On Bach & Music (Part 1)

I have been listening to Bach’s Ciaconna in D Minor, the infamous Chaconne, on loop recently. This piece comes like a punch to the face at the end of Bach’s Partita No. 2, the last and longest movement of five. I first learnt about it in this article, a famous one called ‘Pearls Before Breakfast‘ by Gene Weingarten (he won a Pulitzer for this article, and although many – fair – criticisms have been leveled at the experiment it carries out, I think it’s worthy of one nonetheless; very few articles in the world have the power to engage someone so entirely and make them think very hard about certain things, and this definitely does!). In the article, Joshua Bell is quoted as calling the Chaconne ‘one of the greatest pieces of music ever written’. I was curious to see what sort of piece could earn itself such an epithet, and I didn’t (still don’t) know much about classical music anyways, though I liked listening to it when studying (no lyrics to distract!), so I figured it would be as good a place to start as any. And boy, was it.

(In the experiment the article carries out, Joshua Bell starts off by playing this Chaconne – he’s pretending to be yet another busker in some metro station in DC, only he’s a world-renowned violinist who’ll be playing a Stradivarius or something. The experiment is to see how many people will notice ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’, if you will, and stop to pay attention even in the middle of rush hour. Very few people paid attention to the Chaconne, which amazes me – never mind getting to work on time; this is the Chaconne. I would run out of my college MCR every time a violinist on Turl Street started playing the Chaconne, which he often did in the evenings; he wasn’t even a Joshua Bell. Oxford is a lovely place to hear this played, especially when someone plays it on the streets in the evening. It melts into the dusk and into the buildings.)

I don’t think I could ever get bored of it: every hearing reveals new layers to the piece that I hadn’t noticed previously; it fits almost any mood (except the exercise-adrenalin mood, unfortunately – but Bach was not to know of treadmills way back then, so can’t blame him!). I sometimes think perhaps the whole of life and its emotions are encapsulated in this song; the exuberant moments, the calm ones, the sad ones; mornings with a pink and orange sunrise, and the slight rain that falls briefly before the big shower comes; the way crowds slowly increase in certain parts of town (any town) as the morning progresses, the tempo of life rising alongside increments in time; there are traffic jams and cars speeding on highways. I can hear necessary cups of coffee in it; heartbreak and reconciliation; determination, decision. It’s all in there. I could list a thousand more odds and ends that come to my mind as I listen to this song, but that would probably consume this post and a thousand more.

Brahms rightly identifies the most extraordinary quality about this piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann – how does anybody, any human being, feel enough to compose such a piece? Sometimes it is hard enough just listening to it. (Miles told me that while poor Schumann was being treated for syphillis with mercury, which is highly poisonous, his wife was having an affair with Brahms; I would have been wary if I were Brahms, but then again, perhaps Schumann was the philanderer…) Brahms writes to Clara,

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

This might be presumptuous, and I might have no right to – but I agree with him entirely. It’s an echo of a sentiment that Shakespeare himself expressed (albeit as Othello), of the soul – “if it were to die now, ’twere now to be most happy; for, I fear, my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this suceeds in unknown fate”. It’s almost as if there can be no better expression of feeling (unknown, undefined) and emotion (ditto) than this. These quantities have to be left vague and undefined, because I think they elude definition – to claim it is a dirge for his first wife is a bit too simplistic, and worse, it simplifies something extremely complex and profound.

There can be no easy attempt to ascribe meaning to the music, because I think that’s impossible – a Bach scholar called Helga Thoene suggests that the Chaconne is actually written in memoriam of Bach’s first wife, of whose death he had learnt shortly before composing the piece. But I’m not sure. It’s definitely sad at parts, but also peaceful if not exuberant in others. Miles and I have many violent (and nerdy) arguments about meaning in (instrumental) music; I hold staunchly (and perhaps without enough subtlety/philosophical delving into the issue) that music cannot formally present meaning, that it’s without a formal means of reference. Miles says I’m silly and that of course music is referential (but he is unsure about what referentiality is, as he hasn’t been forced to consume copious amounts of poststructuralist theory). A book I foraged from my father’s book cupboard yesterday, called Musicophilia by someone called Oliver Sacks, agrees with me (HA!); he writes,

But why this incessant search for meaning or interpretation? It is not clear that any art cries out for this and, of all the arts, music surely the least – for while it is the most closely tied to the emotions, music is wholly abstract; it has no formal power of representation whatsoever. We may go to a play to learn about jealousy, betrayal, vengeance, love – but music, instrumental music, can tell us nothing about these. Music can have wonderful, formal, quasi-mathematical perfection, and it can have heartbreaking tenderness, poignancy, and beauty (Bach, of course, was a master at combining these). But it does have to have any ‘meaning’ whatsoever. One may recall music, give it the life of imagination (or hallucination) simply because one likes it  – this is reason enough. Or perhaps there is no reason at all, as Rodolfo Llinás points out.” p. 37

Leaving aside the somewhat short shrift he gives to other art forms, I guess I agree almost completely with this characterization of (instrumental) music: it becomes almost a tabula rasa, to be inscribed upon at will. I cannot see that it even controls what themes or emotions one might choose to associate with it – what I hear as sadness might very well be someone else’s happiness. There is no necessary common denominator in these issues. Bach’s Chaconne is a rich tabula rasa indeed, because of its many variations and leaps and twirls – one can read almost anything (and everything) into it, which brings me back to what I said about the whole of life being encapsulated in this one piece. And it is an extraordinary quality. And technically – I know nothing about music, and maybe that’s why I find it so difficult to believe, even though I know now, that all these sounds (sometimes simultaneous) are coming from one instrument and one person. But they are!

The version of the Chaconne I have is by Yehudi Menuhin, though I had actually wanted a version by Itzhak Perlman (one of the few violinists I know). It sounded amazing though, so I couldn’t complain. Miles later corrected my ignorance about Menuhin, and that explains why it is so very good, too.

A clip for you all, of Menuhin playing the Chaconne (this is only Part 1, so 7 mins long):


It would be fitting to conclude this post with one of my favourite paeans to Bach, by my favourite author in my favourite book (a lot of likes in this sentence, eh!) – from Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year. (Some people say that this whole book is a paean to Bach, with its descent into a three-part structure.) I’ve never heard anything expressed so honestly as himself (and for once, I think I am right to see Coetzee, and not his character, saying this!); I didn’t think it would be possible to hear such unqualified, unquestioning praise from a man who questions everything. But here it is:

“The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of  Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free. How I would like to speak just once to that man, dead now these many years! “See how we in the twenty-first century still play your music, how we revere and love it, how we are absorbed andmoved and fortified and made joyful by it,” I would say. “In the name of all mankind, please accept these words of tribute, inadequate though they are, and let all you endured in those bitter last years of yours, including the cruel surgical operations on your eyes, be forgotten.” Diary of a Bad Year, J. M. Coetzee (‘On J. S. Bach’)

  1. Anita S said:

    You’ve inspired me to listen to it!

  2. How timely…I was just discussing with my fiance that I wanted to start a Pandora station for classical music — now I have a few songs with which to “seed” it!

    I hope Pandora has this genre, now that I think about it…


    • I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t – it must be such a popular genre! You should definitely seed this; it’s one of the best, and most famous, classical pieces ever – so much so that I thought writing on it would be rather redundant. O well! Pandora will definitely have lots of Bach :)

    • Oh my god yes. In my wild shower fantasies, I imagine myself playing his Transcendental Etudes and my fingers flying over the piano like… phewf. I can’t believe how fast some of it is. (Can’t play any instrument, and am tone/rhythm-deaf, so this is what constitutes a ‘wild’ fantasy for me!)

  3. What a learned, wise, lovely post! Bach is the absolute bomb. Thanks for reminding me how much I love his music. I know his Brandenburgs by heart and used to hum the 6th as I rode my bike to school. How amazing it would be to be able to thank him in person, indeed.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words! Yes – I haven’t looked into it much, but I wonder if there any amazing biographies of Bach around. He seems like such an enigmatic figure – everyone knows him, most people love/adore him, but who was he really? That paragraph from Coetzee was the first time it ever occurred to me that Bach isn’t actually just a name with cultural valency… and yet, we so rarely think of him in ‘real’ terms! (Or maybe I just speak for myself, but – I guess I’ve met others like this too. I also suppose it happens a lot with canonical names generally, like a Shakespeare and whatnot.)

  4. 4myskin said:

    Wonderful post! We don’t listen to music Classical music here, but Bach is always a favorite. :) Definately have to look this piece up!

    • Bach is amazing, and yes! This piece is definitely worth a listen (or more!). It’s one of the most famous Chaconnes in all classical music – so much so that it has its own Wikipedia page, just for this movement! Amazing.

  5. If you like Bach — and who doesn’t? — check out Virgil Fox. The first in a long line of sequin-covered classical organists, and a rockheaded and occasionally foul-mouthed champion of what he called red-blooded Bach. The preludes to the fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier are also pretty fantastic — see if you can get hold of them played by a Chinese pianist named Zhu Xiao-Mei. She was a survivor of the cultural revolution in China and was not treated gently in it since she was a small child who played a Western classical instrument. Bach kept her sane.

    And see if you can’t find a version of the double violin concerto in D minor with Isaac Stern and Shlomo Mintz. It’s lurking on YouTube someplace, I think …

    • Thank you so much for these suggestions! (And haha yeah – I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like Bach. I guess I know people who haven’t listened to him, but definitely not those who don’t like him!) I will definitely look up both those soloists – Zhu Xiao-Mei in particular sounds really interesting. (The book by Oliver Sacks I mentioned in the post above has brief references to people with neurological disorders – which, admittedly, isn’t the same as social/cultural trauma but… – and how Bach’s music affects or speaks to them. If you are interested in that sort of thing at all, it’s worth checking out – a bit heavily scientific, but very beautifully written and interesting.)

      God bless Youtube!

      • Zhu is definitely amazing; she used to copy out the WTC by hand in the work camp because of course there was no other way to make copies. She knows the whole thing by heart as a result. She’s written a book about her experiences as well, “The Secret Piano.”

        But don’t delay in listening to Fox, either! A true-blue sparkly showman but a consummate technician and a magnificent Bach interpreter. As far as the organ is concerned, Fox defines Bach, to me anyway.

        He was quite controversial in his day and wasted no time saying exactly what he thought of what he called “the purists.” He gave a whole series of concerts in rock venues back in the 70s that brought Bach’s music — and Fox’s unapologetic zest for it — to audiences who normally wouldn’t tolerate it. And we’re talking the fugues, those super-ornamented and at times overly complex pieces of musical embroidery that make a lot of people’s eyes glaze over. There are a few interviews with Fox on YouTube as well, and one performance of one of his signature pieces — the Gigue Fugue, where Bach wrote it such as the organist dances a gig on the pedals when the melody makes it down to the bass. He was so joyful while playing it. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a truly gifted genius doing what they love and laughing in the process.

        He and Zhu are almost opposite poles in personality, one quiet and reflective and one open-mouthed and extroverted, and Bach is such that the music spoke powerfully to both of them. There really is something in his much for all humans, no matter your personality. There’s some Bach I’m not crazy about, but there’s a lot that I consider desert-island music.

  6. Bach has been my favourite musician since I was a child. Great post. Cheers.

    • Thank you for your kind words, and for reading this rather lengthy ramble!

      • Thanks for sharing and making it worth my time.

  7. jdaitken said:

    You may not be a regular classical music listener, but I am and I’d like to congratulate you on summing up my feelings for the Chaconne with alarming precision. Personally, I prefer a version by Jascha Heifetz (THE violinist of the 20th century). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xhCdyQ_8Wg Great post. Now I’m a follower…

    • Thanks for the kind words, and the link – I am listening to it right now! His piece sounds to me interestingly different from the Menuhin version I have – he goes fast in places Menuhin goes slow, and vice versa. It also seems a bit more ‘feeling’ than Menuhin’s, which (though incredible – I don’t want to detract from it any aesthetic sense!); less measured and more spontaneous. I was reading an article in the New Yorker recently about a soloist called Christian Tetzlaff, and it describes his rendition of this same Chaconne like this —

      “Previous generations of Bach interpreters have emphasized the music’s steady Baroque symmetries and violinistic brilliance, but in Tetzlaff’s hands Bach’s faster movements leaped and swayed, as if recalling their past lives as dances.” I’d use a similar way of describing the Heifetz version you’ve shown me; Menuhin & Perlman & co. are all very…classical, I guess, in their interpretation (though I can’t, frustratingly enough, FIND a video of Tetzlaff doing this piece to actually compare the two…!! Maybe you’ve heard Tetzlaff play it — is my analogy accurate at all!?!?)

      • jdaitken said:

        It has been said that Heifetz’s interpretation is much more contemporary, and much frowned upon by classicists. Menhuin’s version is much more ‘seemly’ and correct in this regard, but I just love Heifetz and his precision, flair and stylistic nuances tick all my boxes. I think the word I’m looking for is ‘verve’!

        If Bach witnessed Heifetz playing this I think he may have been shocked, but also thrilled, which is about as good a way of summing up Heifetz’s playing.

        I have just had a look at the NYT article in question and I will look out for the Tetslaff version for comparison.

    • (For some reason I can’t reply to your comment below so here it is, sorry!) Yes – that’s definitely the impression I get; Menuhin’s has a wonderful classical smoothness, but Heifetz’s piece seems more spontaneous and invested in by the soloist. Verve sounds about right – gosh, I was watching the video and his fingers fly on that fret. Insane.

      The Tetzlaff piece in the New Yorker was really interesting – from what you tell me, he sounds a tiny bit similar to Heifetz (he’s also frowned upon by classicists, sometimes, for his radical interpretations and violation of the classical smooth sound!), so you might like him! I’ve scoured Youtube for a Chaconne from him – only managed to find this video, of him playing Bach’s Sonata in C Maj. It’s very lovely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeJvwZXB0n8&feature=relmfu

      • jdaitken said:

        The problem is that once you’ve got Heifetz in your system it’s difficult to like anyone else!

        • Yes! Thank you, I’d heard he played at the Proms recently but didn’t know what exactly. Wish I could have been in the UK to hear/see it! Have you managed to find any Tetzlaff Bach yet/if so, do you like it? :p Or has Heifetz spoilt you forever?

      • jdaitken said:

        I have checked out Mr Tetzlaff (I have real difficulty typing that name for some reason…). I think he’s really good. My problem (and I appreciate that is IS a problem) is that I am so inured to the Heifetz versions of things that other soloists tend to irritate me…like when something is not quite right and it bugs you. It’s a little like virtuoso OCD, actually…which is a worrying revelation…
        I have tried to learn to appreciate other qualities of violinists and have learned to love Hilary Hann, Nathan Milstein (especially his Bach…except the Chaconne, of course), David Oistrach and so on, but while I do appreciate them in their own way, I will always return to Heifetz because he is, well, the best that’s ever been.
        My favourite moments in violin music are all Heifetz…the superfast chromatic thirds scale in Bruch’s Scottish fantasy, the most perfectly played phrase in the Brahms (I kid ye not. A series of notes so beautiful it makes me physically shiver..a few seconds of the sublime….tragic innit?!), the dazzling virtuosity of his Tchaikovsky concerto.
        I could go on…but that’s precisely my point. It’d take some bloody miracle to find moments to join these.
        Sorry about the long comment.

        • Not at all! And I don’t think it’s worrying, really – I think perhaps to some extent everybody has this. I don’t know any one soloist well or comprehensively enough for me to like their versions of many different pieces, but I certainly have one particular version by one particular soloist/even orchestra that does it for me. (Like, I can’t listen to Rhapsody in Blue by most people – it has to be this one very particular version by the Berlin Philharmonic, because the timing in that is just right, for me!) I am glad you like Tetzlaff somewhat though, he may not be a Heifetz for you or a Menuhin to me, but he is certainly very interesting, and I guess it’ll be an interesting thing to hear his interpretation of things, since he seems so radically ‘against the grain’. (It’ll certainly be good for me, because I have a tendency to stick with the smooth neoclassical sound; Heifetz being a challenger to those traditions might make it somewhat different for you!)

      • jdaitken said:

        I know what you mean about the Gershwin. For me if the clarinet glissando at the start ain’t right, the job is already beyond recovery. Might as well shuffle that baby cos it won’t get listened to. I will check out your Berlin Phil version to make a snap judgement on you!

        • Uh ohhh, the pressure’s on! I think it’s them, anyways. AND YES re: the clarinet glissando. That bit is make or break – if it’s too fast, or too slow, the whole song goes to hell for me.

      • jdaitken said:

        it is fine, Ilovetabascosauce, I have bought the offending piece of music and you are totally validated. Slow in the parts that matter, luscious in others. I am vaguely annoyed at myself for not buying this version first, but one cannot maintain one’s veneer of perfection indefinitely. I’ve been checking out your other posts and I am glad I have chosen to follow. I await another blinding post. As you say, the pressure’s on…!

      • I was just going to mention that Tetzlaff is in BBC Radio 3 today, but in the confusion on losing your blog, I think you will have missed it. iPlayer it. Hope you are well.

        • Ahhg! So sorry about the fiasco. (For some reason I thought it would redirect people automatically when I changed the URL, but too much faith in tech. it turned out to be.) I will look it up on iPlayer! Thanks so much for telling me. Hope it was good, if you listened… was he playing Bach? Hope you are well too!:D x

  8. Did you know that awesome Bach was highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century! Looking forward to reading – On Bach & Music (Part 2)! http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

    • I didn’t know that, but it doesn’t surprise me somewhat – it seems like the label ‘genius’ has always been applied in retrospect/posthumously! (Except maybe in our own times; we’ve clocked in, a little.) I remember hearing that Shakespeare’s Hamlet wasn’t that popular in its own day, as far as revenge tragedies went; instead something like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie was far more popular, and ran for the longest time on the Elizabethan stage. I thought that was amusing: the way Hamlet is lauded these days, you’d never have thunk it! Thank you for your comment, and for reading! (The pressure’s on for Prt II, now, though….)

  9. I enjoyed your commentary on the piece. I have to disagree with one statement, though, the one that says “it fits almost any mood (except the exercise-adrenalin mood, …”. At about the 7 minute mark in the clip of Menuhin’s playing, the music resembles Vivaldi (Bach was a great fan of Vivaldi). Much of Vivaldi’s music is rapid and intensely rhythmical. It is terrific while exercising, except that it can make it hard to stop exercising when you should. It also makes me want to dance.

    • bimodz said:

      Yes. Indeed , Vivaldi had a great influence on Bach. His recordings were brought from Italy by his duke’s son when JSB was 28. Vivaldi had a trumendous impact on Bach; he showed him how to start pieces very dramatically…

      I have spent only few days, in last years, without listening to Bach’s music..

      • (I can’t reply to your comment below, but here it is!) Thank you so much for the link, you have a really interesting and beautiful blog! I’ll be scouring it for classical music information regularly now :D I’m not sure now if I’ve ever heard the Concert in D. Minor, but will give it a listen on your blog now as you’ve put up Youtube vids! And BBC documentaries…. best things ever. So glad they did one on Bach, definitely have to watch that one too.

    • summer is a really exciting,intense and woderfully exillerating piece of music……..never fails to hype me up……….

    • I had no idea Bach was influenced by Vivaldi! Thanks so much for sharing that information, it’s really interesting to know. (I really have to read more around Bach…) I tried Bach on the treadmill today, in view of this comment, and I have to cede being somewhat wrong – it still doesn’t work that well for me, but I could find some measure of ‘exercise-adrenalin’ in it, though when I wrote that I was imagining barely being able to walk. I can totally see Vivaldi as being great adrenalin-fodder though – his works are so intensely dynamic! One of my recent favourites by him has been the Chamber Concerto for Lute in D Maj ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO9YC-CLTFI ), particularly the third movement. It just makes me want to hop and skip and dance, and has made me a lute-lover for life. We need more lutists around these days….!

      • bimodz said:

        Vivaldi is a master at putting drama and energy in the beginning of pieces.. however, he somehow doesn’t manage somehow to do things well in the middle/final parts. Bach is perfect in every section.

        The concerto in D m works like Metalica for me..http://semiclassicallimit.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/bachs-keyboard-concerto-in-d-minor-bwv-1052/ (sorry to post a link to my own blog, it’s impolite… but this is the only post I know of that compiles the interpretations of the 1st concerto -that’s why I wrote it-).
        Also Brandenburg 5, Badinerie, concerto for keyboard No7, Tocattas,….etc.
        Some of Bach’s pieces are very energetic, but the point is not to give an adrenaline shot.. with Bach, things are always deeper that what we think..

        A BBC documentary about Bach : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kkiiscay7ga
        Have a good one :-)

  10. I don’t think we have realized what Bach has left us still. It takes centuries and we end up going away from him. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank YOU for reading, and the kind comment! Yes – as I was saying to a commenter above, everything about Bach (his person and his music, everything!) is so very enigmatic. It’s like a great big puzzle that people keep trying to solve. I really want to read more about him and find out every little thing I can… what kind of mind (or soul) would one needed to have in order to even conceive of music the way Bach did? (A bit hyperbolic, but still true…)

  11. A very worthy ‘Freshly Pressed’ article. Regards.

  12. I’ve had the immense pleasure of listening to Bach as I was growing up. SO inspiring! Thanks for sharing

    • I hadn’t – in fact, I didn’t start listening to him until recent years, but boy, I’m so glad I found him before too late. (I can’t even believe it’s taken me so long!) Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

  13. Kate said:

    Thank you for this. Love your writing… “it melts into the dusk and into the buildings.” Now I need to go find a recording of the Chaconne so I can listen to it more, and often.

    • It’s hard to get bored of the Chaconne, isn’t it!? And haha yes, hearing the Chaconne on the streets in a place as pretty and ancient as Oxford is very inspiring. Perfect pathetic fallacy! Thank you so much for reading, and for your kind words.

  14. Jean said:

    I love Bach and other baroque master-composers! (ie.Vivaldi) I’m not yet famiiar with Chaconne. (I don’t know how to play any musical instrument.)

    • The baroque has produced some superlative music! I don’t know how to play any instrument either, which is an increasingly great regret for me — people keep telling me that I’m ‘too old’ to learn, which is depressing! But if I had the time and money, I would totally try and remedy my ignorance and learn the violin now. Regardless of their discouraging words!

  15. musicisms said:

    Just auditioned for an orchestra with this piece :) That Brahms quote is so accurate! Great article.

    • It is, isn’t it! And I’ve always found the Brahms/Clara Schumann little story amusing (I guess a bit darkly – poor Schumann!) in itself; a nice little bit of classical music gossip, of which so little exists! I hope your audition went splendidly, and best of luck.

  16. Bryana said:

    A lot of people I know don’t believe I listen to Bach lol but I love to put on his music when I need to relax and get my thoughts together…

    • Yes, his music can be so unbelievably comforting and soothing – that’s partly why I’ve been listening to it so much myself, recently. Just for self-calming, and because the beauty of the music actually does distract one from worries etc!

  17. Great, great, great post. Bravo, and congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, and for reading! (I still can’t quite believe that this ramble got Freshly Pressed, but :D hey! can’t complain. I’m very grateful!)

  18. Very nice post and well written! I check the Amazon MP3 store everyday because they have mp3 albums for like 99 cents and I just wanted to pass this along to your readers. They have a 305 song classical/Bach box set for like 1.29, seems like a really great set to own! Promise I don’t work for Amazon just wanted to pass along good music to good people…so check it out. Big Baroque Box

    • Haha don’t worry, I didn’t suspect you did work for Amazon! That is an incredible price for 305 Bach songs… I will definitely check it out! The Bach canon is so VAST and inexhaustible I really feel that I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg with the few songs I own, so this would be great. Thanks so much for the recommendation, and for reading!

  19. Bach was an amazing composer with timeless pieces. He is one of my favorite composers as his pieces are melodic yet methodical, and very distinct. He’s my favorite to play on both the piano and the harp, and, of course, to listen to on loop!

    • Absolutely! Another thing that always strikes me is how versatile he was as a composer – he really did compose pieces for every single mood and feeling! Another one of my favourites is his Kaffee Kantate (which I also only recently discovered); it’s a lively little operatic piece about a girl who loves coffee too much, to the chagrin of her father. The words are not by Bach, but make me laugh a lot – they include such glorious lines as,

      Lieschen: “Father, don’t be so severe!
      If I can’t drink
      my bowl of coffee three times daily,
      then in my torment I will shrivel up
      like a piece of roast goat.” ( http://www.afactor.net/kitchen/coffee/kaffeeKantate.html )

      I can completely empathize with poor Lieschen sometimes…..

      Also – AWESOME that you play the harp! Ever since I heard Joanna Newsom, I’ve been dreaming of learning the harp too (it will never happen but!). Is it very difficult to play?

      • Thank you! I’m clicking on that link in a moment. I have not heard of Joanna Newsom, I’ll look her up as well. The instrument takes some getting used to (47 strings, 7 pedals, and it rests on your shoulders!) but it’s not horribly difficult. Each of the 7 pedals corresponds to a different note, and has 3 settings (high, neutral, bottom) to change from sharp to neutral to flat. For example, if you were to push up the C pedal, all the C’s on the harp would be sharp (middle = neutral, bottom = flat). Every C string on the harp is red, and F string is navy/blue, so it’s easier to distinguish between the notes and octaves (imagine if it wasn’t color coded!)

        It’s definitely an instrument that the musician has to keep up with- it develops calluses on the tip of the fingers – same with most string instruments. Definitely try it out if you have the chance! you may want to start off with a lever harp- they’re smaller and don’t have pedals (they have levers instead for sharps and flats). Leave a message anytime if you have any questions!

  20. Hi. Great post! I just went on and listened to Itzhak Perlman’s version as well, on youtube. Thank you. I love Bach, too!

    • Hey! Thank you so much for reading it, and for the kind comment! I hope you enjoyed the Perlman version (which I actually haven’t heard… should probably do that!!!) Bach is incredible :D

  21. bach was (and still is) a genius……his music will be with the human race forever…….my favorite musician of all time and im not a highly dedicated classics only person……..i enjoy handel very much too particularly the very famous piece from xerxes……………

    • Yes! So enigmatic and so difficult to ‘know’ in any sense of the word (both him, and his music!). As Coetzee says, we’re all very lucky to be born and to have his music for us as a free gift :D I’m not that highly dedicated a classical music person either, but Bach’s music doesn’t even seem to require a fine understanding or knowledge of the genre(s) — they’re just so aesthetically perfect, sometimes. I have never heard Xerxes, though I really like some of Handel’s famous pieces too (Arrival of the Queen of Sheba!). I will hunt Xerxes down on Youtube!

    • So that’s the piece! I googled ‘Xerxes famous Handel’ (very precisely, as you can see) and a video for that came up, but I wasn’t sure which one it is. Thanks so much! (Both links worked for me, by the way!)

  22. Beth said:

    I read Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post shortly after it was published. I remember thinking, “Why don’t I ever encounter something like this?” Of course, residing in southern California at the time meant it was highly unlikely I’d ever encounter Joshua Bell serenading passers by in the bowels of the metro in Washington, D.C. But a girl can dream, right? I imagined the fun if the experiment had continued with other musicians in various venues around the country… what absolute fun.

    I love my classical and I love my Bach! The man was, in short, brilliant. My iPod frequently spins through my classical tunes (all 878 songs) and the repeat offenders are often Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Copland (I do like some of the newer fellas, too), Holst, Stravinsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. But, as no collection is ever complete, I’m always on the hunt for new tunes to add to the mix.

    Thank you for the lovely reminder of why I enjoy this music so much!

    • I know – I can’t say that I would have recognised him (I didn’t know about him until that article), but hearing lovely music when one is going about one’s daily business is such a lovely experience (some of the buskers on the London underground would really catch my ear), and it so enhances the moment. (I mean, after all, that’s one of the best things about iPods etc! The constant soundtrack to one’s life!)

      And my god yes for the newer fellas! Gershwin and Copland are two of my favourites; I used to write whole essays listening to Hoedown on loop (it’s very exhilarating music!) – a whopping 168 times over a week! And who can’t love rhapsodizing in blue with Gershwin? A modern genius, absolutely!

      • Beth said:

        It’s modern classical, if you will, but I learned of Joshua Bell when he partnered with Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, and Mark O’Connor for a bluegrass/classical project (wrap your mind around that combination!) entitled “Short Trip Home”… since then I’ve seen him perform here and there and have a few of his CDs.

        My dad used to test speakers with “Hoedown” to see how they handled the high treble and the low bass. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I now love classical. I guess I’ve come full circle! Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Hymn” is one of my absolute favorites! And yes, if you can’t love rhapsodizing in blue with Gershwin, you might not enjoy classical!

        Life without music… dismal.

  23. deliveryfolktales said:

    Bach Cello Suite #1 :) favorite piece. Right next to Clair de Lune. All the best, matt

    • That is a gorgeous gorgeous piece too. I never thought cellos could sound so beautiful until I heard that (though this might just be another testament to my ignorance about instruments etc!) Thanks for reading and the comment :)

  24. JSolomon said:

    As a freelance violinist, the Bach Chaconne was the last piece I studied with my teacher, about 5 years ago. I never finished it before life got in the way, one of my greatest regrets. It moves me more than any other piece I have ever studied, especially Nathan Milstein’s recording. Thank you for writing this.

    • You got to study the Chaconne? How incredible! I’ve heard it’s a very difficult piece – it certainly sounds it, but is that true from a violinist’s POV too? (I know nothing about playing any instrument, and esp. the violin, unfortunately!) I dream of learning the violin though people tell me I’m too old for it, and certainly this piece would be the end point of all my goals too. It would be so, so, wonderful to be able to have the comfort of the Chaconne at your own fingertips whenever you wanted it – you are so fortunate! I hope you still play =) I’ve never heard Milstein’s recording, but will look it up right away – I’ve never heard of him before! Thank you so much, too, for reading and commenting.

      • JSolomon said:

        Yep, it’s hard! Not only hitting the notes, and often several of them at once, but then sounding nice while you’re at it. Then on top of that considering what sort of colors you want and how to get them…then add to all of that how LONG it is with no break! It’s a physical and mental workout. I remember feeling exhausted after practicing.
        I haven’t listened to it in a long time – I’m going to tonight after my symphony gig!
        Don’t listen to people who tell you you’re too old to learn to play the violin…though I’ll tell you as a former private teacher, it will be one of the most difficult, but rewarding, undertakings of your life. Just get the best teacher you can afford.
        Really great commentary above! And about Jascha Heifetz, my teacher studied with him!

  25. fuckmyspirit said:

    Great post!!!!

  26. I like this. Here are my favorite Bach works. My favorite is the Cello Suites.

    Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
    Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
    Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 1007-1012
    Mass in B minor, BWV 232
    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244
    St John Passion, BWV 245
    Magnificat in D major, BWV 243
    Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 “Little”
    Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046–1051
    Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
    Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042
    Double Violin Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043
    Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006
    The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893
    The Art of Fugue, BMV 1080
    Partitas, BWV 825-830
    Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
    English Suites, BWV 806-811
    French Suites, BWV 812-817
    Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4, BWV 1066-1069

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