Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, ca. 1746, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (Museum of City History, Leipzig)
Among all the great composers of Western civilization, Johann Sebastian Bach is unique for the strange turns his posthumous reputation took over the centuries. Relatively obscure in his lifetime, his works fell into almost complete oblivion for decades after his death in 1750. Then, in the 19th century, it became clear that he was indisputably the greatest composer of his day, indeed the outstanding composer of the Baroque period.
Audiences today have a special fondness for orchestral works written by Bach in the 1710s and 1720s that were based on French and Italian modes of expression, including his orchestral suites, violin concertos, and the so-called Brandenburg concertos. Musicologist and pianist Daniel Freeman pays tribute to this iconic composer and some of his greatest works in this day highlighted by music and video recordings.
9:30–10:45 a.m. The Life of J. S. Bach
Born in Eisenach in 1685, J. S. Bach was a member of an extensive family of professional musicians. He was completely steeped in the culture of German Lutheran church music and never left the German lands in his lifetime. Most of the famous organ music by Bach was written when he worked at the ducal court of Weimar between 1708 and 1717, whereas most of the secular music heard today originated at the princely court of Anhalt-Köthen between 1717 and 1723. His last period of activity was as a schoolteacher and church organist in Leipzig between 1723 and 1750. Perhaps his greatest compositions in Leipzig were examples of Lutheran church music, but he composed a large variety of masterpieces in multiple genres.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. The Orchestral Suites
The four Orchestral Suites were composed in the 1710s and 1720s as sophisticated re-interpretations of the style of French ballet music. They were intended strictly for concert use, never as music for dance performance. Their magnificent “French overtures” introduce stylized dances based on the rhythms and melodic gestures of ballet music performed at the royal court of France that are far richer and more innovative than anything ever attempted by contemporary French composers.
12:15–1:15 p.m. Break
1:15–2:30 p.m. Solo Concertos
J. S. Bach’s best-loved works for individual soloists accompanied by orchestra are the two surviving concertos for solo violin and the single concerto for two violins probably written around 1729. In addition, he left several concertos for keyboard and orchestra, especially from the 1720s, that are probably all arrangements of lost and surviving works of various types. The style of all of Bach’s solo concertos is based on those of Antonio Vivaldi, with which he was intimately acquainted. Hardly mere imitations of Vivaldi, the Bach concertos are unprecedented for their sophisticated interactions between soloists and the orchestra and their extraordinary virtuoso passagework.
2:45–4 p.m. The Brandenburg Concertos
The six Brandenburg Concertos for multiple soloists and orchestra were presented as a gift to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1721. Only loosely based on traditions of the Italian “concerto grosso,” they constitute Bach’s best-loved orchestral music. Each one offers a special mix of string, wind, or keyboard soloists, highlighted by a unique combination of innovative stylistic features. The most renowned of all is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, one of the first concertos written anywhere in Europe with a keyboard instrument as a soloist, in this case supplied with energetic virtuosic excursions.
Freeman lectures on music topics nationally and internationally and is a music lecturer at the University of Minnesota.
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