J.S. Bach: Three Adventures in B Minor

On Wednesday, we explored J.S Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, a festive and celebratory collection of Baroque dances that is nonetheless shrouded in veiled, mysterious B minor. (It’s the only one of Bach’s four Orchestral Suites to be  set in a minor key). The nineteenth century Austrian pianist, composer, and educator Ernst Pauer believed that each musical key embodies a distinct atmosphere. He called B minor “that very melancholy key” which “tells …

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Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, The Netherlands Bach Society

Coffee and culture mixed in Leipzig in the late 1730s. Café Zimmermann provided a venue for the first performances of many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas and instrumental works. Between 1729 and 1739, Bach was the director of Collegium Musicum, a society founded by Georg Philipp Telemann which presented concerts at the coffeehouse. The cafe’s owner, Gottfried Zimmermann, offered the concerts to the public free of charge, making up his expenses in …

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Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, The Netherlands Bach Society

In 1711, a collection of violin concertos by Antonio Vivaldi was published in Amsterdam under the title, L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration”). It was a prime example of the Baroque concerto grosso form, in which a solo instrument, or small group of instruments, engage in continuous dialogue with a larger ensemble. The British musicologist Michael Talbot has called L’estro armonico “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the …

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Bach’s Chaconne: Midori at Köthen Castle

“Monumental” is a word that has been used to describe J.S. Bach’s Chaconne. This is the fifth and final movement of the Partita No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin, written sometime between 1717 and 1720. Emotionally, there is a sense of transcendence when we arrive at this mighty set of 64 variations on a repeating bass line. It’s approximately as long as the four dance movements which precede …

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Remembering Lynn Harrell

The American cellist Lynn Harrell passed away unexpectedly on Monday. He was 76. Years ago when I was a student one summer at the Chautauqua Institution, I attended Harrell’s masterclass and recital. His down-to-earth, irreverent sense of humor, powerful, singing tone, and profound musicianship are etched in my memory. During a career that spanned six decades, Lynn Harrell appeared regularly with the world’s top orchestras. He will be remembered also as an accomplished …

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Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Dark and Tempestuous Adventure

In 1720, J.S. Bach applied for the post of music director at St Jacob’s Church in Hamburg. As part of the audition, Bach performed an organ recital lasting more than two hours. In the end, establishment politics prevented Bach from winning the job, but the level of his playing left the audience stunned. After hearing Bach’s improvisations, the 97-year-old Dutch organist, Johann Adam Reinken, said, “I thought this skill had died out, …

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Bach’s St John Passion: A Divine Drama

J.S. Bach’s St John Passion is a haunting and dramatic musical depiction of the Passion of Christ, as told in the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus’ capture, judgment, and crucifixion, as outlined in biblical passages from John 18 and 19, are presented by the solo tenor (the Evangelist). A cast of other singers perform the roles of Jesus, Pilate, and the disciples, while the four-part choir represents the people at large. …

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