Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bach does Arnstadt. The most metal of composers.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not a boring person. Considering that eighteenth century Germany was extremely conservative and that musicians in his situation depended almost entirely on the patronage of the church, Bach had a surprising disregard for authority and for society's conventions. During his life, he produced some of the finest music the world has ever known while being a constant source of problems for his employers. The picture that is often painted of Bach is that of a dour personality concerned only with a higher calling. Bach's first job in Arnstadt shows him in a completely new way; young Bach was surprisingly metal.

The pipe organ of the eighteenth century ranks as the most complex piece of machinery that the world would see until the industrial age. Although there is no record of how Bach acquired his knowledge, by the time he was 18 years old he was an expert in its workings and was in high demand by organ makers and churches to test and certify new organs. When testing an organ at St. Boniface, in Arnstadt, his knowledge combined with the sheer virtuosity of his playing prompted the church to fire the organist they already had and hire Bach in his place. Adding insult to injury, they payed him a sum of money unheard of for someone so young (especially considering that St. Boniface was a very poor church). Even so, in the years that followed he bickered constantly with the officials about the nature of his duties and the sum of money he was being paid--- although realistically speaking, can you really pay J. S. Bach too much?

In the few years Bach spent in Arnstadt, he was summoned many times by the Consistory (a board of clerics that made sure that everyone working for them was behaving properly.)  He was constantly getting into arguments with his musicians and he was continually reprimanded for not paying any attention to the boys' choir. Bach would argue that his contract only required him to play and maintain the organ and that they should hire a choir director to which the church would reply that they were paying him so bloody much that they couldn't afford to hire anyone else.

In one of his arguments, he called one of his bassoon players, a certain Geyersbach, a Zippel-Fagottist (goat-bassoonist). Later that day, while Bach was out taking a stroll with his cousin Barbara, goat-bassoonist showed up with a walking stick demanding satisfaction. Bach repeatedly refused to apologize and goat-bassoonist attacked him. Bach pulled out his sword and proceeded to put goat-bassoonist in his proper place (which begs the question, why is a church organist carrying around a sword?) The Consistory was definitely not pleased.

Only a couple of months after the sword incident, Bach asked for permission to visit Lübeck, home of the legendary organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He was granted four weeks. Not being one to waste money on such unmanly matters as transportation, Bach walked the whole way covering 250 miles in under ten days. Apart from his desire to listen to Buxtehude play, Bach was also there for another reason: to check out Buxtehude's unmarried daughter. Buxtehude had a very lucrative position in Lübeck and he was quite old. By common practice, the person that would would take his job would have to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Several other prominent musicians of the day (including Handel) had already made the journey with similar intentions. Bach definitely did not like what he saw because he returned to Arnstadt and immediately married his cousin Barbara--- seeing Bach draw his sword on goat-bassoonist would probably have been enough to make any woman fall at his feet. Bach's little four week trip to Lübeck ended up lasting almost four months. Needless to say, the Consistory was not pleased with Bach's trip.

The congregation of the church was also quite confused with the way Bach would accompany the chorales during the services. He would play highly ornamented versions of the choral music which, while amazing, were too complicated for the people to follow. Bach was also reprimanded for allowing a "stranger maiden" to show herself and make music. It was not customary to allow women to sing in church and the "stranger maiden" was probably Barbara.

In at least three different occasions in the months that followed, Bach had to appear before the Consistory for neglecting the boy's choir and for letting Barbara sing in church. The people in Arnstad were in awe of Bach and amazed at his ability but it was always an awkward relationship. The authorities were always patient with young Bach, but I'm sure there was a collective sigh of relief when Bach decided to leave the town.

Bach's short time in Arnstadt would set the tone for what was to come. In the years that followed, while writing some of the greatest music the world has known,  Bach managed to get himself thrown into jail for refusing to continue working for duke Wilhelm, remarried to a woman that was half his age, had 20 children and also adopted the four children of a man with whom he had a bitter rivalry, made one of the most renowned organists of his time chicken out of an organ duel, grabbed and threw people's wigs, and wrote a full cantata with the only intent of selling coffee (the Coffee Cantata might be the world's longest and most complicated commercial jingle.)

Bach's music is often associated with mathematical complexity and an expression of his deep-seated Lutheran faith. Another side to his music which is sometimes overlooked has to do with the sheer force of his character, which is apparent in the way he lived his life. For me, the work that best embodies this is the fifth Brandenburg concerto.

Throughout the concerto, the harpsichord constantly erupts into virtuoso scales and trills all over the keyboard until finally, much like Bach's peers, the rest of the instruments simply cannot keep up. Then follows a harpsichord cadenza that is unique among the music of its time. I like to imagine Bach playing it for the first time; wig askew, sweat pouring; while the rest of the people in the room watch in complete shock as the little pudgy man goes crazy (like The Who breaking their instruments on stage or Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth). It has scales up and down, all manners of trills and diabolic ornamentation, it has the left hand leaping around in octaves (which in baroque music is amazing in itself), it has the theme jumping around from voice to voice--- it's practically Liszt at his most diabolical.

Here is the complete first movement of the concerto:

Here is Gustav Leonhardt playing the cadenza. The playing is amazing although dressing up in wigs and tights for a concert isn't really my kind of thing:

And here is Glenn Gould playing the cadenza on the piano:


  1. Hi, I like to visit and read your blog, I appreciate and admire someone who knows so much about music .. So I guess you are a wonderful pianist.

    I observed the technique of Glenn Gould, but i've noticed that he made circles with his body at the beggining and i know that is part of the body expression, but what do you think about that?

    My piano teacher would say that is not necessary or could distract me i guess. what do you say?

  2. I'd say your teacher is right. Whatever helps you play better is good, but most of the time excessive movement gets in the way of playing.

  3. Gould was not precisely the most normal pianist out there. He showed some mildly autistic characteristics (like doing those circles).

    Some say he had Asperger's, some say he was just weird... In any case I think he was a great pianist (but don't like ALL of what he recorded).

  4. Intéressant...

    By the way, I listened your recording of Scriabin's etude and I liked it a lot.

    In fact, I want to play the etude op. 8 no. 12 Scriabin and I know I can play it, but i decided to wait a while to improve my technique.

  5. I agree weirdo he plays some things much to fast to be enjoyable.

    I do think that Gould does play with some amazing clarity and precision though ... I quite admire Gould!

  6. He escuchado primero la versión de Gould, que me parece de una inspiración más refinada, pero al escuchar la versión de Leonhardt, me ha entrado un ritmillo en el cuerpo que ni te cuento... Más que metal, la impresión que me deja es de musica funk.

  7. Jorge! No aprecias las mallas y las pelucas? Eso es muy muy metal.

  8. Ahmed ... by the way did you mean that Bach is the most "meNtal" not metal of all composers ?

  9. I get dizzy watching Gould play...

  10. Me gustó mucho el articulo.
    I love the way you look at Bach.

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