“Bach became an absolute master of his art by never ceasing to be a student of it.” - Alex Ross, The New Yorker
The 2017-2018 season of Bach+, entitled “Bach in Leipzig: Four Portraits,” celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (October 31, 1517) and the 325th anniversary of the founding of St. Anne’s parish in 1692 (when J.S. Bach was only seven years old) with monumental works that serve as the hallmarks of his time in Leipzig. The series, co-hosted by Live Arts Maryland and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, examines the mature masterworks of Bach through four “portraits”: Cantor and Director of Music for the Leipzig churches, Director of the Collegium Musicum, Organ Virtuoso, and the “Learned Musician”.
In May of 1723, a 38-year-old J.S. Bach moved his family from Cöthen to Leipzig to accept the position of Cantor et Director Musices, a role that he would hold for the next 27 years. In doing so, he was trading his much-loved courtly life as Duke Ernst August’s Capellmeister for the prestige of the municipal and scholarly “Cantor” role in a university town that was a seat of intellectual life in the heart of Lutheran Saxony. Goethe described Leipzig as a “little Paris” and—while this sentiment was written a half-century after Bach’s death—the city during Bach’s life was quite attractive—a university town with what conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls a “...rich urban life—its [elegant coffee houses and] thriving book trade, the presence of printers, the network of foreign agents, and the cosmopolitan aura the city acquired with the flood of visitors attending its three annual trade fairs.”
Leipzig’s Thomasschule and Thomaskirche, which drew Bach to the town, were steeped in a rich musical tradition dating back centuries and had enjoyed a long line of distinguished directors. Music of diverse traditions (including Roman Catholic – since it had pre-Reformation Augustinian roots) made up the library. In his new role, Bach would serve as director of music for the four main churches in Leipzig —St Nicholas, St. Thomas, The New Church, and St. Peters, as well as be responsible for special services at the university church (St. Paul’s) on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the Reformation festival.
Further, Leipzig was the site of the famous “Leipzig Disputation” between Martin Luther and Johann Eck, a Dominican friar, which represented Luther’s final break with the Roman Catholic church and played an important role in the spread of the Reformation. And the Reformation had a profound impact on the history of music. Luther’s first preface to the Wittenberg hymnal of 1524 says: “... I would fain see all the arts, and music in particular, used in the service of Him who hath given and created them.” As a matter of course, Lutheran worship was filled with music–organ music, concerted (and) polyphonic vocal music, and congregational singing–that was tied to the new German texts. Conductor and musicologist John Butt notes that “Lutheran tradition of course peaked in J.S. Bach, a composer who, like his most distinguished predecessors, capitalized on all the musical styles available to him – whether from Protestant or Catholic traditions. What makes his music Lutheran lies in the theological stance of the poetic textual commentary of his cantatas and Passions.”
The 2017-2018 season of Bach+, “Bach in Leipzig: Four Portraits” commemorates Johann Sebastian Bach’s role as Cantor et Director Musices of the Leipzig churches and the St. Thomas school through four “portraits” of Bach during his twenty-seven years in Leipzig:
- Cantor and Director of Music
- Director of the Collegium Musicum
The Learned Musician
Through these lenses, we explore the rich body of music that J.S. Bach produced to both fulfill his duties and to satisfy his personal artistic and religions ideals.
Cantor and Director of Music
Bach’s Leipzig output can be considered some of the crowning achievements of a learned musician who was deeply committed to his faith. Music in the Lutheran Church had a confessional aspect and Bach, in the words of scholar Robin Leaver “was as much a musical theologian as a theological musician”. Musicologist Michael Marissen writes, with regard to his liturgical works, that “...we might not be fully appreciating Bach’s output if we take him simply or essentially to be a supplier of pitches, rhythms, and tone colors, however marvelous or magnificent these rich aspects of his work may be... Bach’s musical settings can theologically expand upon and interpret his librettos ...” Bach+ captures this portrait by presenting works that show how Bach’s music is intimately connected with the text to present an overall theology. Concerts include the cantata series featuring “Ein Feste Burg” and the Christmas Oratorio, and the Mass in B minor.
- “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott“, BWV 80 (November 5th, 5:30pm Service)
- Weinachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248, Cantatas 1, 2, 3-5 and 6 (December 14th and 24th, January 7th and February 1st)
Mass in B minor, with pre-concert talk by Michael Marissen, author of Bach & God (March 10th)
Director of the Collegium Musicum
The traditional iconic image of Bach is not one that brings to mind the words “fashionable” or “progressive”. And yet, in Leipzig, as in other towns, the Collegium Musicum provided a venue for trying things “new” through experimentation with diverse contemporary styles of vocal and instrumental music, especially in the “international” styles Italian and French styles. In directing this storied series during his tenure from 1729 through at least 1741, J.S. Bach produced more than 500 two-hour weekly concerts. Repertoire for these concerts included the “newest kind of music,” especially works in an Italian style, and featured compositions for strings and harpsichord. Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin, though not written for those concerts, were almost certainly included on the programs. Bach+ captures this portrait by showing some of influences on Bach as well as by presenting works that Bach almost certainly influenced. Concerts include a look at “Italianate” string trios of J.C. Bach (Sebastian’s youngest son) as well as sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord.
- For the Love of All Things Italian – The Vivaldi Project (November 2nd, 6:15pm)
- Bach and the Violin (March 8th, 6:15pm)
The Keyboard Virtuoso
In 1752, Johann Joachim Quantz (a famous flutist and colleague of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel) wrote: “The admirable Johann Sebastian Bach has at length, in modern times, brought the art of organ to its greatest perfection.” From extant copies and contemporaneous sources we know that, as organist and keyboard player, Bach copied and studied a wide range of music, absorbing the styles of keyboard masters of the previous generation of German masters as well as works by Frescobaldi (organist at the Vatican) and De Grigny (organist of the cathedral in Reims). In fact, recent research has brought to light the earliest such manuscript, created by a 15-year old J.S. Bach, in which he meticulously copied chorale variations by Johann Adam Reinken (who later praised Bach’s command of improvising on chorales) and Dietrich Buxtehude (with whom Bach later studied). Throughout his entire career, he was regarded as a virtuoso organist and regarded as the “prince of all clavier players” as a colleague once called him in a dedication. Bach+ captures this portrait by presenting a series of 75-minute “Organ Vespers” that starts with some of the virtuosic “foundational” works that Bach wrote during his years in Weimar and continues with the masterworks, such as the third volume of the Clavier-Übung series, produced or revised during his tenure in Leipzig.
- Organ Vespers at 4:00pm (as a prelude to the 5:30pm service) on September 24th, October 22nd, November 26th, January 21st, February 18th, March 11th (at 3:00pm), May 19th, and June 10th.
The Learned Musician
Especially in his later years, Bach became relentlessly focused on creating a veritable encyclopedia of his art. These encyclopedic works show a command of composition that reached across the centuries to capture and synthesize a rich palette of styles and techniques, ranging from Gregorian chants of the Latin Mass and Lutheran chorales, through the elegance and tone painting of French keyboard works, through madrigals, the dramatic narratives of opera and the north German “fantastic style” of the keyboard. And all wrapped up in compositional techniques that ranged from the formality of imitation (canon and fugue), through the simple juxtaposition of melody with an accompanying bass line. Alex Ross, in “Bach’s Holy Dread” notes that “...his lifelong habit of studying and copying scores allowed him to roam the Europe of the mind. In his later years, he copied everything from a Renaissance mass by Palestrina to the up-to-date Italianate lyricism of Pergolesi. Bach became an absolute master of his art by never ceasing to be a student of it.” Bach+ explores his revised and perfected art through all of its performances but, in particular, by presenting the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering and, of course, the great Mass in B minor.
- Art of Fugue (October 5th, 6:15pm)
- Mass in B minor (March 10th)
- Third Volume of the Clavier-Ubung (“Organ Mass”) (March 11th)
The Musical Offering (April 19th)
Interested to learn more? Bach+ suggests the following books and articles:
- Bach & God by Michael Marissen, (Oxford University Press, 2016)
- Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications by Robin Leaver (FortressPress,2017)
- Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
- John Butt, “The Reformation: Classical Music’s Punk Moment”, The Guardian, August 18, 2017
- Alex Ross, “Bach’s Holy Dread”, The New Yorker, January 2, 2017