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A Cosmologist of Music: 29 of My Favorite Things by Bach

Whether you landed here by accident or by design, thank your lucky star. Like the first swallow in the April sky, my top 10 Bach selection has arrived! It is the rare top-10 list that boasts 29 items and still manages to sin by omission. Bach lovers will scoff at the absence of their favorite pieces and, of course, they’ll be right. Blame it on the tyranny of the small number. Great museums put their artwork on rotation and so will this list. But here I am, hundreds of listens later, and still under its magic spell; so turn on the volume and, if music be the food of love, read on.

Glenn Gould called Bach the greatest architect of sound. His harmonies indeed are so dense and rich even mighty Mozart can come off sounding like a grinder of baby tunes. If the Modern Jazz Quartet turned to the Baroque master for inspiration, it’s that, alone among his peers, Bach “swings.” Yet his singularity, I believe, lies elsewhere.

His harmonic language, the counterpoint, entails the vertical integration of melodic lines. It is, indeed, the gift of melody that stands Bach apart from the rest. Schubert had it; Bizet had it; Monk had it; Bono not so much. How this works is a mystery. What is not is that a counterpoint is only as good as its melodic parts. That’s why Bach is such a thrill and Pachelbel is not.

Image by Remy Gabalda /Getty Images..

Bach’s music is soft and gentle, often suffused with piercing tenderness. His style has been called “feminine,” a dated way of saying that Bachian geometry is free of angles and that the shortest path from A to B is a spiraling curve.

I’ll go further. While fond of the opera, Bach shunned its adult dispositions, leaving the hormonal out of his art’s emotional makeup. You won’t find any trace of lust, greed, or jealousy in his music. In other words, Bach took the opera form and cut the bullshit. If his work has an unmistakable child-like quality, it’s because its spiritual aspirations — borne of faith, joy, grace, and wonder — call for the deepest seriousness. And no one is more serious, and spiritual, than the child.

The emotive depth of Bach’s music owes much to his mastery of dissonances in the inner voices (tenor/alto), his blue notes. An early bluesman, he did it the sweet-and-sour way, mix-and-matching modes to make the joyful anxious and the sad hopeful. Upon discovering, back from a trip, that his beloved wife had died unexpectedly, Bach sat down to compose in her memory… a dance. An open challenge among Bach aficionados to point to unmitigated despair in his oeuvre has remained unanswered: Bach, like Ellington, doesn’t do despair.

Music is uniquely physical among the arts. The tonal kind has a simple mathematical foundation based on the laws of acoustics. If Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” rocks my world, it’s because a bluesy F-sharp minor resonance physically rocks my auditory cortex.

The role of intentionality is tricky because music is not a language. It can claim a semblance of syntax but no semantics to speak of. The Ode to Joy could as easily be about fly fishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got lyrics. Yet we all know that minor modes sadden, dissonances grate, subtonics lead, and cadences bring home, so surely meaning lurks behind.

Augmented with the proper acculturation, music can indeed trigger emotions reliably, which in turn grants the composer a measure of communicable intentionality. Bach stretched the idea further by decorating his texts with generous aural imagery. Bear with me and soon you’ll be hearing chirping birds, rolling dice, rocking babies, and flames dancing in the wind. Each time, the accompanying text lifts the ambiguity (at least if you speak German).

A sonogram (spectral view) of a fragment of one of Bach's Chorales for Organ Image by dobroide/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Add to Bach’s legendary sound painting the daunting complexity of his music and you’ll understand why the curious mind will rush to chop it into bits and stick it under the microscope. Having indulged in this pastime, I know the feeling. Yet to reduce the man’s genius to the vastness of his musical brain would be a mistake.

My fanhood is shamelessly unintellectual. I love Bach because his music is the most formidable elation machine ever engineered. To be sure, there is a wide spiritual canvas on which to draw our analyses, but analysis is optional. The thrill is not. So forget the cerebral razzle-dazzle. The music is corporeal, sensuous, and intoxicating. Bach, the most human of all composers, gets to your soul through your body. As ill fate would have it, his public image has been defined by difficult pieces (eg, the Art of Fugue) or lesser works of dubious attribution (e.g., the Toccata in D minor). While Bach continues to be more admired than loved, his glorious cantatas, accessible and breathing with humanity, remain largely ignored. No doubt this humble article will take care of that…

If, as they say, all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then all of Western music is a commentary on the Thomascantor. Although it took Mendelssohn’s 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion to popularize the Baroque master, it is a common misconception that Bach was ignored until then. Mozart, not a person afflicted by low self-esteem, said of him:

“Now there is music from which a man can learn something.”

Brahms admonished his contemporaries to “study Bach; there you will find everything.” For Beethoven, who looked after Bach’s impoverished daughter, he was the “immortal god of harmony”; for Wagner, “the most stupendous miracle in all of music”; for Pablo Casals, “the supreme genius of music”; for Debussy, “a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity.” For Schumann, “music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder”; for Rimsky-Korsakov, “all modern music owes everything to Bach”; and, for Albert Schweitzer, “everything leads to him.”

OK, you get the point. Composition aside, Bach didn’t entirely disappoint as a performer either. Not content with being Europe’s foremost keyboard player and one of its finest violinists, Bach could play all the instruments of the orchestra. The composer of the Mass in B minor loved to jam on the pop tunes of the day: the Bach family’s celebrated quodlibets, the gigs at Zimmermann’s Café, etc. The man was quite the artist.

Bach's music in the Find the Future exhibit at the New York Public Library. Image by Allison Meier/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Except that Bach didn’t regard himself as an artist but as a scientist, a cosmologist of music. Just as Newton had worked out the laws of planetary motion, so Bach set out to discover the laws of the musical universe. More Galileo than Michelangelo, this deeply religious man searched for “God’s music” rather than for his own. Therein lies the reason for his breathtaking versatility. Faith informs so much of Bach’s art that to push it aside is the surest way to get the story wrong. For example, religion explains why the trumpet was his favorite instrument (think heavens-reaching pitches) or why Bach didn’t seek beauty as an end in itself but as a means to an end (honoring God). His music was, in Taruskin‘s words, “a medium of truth, not beauty.”

Wedded as we are to the Romantic notion of art-for-its-own-sake, it is not easy for us to appreciate Bach’s artistic mindset. With rare exceptions — the St Matthew Passion and his didactic works come to mind — Bach showed little interest in preserving his art for posterity. Pressed to make his music less “bombastic” by his Leipzig paymasters, Bach ignored their demands. This is perfectly rational. No need to believe in God to see that, if your purpose in life is to divine the secrets of music to please the Lord, why worry about your earthly legacy or the ravings of a town councilman?

Bach was also a humble man, who attributed the quality of his music to hard work. Yet he couldn’t understand why getting top jobs had to be so difficult. The head of the search committee that hired him in Leipzig famously remarked: “Since the best men are not available, we’ll have to do with mediocre ones.” Some things you can’t make up.

Although Bach produced his greatest music in the provincial backwater of Leipzig, a commercial town, working in an idiom that had fallen out of favor, his musical culture was prodigious. He absorbed, sponge-like, the Dutch organ tradition, the Italian musical theater, and the dance and keyboard music from France. With his personal music library one of the best in Saxony, Bach was able to indulge in the common practice of the day: retooling the works of the greats. His composition quilt wove together all of the musical strands of Europe, reaching as far back as Palestrina and even the Gregorian chant (compare Mass in B minor).

Concerned that his openings lacked Vivaldi‘s punch, he studied the Italian master assiduously. Charles Rosen commented that Vivaldi was good with openings but had the unfortunate habit of running out of ideas almost immediately. Bach didn’t suffer from that affliction. Beethoven quipped that his name should not be Bach (“brook”) but Meer (“ocean”).

Perhaps the biggest mystery is how one person could have maintained, week after week, such heights of creativity. The great Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, observed that a professional composer today would probably need a three-year leave of absence to write a piece on the scale of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach did it in a few weeks.

I’ll close this introduction on a nicely solipsistic thought. The compositions may be Bach’s but the exhilaration is ours. Does this mean the music was in our head all along and Bach merely switched it on? Not quite, but think about it this way. New gym exercises acquaint us with muscles we didn’t know our bodies even possessed. Likewise, Bach’s music awakens in us a multitude of sensibilities that would lie dormant without it. It reminds us of the aesthetic virtues that live, often hidden, inside each one of us.

The audio samples are sorted more or less in order of increasing scope. From the smallest musical phrase to the palindromic vistas of the St. John Passion, Bach shines at all scales. It is thus borderline criminal to excerpt five-minute snippets from Bach’s oeuvre as one would ditties from a pop album. Mona Lisa’s smile may well be “everything,” no one in their right mind would crop out the rest. So may this gourmet sampling make you ask for more.

How did I choose the tasty morsels? While aiming for diversity, I tried to avoid the über-famous pieces: the Brandenburgs, Goldbergs, Cello suites, etc. Instead, I gave precedence to my beloved cantatas, the loyal repositories of all of Bach’s genius.
Conducting JSB is a lifetime commitment and only scholars of the music can pull it off. By Bach’s own admission, his choral performances didn’t sound all that great (the trouble with living in an artistic backwater), so I am unsure why we need to recreate “that” sound. As you’ll notice, however, I am quite fond of HIP (historically-informed performance). I like it mainly for the instruments that come with it. I am open to all manner of interpretation but rhythm is my red line. Bach dances and conductors who can’t should stick to Brahms.

The Mass in B minor and all the cantatas are conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Helmuth Rilling/YouTube) and the Passions by Philippe Herreweghe. The Partita is performed by Glenn Gould, the Art of Fugue by Andrew Davis and Christopher Hogwood, and the Passacaglia by Karl Richter. Following Bach era’s tuning conventions, the following pieces (whose harmonies are discussed below) are played a semitone lower than today’s pitch: Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis/Bach Works Catalogue (bwv) 1, 7, 21, 34, 40, 57, 96, 229, 232, 244, 245, 582. The discussion below was facilitated tremendously by having free access to the musical scores of Bach’s works. I can’t heap enough praise on the good people who made this possible.

1.) ♬ Cantata Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (bwv 7) Aria Des Vaters Stimme…

Warning: this music is dangerous! It will stick in your head and won’t let go for days. Catchier than a pop tune, this intoxicating tenor aria conjures up the Trinity in countless ways: three voices, three sections, three beats to a bar, a triplet per beat, and a breathtaking vocal entry (0:38) in the shape of three quarter-notes (E A E)—Des Vaters Stimme ließ sich hören (“The Father’s voice can be heard.”) The melisma on getauft (“baptized”) at 1:07 evokes the immersion at an infant’s christening. Just as Schubert can often make a major key sound minor, Bach likes to liven up a minor key (here Am) with a rhythmic beat of aerial lightness. The assuredness of the tone reflects the theme of the piece, ohne Zweifel glauben (“to believe without doubt”), while its levity suggests the flight of a bird: Der Geist erschien im Bild der Tauben (“The Spirit appeared in the image of the dove”). Bach’s music swings but, unlike jazz, it seldom breathes: its pace is unrelenting.

2.) ♬ Cantata Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe (bwv 162) Aria Ach!…

During several of his Leipzig years, Bach wrote one cantata a week. With Friday-Sunday devoted to copying, rehearsals, and performances, the entire composition, packing more music than a Beatles album, had to be wrapped up in four days. Bach wrote over 300 cantatas in his lifetime, two-thirds of which are still with us. Together they form the greatest body of vocal works in Western music. In this early, pre-Leipzig aria, Bach, the blues master, loves to juxtapose contradictory sentiments, Wohl und Wehe (“bliss and misery”) at 0:46. The bass voice is grateful to be a guest at the wedding feast, a metaphor for the Last Judgment, but is fearful he won’t be welcome: “Heaven’s rays and hellfire”; “Jesus, help me to survive now.” The hook is a tight canon (EAFEFFAF) over the standard progression A minor-D minor-G dominant 7th-C major, which is repeated four times on three instruments (two violins and viola) in the first six bars alone, with the bass voice joining the action in bar 8. (The key is a semitone higher.) The wide, obstinate leaps in the continuo (the harmonic roadmap) add to the sense of confusion. In a lovely shot of Bachian sound imagery, the melismatic Höllenflammen at 1:53 (“hellfire”) conjures up visions of wavering flames.

3.) ♬ Cantata Selig ist der Mann (bwv 57) Aria Ich ende behende…

Bach was often accused of mistaking the Thomaskirche for a dance hall, and one can only wonder what he was thinking when he set this enchanting aria to the words: Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben (“I eagerly end my earthly life”). The soprano can’t emphasize enough her “joy” to “depart” (0:57): Mit Freuden zu scheiden verlang ich itzt eben (“now I even long to depart with joy”). The time signature of 3/8 gets its syncopation from the alternation between four half-beats and a single full beat. The ending leaves you hanging on the relative major B-flat of the key with the question, Hier hast du die Seele, was schenkest du mir? (“You have my soul, what will you give me?”) The answer is provided in the closing chorale.

4.) ♬ Cantata Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (bwv 1) Aria Unser Mund…

Bach at his bubbly exuberant best pens one of the most brilliant bridges (2:10) in the history of music. The Annunciation to Mary that the “Morgenstern” (ie, Jesus) is on the way takes the form of a virtuosic triple-time minuet in the purest French dance tradition. Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten (“Our mouths and the tone of strings […] shall be ready for thee”), a statement by which the tenor and the violins abide in a breathless duet. As often with Bach, the aria climaxes in the middle section, starting with the melismatic emphasis (2:18) on Gesang (“singing”). At 2:23, while the tenor holds that E note, the violins reprise the first bar’s ritornello (italian for “little return”), a minor third higher. The wealth of melodic ideas in this passage leaves me speechless, so I’ll leave it at that.

5.) ♬ Cantata Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (bwv 65) Aria Gold aus Ophir…
A Christmas aria bathed in Bach’s customary ambiguity: dour or festive? A near-eastern feel is created by the dominant presence of recorders, horns, and oboes. The melismas on Gaben (“offerings”) at 0:36 and 0:51 express the nauseating quality of earthly treasures. Jesus, apparently, wants your heart, not your gold: Jesus will das Herze haben. What follows is a triple canon between two oboes and the continuo in an imitative dialogue among the gold, incense, and myrrh.

6.) ♬ Cantata Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (bwv 96) Chorus Herr Christ…

Piccolo flutes and violins imitate the lights of twinkling stars and the sounds of chirping birds (angels in the sky) while sweetly lilting to a 9/8 time signature (three-within-three). The cantus firmus (the basic tune) is uncharacteristically given to the altos, perhaps to keep the sopranos from interfering with our angels. The first half of the fantasia seems a preparation for the climax at 4:11 when the imitative discourse comes to an end and all join forces for a chromatic modulation to E major (from F major): Er ist der Morgensterne (“He is the morning star,” ie, Jesus). This is sublime craftsmanship.

7.) ♬ Cantata Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes (bwv 40) Chorale Jesu, nimm dich…

A four-part chorale in F minor, the darkest of minor keys, of the sort Bach could whip out in a Leipzig minute. The ending is radiant (0:37), Freude, Freude, über Freude! Christus wehret allem Leide (“Joy, joy, beyond joy! Christ wards off all sorrow”).

8.) ♬ St John Passion Johannes-Passion (bwv 245) Chorus Lasset uns den…

A brilliant example of sound imagery: soldiers roll the dice to decide who will snatch Jesus’s coat. You hear the rattling sounds at 0:13-1:30, ending on the victory cry of the soprano, standing in for the youngest soldier. A canon introduces the voices in ascending order (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) over one measure each, as in this run of eighth notes: las-set-uns-den-nicht-zer(teilen).

9.) ♬ Cantata O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe (bwv 34) Chorus O Ewiges…

This wedding cantata, “O eternal fire, O source of love,” features the trumpet, Bach’s favorite instrument. The piece is in D, which is the trumpet’s native key and the richest in acoustic resonance. The dramatic buildup of this opening chorus is a model of power, control, and compositional wizardy. At 2:59, Laß HIMM-lische FLAMM-en durch-DRING-en und WAL-len (“Let heavenly flames penetrate and surge”) leads to what can only be described as early Count Basie: driving swing, call-and-response (counterpoint-style); all that’s missing is Jo Jones on drums. Rhythm aside, the melodic density of this music is positively humbling. And while you’re at it, you won’t want to miss Stéphane Grappelli and Eddie South’s delightful jamming on the double violin concerto. What’s striking is how, unlike the lame attempts at rock-and-rollifying Beethoven and his ilk, Grappelli and South remain squarely within the confines of Bach’s idiom and yet sound completely modern.

10.) ♬ Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis in meinem Herzen (bwv 21) Sinfonia Ich hatte…

The largest of the sacred cantatas, bwv21 was written during Bach’s Weimar years in memory of a friend who had passed away. The duet between the oboe and the first violins is evocative of the title “I have much sorrow in my heart.” Bach preferred the word “concerto” to “cantata” and this example tells us why: the oboe is a plaintive human voice “concerting” with the strings over a steady continuo of eighth-note half-beats. At 1:58, the melody loses its flow and the harmony substitutes a striking diminished seventh chord (2:19) for the expected resolution to the root of C minor. The walking bass line resumes at 2:35 and a jazzy oboe flourish of 32nd notes (2:58) spelling a C diminished arpeggio brings us home. The call-and-response, the walking bass, the clean melodic lines, and the meticulous construction bring to mind this exquisite Clifford Brown solo.

11.) ♬ Cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (bwv 140) Chorale Wachet auf…

Wakey, wakey, Jerusalem, someone’s marchin’ in. Based on a famous hymn written by Philipp Nikolai after a devastating plague epidemic in the 16th century, this chorale fantasia opens with a French overture, almost courtly with its triple-time dotted rhythm. The music builds up to its first climax at 4:07, which delivers the most sensational Alleluja in the history of hallelujahs. The repeated melismas over the first syllable of the word never fail to give me goosebumps. It’s got the sort of driving rhythm that always attracted me to jazz and whose tragic absence from classical music is, pace Kipling, the actual “white man’s burden.” At 4:45, when you come back to your senses, Bach doubles down with another, even more extraordinary passage, Macht euch bereit (“Make yourselves ready”). Sopranos sing the cantus firmus in long ascending lines suggestive of an angelic flyover. The great man never wrote an opera, but how many composers have matched the dramatic flair of these last two minutes?

12.) ♬ Cantata Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (bwv 28) Chorale All solch…

The final movement of this year-end cantata is a conventional harmonization of a simple melody and, being a chorale, an invitation to the congregation to sing along. I use these gorgeous tunes here as cleansing transition pieces, musical trous normands if you will.

13.) ♬ Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (bwv 110) Aria Wacht auf…

Another Christmas cantata and another wakeup call. You won’t want to miss the word painting over Geist erfreun (“delighted spirit”) with the gorgeous melisma at 1:48. With the first violins gyrating around the melody with breathless runs of sixteenth notes, the orchestration has a distinct Mozartian feel: further evidence, if any was needed, that Bach anticipates all of classical music. At 1:15, the oboes bow out in deference to the words, Und ihr, ihr andachtsvollen Saiten (“And you, you strings of deep devotion”). Now how cute is that?

14.) ♬ Partita No.2 Sinfonia (bwv 826)

The first part of the opening movement, performed here by Glenn Gould, could have been written by Schumann and the second (2:42) by Art Tatum. Now try to wrap your head around this if you can: in his day, Bach was considered old-fashioned even by his own sons, who couldn’t be bothered with his stile antico. A solemn opening adagio segues into a brisker andante at 0:50, with the left hand marking the rhythm in eighths. If the four repeated Gs (the dominant of the key), beginning at 2:07, do not pierce your musical heart, it may be that you have no such thing. They’re a pedal tone over which the left hand plays the descending line E-flat-D-C-B-flat. This leads to a flatted sixth Ab (still in the home key of C minor) at 2:16 that turns the page and signals the approaching end of the Schumann part. At 2:41, with no break, Art Tatum takes it away on the dominant while the time signature switches to 3/4, a chance for the master to demonstrate his swing chops. The final cappricio also shows the Baroque King of the Righteous Riff (as I like to call JSB) in fine form. As a bonus, Glenn Gould seems to have forgotten to mutter to himself. Also, you won’t want to miss Martha Argerich’s masterly take on that last movement.

15.) ♬ Mass in B minor Die h-Moll Messe (bwv 232) Chorus Gloria: Qui tollis…

A man well versed in tragedy, having lost his parents by the age of ten, then his wife and ten children of his own, Bach never succumbed to cynicism. His darkness is deep yet gentle, sad yet sweet. A retooling of the first movement of a cantata (bwv 46) that he wrote 25 years earlier, the Qui Tollis of the B minor Mass could have been composed at any time in the last 300 years. (Which of Mozart’s operas is not timestamped?) It is distinctive by the anxious throbbing pulses of the bass line with the viola playing two-note successions. Beginning at the 8th bar (0:25), the flutes come in to relieve the weight of perpetually falling thirds. Don’t be surprised that the piece ends not on the tonic chord (B minor) but, in anticipation of the next aria, on its dominant (F-sharp). The Qui tollis is part of the Gloria and must be fully appreciated in that wider context. Bach never stopped finetuning his monumental Mass, adding enough liturgical material along the way to make it unacceptable to Protestants and Catholics alike. Like the Art of Fugue, the work recapitulates all of Bach’s learning. It is likely that he intended the former as a treatise on the instrumental science of music and the latter, pragmatic considerations aside, as its vocal counterpart. In particular, the Mass is the culmination of all choral music, past and present, to the extent that it features every single idea known to mankind about singing in a group. Bach never heard the Mass performed in full in his lifetime.

16.) ♬ St Matthew Passion Matthäus-Passion (bwv 244) Aria Erbarme dich…

Peter begs for mercy after betraying Jesus. Falling over a steady bass line of descending eighths, the plucked cello strings sound-paint teardrops: B A G F-sharp | E minor/E B major dominant 7th/F-sharp E minor/G… with, in that second measure, a full modulation to the fourth E minor of the home key of B minor. Meanwhile the violin solo, Yehudi Menuhin‘s favorite, weaves its way around it with frequent rhythmic changes. There is a harmonic switch virtually at each triplet, implying four chords per measure (the time signature is 12/8, like a slow blues). Andreas Scholl, the world’s greatest countertenor, shines. There’s no describing the heart-rending beauty of this music; so, bowing to Wittgenstein’s wisdom, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

17.) ♬ St John Passion Johannes-Passion (bwv 245) Chorus Ruht wohl…

The most gorgeous lullaby ever composed. This musical “Goodnight Moon” bids Jesus farewell with the words: Ruht wohl (“Rest well”). At this most solemn juncture of the most solemn hour of the most solemn day of the Christian calendar, what does Bach give us? A sweet, gentle dance! Only the achingly beautiful motet-like bridge at 2:33 departs from the basic homophony of the piece, with short canonic phrases and a measure of vocal independence. The whole chorus is structured as a pair of nested palindromes: Iaba-II-Iaba. Bach was big on those.

18.) ♬ Cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele (bwv 78) Recitative Die Wunden nägel…

It speaks to the richness of this cantata that this recitative is not even the best movement. The music dissolves into a chorale of exquisite beauty (1:19): Dies mein Herz, mit Leid vermenget… geb ich dir (“This my heart, crowded with sorrows… I give to you”). If more grace and tenderness can be captured in a simple melody, I haven’t heard it yet.

19.) ♬ Mass in B minor Die h-Moll Messe (bwv 232) Chorus Kyrie

That the Lutheran Bach would write a catholic Mass should not raise eyebrows. As Jaroslav Pelikan pointed out, Bach’s theology was supple and nonsectarian. In any event, the Kyrie and the Gloria of the B minor Mass were part of a job application with the new Elector of Saxony, who being a Catholic would not have looked too kindly to a Passion. Bach thought that a Court appointment would raise his standing with the ruling doofuses of the Leipzig council. Sadly, crafting one of the crown jewels of Western civilization didn’t quite cut it and Bach was turned down—though he did get the job three years later. After three kyrie (for the trinity) and an eleison (“have mercy”), Bach segues into a long five-part fugue. At 0:37, the first oboe and the flute introduce the theme. After an interlude, the theme is reintroduced successively by the lines of tenor (2:25), alto (2:36), soprano (2:57), and bass (3:33). The rest is a typically Bachian fugal development with a staggering number of melodic motifs vying for attention.

20.) ♬ Cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (bwv 76) Recitative So läßt sich Gott…

If you have in you such a well of musical genius that you can spare a melodic gem and toss it in the middle of a recitative, then surely your initials must be JSB. In Daß sich die Himmel regen (“so that the heavens move”) you feel the word painting at “RE-gen” at 0:33. Likewise in Geist und Körper sich bewegen (“Spirits and bodies stir themselves”) the melismatic be-WE-gen (0:47) bobs up and down on the ocean between body and soul. Not enough attention is given to recitatives. While Mozart’s seem little more than random sequences of notes that try hard not to intrude, Bach’s recitatives are extraordinary works of art in and of themselves. I’ll admit to having been slow to grasp this fact, which only repeated exposures to his sacred music made increasingly “obvious.”

21.) ♬ St Matthew Passion Matthäus-Passion (bwv 244) Chorus Kommt ihr Töchter…

My nomination for the greatest seven minutes in the history of written music. Featuring a double orchestra & choir, the opening movement is set to an Agnus Dei that begins at the end: Jesus is dead and the title, “Come, you daughters, help me lament,” is an injunction to the Church (aka the daughters of Zion). In the key of E minor, the organ holds a low droning pedal tone E for five measures (0:24). The two orchestras play together until (1:14) the most rousing vocal entry ever heard this side of the Milky Way sees the chorus spell the E minor chord in rising thirds and climb up to the root, followed by a brief modulation to E major at the next measure, then right back to the key. Now you know where Wagner got the idea for his blitz modulations. The melody culminates (1:41) on a descending line from G to E that is sustained over nearly two measures by the sopranos. In parallel, the bass marks the chromatic descent from C to B to A-sharp (1:46) with dotted rhythms (actually, quarter+eighth notes) in striking fashion. Herreweghe rightly highlights this syncopated bass line, which other conductors too often neglect. This is followed by a repeated call-and-response between the two choirs (1:56): sehet—WEN?—den bräutigam, sehet ihn—WIE?—als wie ein Lamm (“Behold—WHOM?—the bridegroom [Jesus], Behold him—HOW?—as a lamb”). The ending features an immensely rich counterpoint, perhaps the most complex music ever written. The SMP is a composition over which Bach gushed with pride.

22.) ♬ St Matthew Passion Matthäus-Passion (bwv 244) Chorale Herzliebster Jesu…

This chorale follows the opening to the St Matthew Passion. I’ve come to regard the two movements as inseparable, so there it is. The melody on which it is based is also used in the St John Passion.

23.) ♬ St Matthew Passion Matthäus-Passion (bwv 244) Chorus Sind Blitze, sind Donner…

Upon the capture of Jesus, his disciples wait for “someone” to do something. When nothing happens (0:35), they get mad! The piece is in E minor but the theme is introduced by the bass starting over B minor and then proceeds along the cycle of fourths (tenor over E minor, alto over A, soprano over D) to end on a G chord, the key’s relative major, with the flutes and oboes making their entrance. The time signature of 3/8 gives each voice three eighth notes per measure—as in Blit-ze-sind, with each voice switching to sixteenth notes for urgency as soon as it’s done with the words. The sense of rising anger is amplified by the presence of two choirs. The Picardy third on the final blut (minor-to-major modulation caused by the G-sharp) ends the piece on a note of hope, a common device in liturgical music.

24.) ♬ Mass in B minor Die h-Moll Messe (bwv 232) Chorus Credo: Et incarnatus est

This 5-part chorus in B minor, one of the Credo’s nine movements and one of the few original to the Mass (and last one to be added), begins with the violins playing a series of descending runs in unison. After going through a i-iv-V7 (tonic, mediant, dominant 7th) run (with A-sharp diminished 7th subbing for the dominant 7th), the voices come in one at a time at the 4th bar (0:13)—alto, second sopranos, first sopranos, tenor, and bass—to form a 5-voice counterpoint starting at the 8th measure (0:28); during all that time, the continuo holds the root as a pedal note. The voices reenter canonically at 1:28, this time in the order: Tenor, Alto, 2nd Soprano, 1st Soprano, Bass. The piece ends on an imperfect cadence—the V (dominant) chord is played in its first inversion, with the bass set to A-sharp, the third of the chord and the leading tone of the key. This detail matters because, despite the final Picardy third, it contributes to the weak sense of resolution. Mozart’s Requiem was heavily influenced by Handel and the Bach lineage, and it shows. After Gardiner’s, here is Rilling’s slower version in modern-era tuning.

25.) ♬ St Matthew Passion Matthäus-Passion (bwv 244) Chorale Erkenne mich…

The most important chorale in the SMP, it appears no fewer than six times. This defensive request from the disciples, Erkenne mich, mein Hüter (“Acknowledge me, my guardian”), brings out this stern response from Jesus: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” It won’t be long before a remorseful Peter is reduced to singing Erbarme dich (see above). Bach composed chorales by taking old melodies and making them his own. So did Paul Simon, paring down Bach’s chorale to lovely effect.

26.) ♬ Motet Komm, Jesu, komm! (bwv 229) Chorus Komm, Jesu…

This excerpt from a two-choir motet (roughly, a cantata with minimal accompaniment) opens with a pleading, rising “Come, come, come, come Jesus” of stunning power. (All that Vivaldi study paid off after all…) The plaintive quality of the request begins to weaken at 0:45 as the two choirs lose their unity and go their separate ways over die Kraft verschwindt je mehr und mehr (“my strength wanes more and more”). It is striking that each verse beats to a different rhythm. At 2:03, a descending diminished seventh interval brings a striking dissonance (A B-flat C-sharp D) over the text in Der saure Weg wird mir zu schwer (“the bitter path becomes too difficult for me”). At 3:51, the chorus switches time from 3/2 to 6/8, giving the melody a lilting flow to match the famous line from John’s gospel: du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben (“You are the way, the truth, and the life”).

27.) ♬ The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 13, rectus (bwv 1080)

The seal shown above displays the initials JSB and their mirror image. It’s roughly the principle of a mirror fugue, which consists of two “inverted” fugues. Bach uses six mirrors at once, which is nothing short of miraculous. The result is bouncy carnival-like music of catchy elegance. The Art of Fugue is a précis of Bach’s instrumental science: think of a textbook where Newton might explain how the universe works. Just as the motion of the stars does not depend on any telescope, the Art of Fugue is not bound to any particular instrument. Here’s contrapunctus 2, which highlights the basic melodic theme: D A F D C-sharp D E F F G F E D. There is no evidence that Bach ever intended this material to be performed in public. It’s an instructional vehicle. The last (unfinished) fugue builds on the melody, Bb A C B, which, in German notation, spells B A C H.

28.) ♬ St John Passion Johannes-Passion (bwv 245) Aria Es ist vollbracht!

In his last words on the cross, Jesus declares himself done with his work: “It is finished.” This is one of Bach’s most enigmatic arias. The title comes from the word Tetelestai, meaning “Paid in full.” This is what your invoice would say after the plumber came to fix your sink in first-century Anatolia, where the gospel of John is thought to have been written. Instead of the sink, make this the sins of the world and you get the idea. At 1:43, vor die gekränkten Seelen (“for the ailing soul”), Scholl (remember him?) drops from B to C#, almost a whole octave! Unlike most opera writers, Bach treated the voice like any other instrument, sometimes overlooking minor technicalities such as the need of singers to breathe. At 2:30, the countertenor holds that C-sharp for 13 seconds on Die Trauernacht (“woeful night”)! The middle part (3:43), Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht (“Judea’s hero conquers with might”) breaks the tone of despondency. It features long melismas on kampf and macht to end abruptly with the voice, a highly unusual signoff. No one can touch Andreas Scholl but such is Bach’s universal “plasticity” that Marian Anderson’s Hollywoodian vollbracht works for me. A technical point. In the second measure, Bach modulates to E minor, the fourth of the key (B minor). Instead of just going there, as any rock song would, he first modulates to B major perhaps to set the cadence V7-i (Dominant 7th, Tonic) and land in the desired E minor. But that would be too simple, so Bach does it in two steps: V-iv (Dominant, Subdominant) followed by V7-i (Dominant 7th, Tonic). By adding the leading tone D-sharp to the mix (to resolve to the new root E), he uses a diminished-seventh substitution to produce B-A minor-D-sharp diminished 7th-E minor. This is modulation of the highest caliber. Surprised?

29.) ♬ Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (bwv 582)
As a teenager given to sweeping pronouncements, I once declared the Passacaglia in C minor the most beautiful piece of music ever written. As much as I loved the monumental Chaconne in D minor (which I learned to play on the guitar, badly), the Passacaglia struck me as the superior piece, unconcerned whether such a judgment even made sense let alone was true. The Chaconne is the work of a grief-stricken husband who’s just lost the love of his life. Like much of hip hop, but unlike the blues, it is sad on the inside. The Passacaglia is dramatic on the outside but achingly gentle inside. It is remarkable that Bach wrote such a mature piece in his early twenties (or so historians think). It shares with the Chaconne, the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Art of Fugue the basic quality of an extended variation on a short, fixed theme: here, C G E-flat F G A-flat F G D E-flat B C F G G C (all those flats because the key of C minor has three of them). After the head, the composer is supposed to go on as long as his creative juices allow him. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins practiced this sport in Kansas City.

The gradual buildup climaxes at 5:00 but it’s the calm after the storm that chokes you with emotion: the arpeggios at 6:06. I can’t overstate the power that passage has had over me throughout my life. It’s like the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh, only meatier. The piece goes through 21 iterations and then abruptly switches to a double fugue (8:58) whose 12 segments conclude with an enormous fermata on a Neapolitan chord: that’s the big pause on the D-flat chord, half a step above the root, which you hear at 13:38. A short coda signs off with the final C major chord, the restorative modulation of church music. The passacaglia is a difficult piece to appreciate to its fullest and I still discover something new every time I hear it. While not a huge fan of his conducting, I think Richter nails this one. Bravo, maestro!

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