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses." We even find watchmen in the Song of Songs: "The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?" (3:3)

Even though Bach programmed this cantata no more than twice in his lifetime, today it’s one of his best known and most frequently performed. In fact its central chorale is one of his most oft-played works of any type, with arrangements available for nearly every imaginable instrument, from clarinet to ukulele. You may know that chorale better by its English name: Sleepers, Awake.

 

Bach: Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, S140

Donna Brown, soprano; James Taylor, tenor; Michael Volle, bass
Gächinger Kantorei
Bach Collegium, Stuttgart
Helmut Rilling, conductor
Recorded on 28 November 1998

 
SUNG TEXTS

Movement 1 (chorus)
 
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme Wake up, the voice is calling us
Der Wächter sehr hoch auf der Zinne, Of the watchmen in the high, high tower;
Wach auf, du Stadt Jerusalem! Wake up, you city of Jerusalem!
Mitternacht heißt diese Stunde; The hour is midnight;
Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde: They call to us with ringing voices:
Wo seid ihr klugen Jungfrauen? Where are you wise virgins?
Wohl auf, der Bräutigam kömmt; Come on, the bridegroom comes;
Steht auf, die Lampen nehmt! Rise up and take your lamps!
Alleluja! Alleluia!
Macht euch bereit Make yourselves ready
Zu der Hochzeit, For the wedding,
Ihr müsset ihm entgegen gehn! You must go to meet him!
 
Movement 2 (recitative)

 
Er kommt, er kommt, He comes, he comes,
Der Bräutgam kommt! The bridegroom comes!
Ihr Töchter Zions, kommt heraus, Come forth, you daughters of Zion,
Sein Ausgang eilet aus der Höhe He rushes forth from the heavens
In euer Mutter Haus. To your mother’s house.
Der Bräutgam kommt, der einem Rehe The bridegroom comes, like a buck
Und jungen Hirsche gleich and a young stag,
Auf denen Hügeln springt Leaping on the hills
Und euch das Mahl der Hochzeit bringt. And takes you to the wedding feast.
Wacht auf, ermuntert euch! Wake up, bestir yourselves!
Den Bräutgam zu empfangen! To receive the bridegroom!
Dort, sehet, kommt er hergegangen. There, look, he comes to meet you.
 
Movement 3 (aria: duet)

 
Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil? When are you coming, my salvation?
(Ich komme, dein Teil.) (I am coming, your share.)
Ich warte mit brennendem Öle. I am waiting with burning oil.
Eröffne den Saal
(Ich öffne)
Open the hall
(I open)
(Zum himmlischen Mahl.) (For the heavenly feast.)
Komm, Jesu! Come, Jesus!
(Komm, liebliche Seele!) (Come, lovely soul!)
 
Movement 4 (tenor solo or chorus)

 
Zion hört die Wächter singen, Zion hears the watchmen singing,
Das Herz tut ihr vor Freuden springen, Her heart springs for joy,
Sie wachet und steht eilend auf. She wakes and hurries to rise.
Ihr Freund kommt vom Himmel prächtig, Her beloved comes from heaven with glory,
Von Gnaden stark, von Wahrheit mächtig, Strong with grace, mighty with truth,
Ihr Licht wird hell, ihr Stern geht auf. Her light grows bright, her star rises.
Nun komm, du werte Kron, Now come, you precious crown,
Herr Jesu, Gottes Sohn! Lord Jesus, God’s Son!
Hosianna! Hosannah!
Wir folgen all We all follow
Zum Freudensaal To the hall of joy
Und halten mit das Abendmahl. And take part in the communion.
 
Movement 5 (recitative)

 
So geh herein zu mir, So, come in to me,
Du mir erwählte Braut! You, my chosen bride!
Ich habe mich mit dir I have entrusted myself
Von Ewigkeit vertraut. To you eternally.
Dich will ich auf mein Herz, I want to set you on my heart
Auf meinen Arm gleich wie ein Siegel setzen and on my arm, just like a seal,
Und dein betrübtes Aug ergötzen. And bring pleasure to your troubled eye.
Vergiß, o Seele, nun Forget now, oh spirit,
Die Angst, den Schmerz, The fear, the pain,
Den du erdulden müssen; Which you have had to endure;
Auf meiner Linken sollst du ruhn, At my left hand you shall rest,
Und meine Rechte soll dich küssen. And my right shall embrace [kiss] you.
 
Movement 6 (aria: duet)

 
Mein Freund ist mein, My beloved is mine,
Und ich bin sein. And I am his.
Die Liebe soll nichts scheiden. Nothing shall separate our love.
Ich will mit dir
(Du sollst) (mir)
I wish to, with you
(You shall) (me)
in Himmels Rosen weiden, Revel [graze] in Heaven’s roses,
Da Freude die Fülle, da Wonne wird sein. There we shall find satiety and bliss. 1
 
Movement 7 (chorus)

 
Gloria sei dir gesungen Gloria be sung to you
Mit Menschen- und englischen Zungen, With human and angel voices,
Mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon. With harps and cymbals to boot.
Von zwölf Perlen sind die Pforten, The gates are made of twelve pearls;
An deiner Stadt sind wir Konsorten In your city we are consorts
Der Engel hoch um deinen Thron. Of heavenly angels round your throne.
Kein Aug hat je gespürt, No eye has ever seen,
Kein Ohr hat je gehört No ear has ever heard
Solche Freude. Such joy.
Des sind wir froh, Thus we are glad,
Io, io! Io, Io!
Ewig in dulci jubilo. Eternally in sweet rejoicing.2
 

1Here the poet is indulging in poetic wordplay, with multiple shades of meaning. Weide (n): pasture; weiden (v): graze, pasture, turn out to pasture; revel in something. Füllen (n): foal, colt, or filly; füllen (v): stuff, fill to satiety. A Füllhorn is a horn of plenty.

2 Io is pronounced “ee-yo.” It’s an expression of religious rejoicing from classical Latin. You can also find it in the second verse of the Christmas song Ding Dong Merrily on High: "E’en so here below, below / let steeple bells be swungen, / And i-o, i-o, i-o, / by priest and people sungen."

Translation: David Roden – Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA

 

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