Bach to the Future!
by Erin Calata
Some know this composer as one of those old, dead guys in a white wig whose keyboard and orchestral music can be recognized in movies, commercials and popular media. Others who are more familiar with his music know him as a man of many notes, whose characteristic melismas can challenge even the most talented and agile of musicians. Some know him as a composer of the church. His pastors at the time probably knew him as a talented, but ornery, worship musician. (He was known to be hard headed.) And his contemporaries viewed him as conventional, even old-fashioned.
It wasn’t until much later that many began to know this composer as somewhat of a genius. And I would have to agree. I wish I could be friends with this Johann character… I imagine he would have been an inspiring mentor and amusing cohort.
Johann Sebastian Bach was a fascinating and complex man, both musically and personally. He was born into a family with a long history of musical talent in Eisenach, Germany in 1685. He proceeded to spend the entirety of his life in his home country, moving from town to town to pursue church music positions, until his death in Leipzig in 1750 at age 65. He had a very large and musical family himself, bearing a total of twenty children (only ten of which survived childhood) between two wives, Mary Barbara (who was coincidentally his cousin… yes, that’s called in-breeding) and Anna Magdalena Wilcke (who he married soon after Mary’s sudden death). Talk about a prolific and busy family life. Five of Bach’s children followed in their father’s footsteps and went on to become professional musicians themselves, the most well known of these being Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Somehow, Bach balanced his huge family with his huge music career, a feat that most people in modern society could hardly imagine. He devoted his life work to the church, although not without occasional grumbling about his pay scale and work load. He was a deeply faithful man and a devout protestant, dedicating his works “to God alone” which was seen on his manuscripts as “Soli deo gloria.” This and the fact that he had grown up singing in the church and studying with other church musicians is what sealed his destiny: it was his area of expertise and likely his comfort zone.
In his lifetime, he was known more for his talent as a master organist than as a composer. However, his musical output is massive and varied. Of the manuscripts that survived long enough to be cataloged, Bach’s musical works number well over one-thousand, and we can only imagine what has been lost over the years. He is considered to be one of the most prolific composers in the history of classical music, but that is only a small surprise considering his job outline. He was required to compose music for all worship services, major feast days, funerals and special occasions… everything. So not only was he skilled at creating the music for these events, but he was fast.
Bach’s musical style reflects the norms of his era mixed with his expertise as an organist. His love for the protestant church hymns and his thorough education in music theory, counterpoint, improvisation, and international styles permeate his compositions. He was proficient in creating rich harmonic gestures out of many, very seemingly independent, musical lines. He would often take existing hymn tunes and insert them into his larger works, or even use them as a theme for a more elaborate composition, which his congregations would certainly recognize. He was extremely meticulous and purposeful in his writing, and despite the occasionally strict forms he would use, his music was vastly expressive.
He wrote music for just about every instrument he could get his hands on and in every musical genre he could imagine… except opera, which was of course beyond his duties as a church composer. Since Bach was such a prominent organist, he wrote hundreds of keyboard works for organ, harpsichord and clavichord. He followed the popular keyboard forms of that time period, including preludes, fugues, inventions, variations, fantasias and toccatas.
And now, the moment all you singing Operagasm readers have been waiting for… the big O: Oratorio, the vocal works of J. S. Bach. Even though Bach never wrote specifically in the genre of opera, his vocal works share similar elements and musically pack as much dramatic punch as many of the operas by his contemporaries. He was very meticulous about setting texts to melody and harmony, taking special care to make sure that appropriate words were emphasized and that the music would fit the natural flow of the phrases. He also commonly employed symbolism in the form of text painting and mood depiction. The music would reflect the text in its melodic shaping, texture, rhythm, tonality and tempo to suggest an action or object, the emotion, or the atmosphere at any given moment. This was an especially pertinent artistic tool for the purpose of bringing a message to his congregation of listeners.
The most numerous of his vocal works are the cantatas. Over two-hundred have been found, although more than one-hundred are assumed to have been lost over the years. His cantatas were diverse in form and ensemble size, but they often consisted of opening and closing chorus movements, a centerpiece of recitative-arias pairs featuring a solo voice and obbligato instrument, and chorales based on hymn tunes. They included smaller instrumental ensembles to provide the basso continuo and double the vocal parts with elaboration. Some cantatas featured a single soloist with obbligato and instrumental ensemble, and some employed a chorus entirely. The subject matter of the cantata text would correspond with the selected bible verses for worship and the movements would be dispersed throughout the service. Not all cantatas were sacred, however, he wrote a few for community occasions or for fun. Most notable of these is his Coffee Cantata (BWV 211), written for the purpose of concert performance but easily correlated to the stage, which comically depicts one’s addiction to coffee.
Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
Coffee Cantata, BWV 211: Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir
The most popular of Bach’s works in modern day performance are likely his large scale vocal and instrumental works, which were written for major feast days in the church year. The smaller of these major works include the Ascension Oratorio of 1735 (BWV 11) and the Easter Oratorio of 1725 (BWV 249), written for their respective feast days in the church year and including soloists, choir and moderate sized orchestras. Slightly larger than these oratorios is the Magnificat (BWV 243), written originally for Christmas in 1723. Its text is based on the biblical Magnificat text from the Gospel of Luke, divided into movements for five-part choir and five soloists (SSATB, mezzo-sopranos rejoice!), accompanied by orchestra.
Magnificat, BWV 243
The other famous major work Bach wrote for the Christmas season in 1734 was his Christmas Oratorio (BWV 246). It was written in six parts to be performed on the major feast days of Christmas and its text outlines the Christmas narrative from Christ’s birth to the arrival of the Magi. His instrumentation is rather large and varies somewhat between the six parts. Unlike the Magnificat, it incorporates a narrator who tells the story entirely in recitative, which is interspersed between the choruses, chorales and solo recitative-aria pairs.
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 246
Another major work of J. S. Bach is his Mass in B-Minor (BWV 232).… now hold up. You may be thinking “Bach was a Protestant, why write a Mass?” But yes, he wrote a pinch of music for the Catholic church too, usually to supplement the deficient income he was receiving in his own church. This Mass was finished only a year before he died, but stems from an earlier composition, his Missa (smaller than a full Mass), which was composed in dedication to the new elector of Saxony in hopes that it would result in an appointment as court composer, which it did in 1736. The Mass was, of course, a setting of the Latin Ordinary, although this particular mass was, coincidentally, massive, but never performed in its entirety until after Bach’s death. It was made up of 27 sections for chorus divided into four-parts, five-parts, six-parts and double-choir, soloists singing both solos and duets, and included a large orchestra. This was probably the pinnacle work of his career in total. Its sheer musical size and personnel involvement would have been a great undertaking, but it continues to be a favorite for modern musicians.
Mass in B-Minor, BWV 232: St. Thomas Boys Choir, Leipzig, Germany
My personal favorite of Bach’s works are the Passions. This genre of music is defined as a dramatic musical setting of Christ’s death as told in by one or more of the Gospels. Passion settings became a musical tool used for instructive purposes on the story of Christ’s death in that time. Bach was said to have written five Passions (recorded by his son, C. P. E. Bach, at the time of his father’s death) but only three of these have survived. The two of complete Passion works are his St. John Passion (BWV 245) and St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244). Only the text survives of his St. Mark Passion (which was assumed to be completed in 1731). Bach wrote these Passions to be performed at the Good Friday services in one of the town churches in Leipzig. The St. John Passion was first performed for the Good Friday service at the St. Nicholas church in 1724. It is the earliest of his surviving Passions and is a smaller-scale work in comparison to his more well-known St. Matthew Passion written for the St. Thomas church in 1727. This later Passion is an expansion from his first, in that it is written for double-chorus and double-orchestra.
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
The most interesting aspect I find about these Passions his “casting” of the singers. Bach wrote his Passions in such a way that each of the soloists and the choir were used as characters or used to portray a particular sentiment in the Passion story. To tell the Passion stories, Bach composed highly expressive recitative for the soloist playing the Evangelist (narrator), Jesus, and other smaller roles. Other soloists were given the job of commentary throughout the story in the form of arias. These arias suspend the dramatic action of the Passion story and provide a break to reflect on the scenario or the emotion. The choir held two purposes; to portray the role of a crowd or a mob during the choruses and sing the familiar chorale tunes. The purpose of chorales was two-fold; to suspend the dramatic action (as in arias) while commenting on the scenario. Sound familiar to the opera world? It should. Because these Passion works were some of the most dramatic, emotional musical settings he ever wrote.
All in all, the musical works of J. S. Bach have the potential to blow your mind. Musically, dramatically, numerically… one can spend their entire lives researching this composer and examining his work (some people actually have). He has the potential to inspire, befuddle, charm and captivate his listeners and admirers. I hope this glimpse into his dynamic body of music has brought you loyal Operagasmers a new appreciation, and possibly some fresh curiosity, for this amazing composer.
Erin Calata is an emerging mezzo-soprano in the Seattle-Tacoma area. She is a seasoned soloist, recitalist and chorister, performing a wide variety of genres including Early and Baroque music, opera, musical theater and New Music. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance from Pacific Lutheran University and completed her Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance at Arizona State University. She has sung in the choruses of the Scottsdale Choral Artists, Arizona Opera, Portland Symphonic Choir, Stuttgart Festival Ensemble in Germany, and currently sings with the PLU Choral Union. She has placed in the Ladies Musical Club of Seattle Solo Competition and the National Association of Teachers of Singing regional competition in Arizona. Her interest in Early Music lead her to participate in the Accademia d’Amore summer program by Pacific Musicworks in Seattle and the Amherst Early Music Festival Baroque Academy in Connecticut, and was followed by performances with Pacific Musicworks and the Texas Early Music Project in their recent seasons. She presently directs the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church Choir and teaches voice lessons privately and at Pierce College in her home town of Puyallup, Washington. She enjoys long walks on the beach with her husband and dog Tucker.