“When I finish playing one of the books of The Well-Tempered Clavier in one evening, I have the feeling that this is actually much longer than my real life, that I have been on a journey through history, one that begins and ends in silence.” – Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time
In 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a job as organist, composer, and chamber musician for the Duke of Weimar. Even though the Duke raised Bach's salary in 1713 to keep him at Weimar, Bach felt snubbed in 1717 when the Duke passed him over for a job as Kapellmeister (Director of Music). Angry at the Duke, Bach decided to leave Weimar and take a job as Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen. When the Duke refused to give Bach an early dismissal from his job at Weimar, Bach made such a fuss that the Duke had him thrown in jail. During the month he was in jail, as the legend goes, he began composing his iconic work, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
“For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning and for the pastime of those already skilled in the study.” – Bach's inscription to Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier
Although the forty-eight pieces Bach composed for The Well-Tempered Clavier stand collectively as a masterwork of music, they were most likely conceived by Bach primarily as technical exercises, a means of providing keyboard players experience at working with chords, arpeggios, and scales in every key. Indeed, the music has been used to train musicians of all nationalities and musical styles for almost 400 years, including many of history's best-known composers and performers
The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, formed a foundation for the lessons delivered by Nadia Boulanger, the famous French teacher who trained over 1200 musicians, including composers of such disparate styles as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Charlie Parker. Even though Boulanger was well known for helping composers develop their individual voices, she did standardize one element of her instruction — she required every student to memorize Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
“Let the Well-Tempered Clavier become your daily bread. Then you will become a musician.” – Robert Schumann to Felix Mendelssohn
And now for the primary purpose of this posting: If you would like to find a pot of gold on the Internet look no further than the website that features the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka playing Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier in its entirety. Adding even more luster to that pot of gold is a collection of animated graphical scores from Stephen Malinowski, creator of the Music Animation Machine. Malinowski has created animated graphical scores for the entirety of Ishizaka's performance. (What a great time to be alive when treasures like this are so easily accessible!)
I have embedded Ishizaka's entire performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier below, and to whet your appetite for Malinowski's work I have added a video of the Fugue in C major. I recommend visiting Malinowski's YouTube playlist featuring animated graphical scores of all 24 works from Book One.
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Kimiko Ishizaka (piano),
Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, Fugue in C major, video by Stephen Malinowski
and the Music Animation Machine (Kimko Ishizaka, piano)
François Couperin was the most famous member of a family that dominated French music throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1713 and 1730 he published 230 pieces for harpsichord that he had composed and organized into 27 ordres or "suites." Each ordre was a series of dances that Couperin identified with a descriptive name, such as The Little Windmills or The Knitters. Embedded below is one of my favorites from Couperin's ordres for harpsichord, The Mysterious Barricades, adapted beautifully by Michael Chapdelaine for steel guitar. (Chapdelaine is a National Fingerstyle Champion and Professor of Guitar at the University of New Mexico, giving me yet another reason to be proud of my home state.)
Michael Chapdelaine, steel string guitar
Hear The Mysterious Barricades played on harpsichord on my posting from September 29, 2015.
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is credited with founding French opera and developing the French Baroque style in music. His service in the court of Louis XIV made him the most famous musician and composer of his time, and his work as a musician was much appreciated by the king who turned a blind eye to his homosexuality and protected him from the Catholic church.
In music history, however, Lully is too often best known for how he died. Poor Jean-Baptiste was conducting his own composition, Te Deum, and while keeping time by pounding the floor with a wooden staff he hit his own toe. After gangrene set in, he refused to have his toe amputated and died on March 22. Weird, but true.
Lully, Te Deum (William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants)
For what it's worth, a "Bourée" is a seventeenth-century French dance with two beats per measure.
Andreas Martin, Lute
Paul McCartney, "Blackbird"
Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson on flute at the AVO SESSION Basel, Switzerland
So much music. So many choices. So little time.
I turned to an old episode of Northern Exposure recently and caught the character played by Barry Corbin drinking wine and listening to the Goldberg Variations. A few days later I was streaming Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and heard Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Every week or so I hear Jon Batiste greeting one of Stephen Colbert’s guests with something from Bach. After Sarah Silverman sat on Colbert’s couch, she asked Batiste, “What was that?” Batiste answered, “Bach,” as if Silverman should have known. (She should have.)
I hear Bach’s influence in songs by the Beatles, as well as the introduction to the Door’s Light My Fire. When I listen to jazz, I often hear music derived from Bach.
No matter where I’m going, there I am — listening to Bach. Bach died over 265 years ago, but more than any other composer his music is ubiquitous in our culture.
Just look at the information below.
The Internet Movie Database lists 979 movie and television soundtracks from 1931-2016 that use Bach’s music. This number has increased from 755 since I first looked at it two years ago for a class I was teaching on Bach, and I expect the number will keep increasing. Anyone who watches movies and television cannot escape Bach.
- Fifty Shades of Grey (Concerto in D minor)
- The Butler (Partita No. 1 in B-flat)
- The Iron Lady (Prelude in C major from Well-Tempered Clavier I)
- The English Patient (Goldberg Variations)
- Silence of the Lambs (Goldberg Variations)
- Die Hard (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)
- The Godfather (Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor)
- Sunset Boulevard (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
- Fantasia (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
- The Beach Boys, “Lady Lynda” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)
- Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Air on the G String)
- The Doors, “Light My Fire” – Ray Manzarek said his keyboard playing was influenced by Bach
- Jethro Tull, “Bourée” (“Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
- The Beatles, “In My Life” (listen for the Bach-influenced keyboard solo)
- The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (listen for the trumpet solo influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 2)
- The Beatles, “Blackbird” (see the video embedded below to hear Paul McCartney explain the influence of the “Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
- Modern Jazz Quartet, "Fugue in A Minor”
- Classical Jazz Quartet, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2”
- Donald Fox Quartet, “Variations on a Bach Fugue”
- After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich sat by the ruins of the wall and played the "Sarabande" from Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.
- During the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, Isaac Stern was preparing to play at Jerusalem Hall when an air raid siren sounded, obviously causing great concern for people attending the concert. Stern stepped on stage and began playing Bach’s “Sarabande” from Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin to calm everyone down. People in the audience sat through the rest of his performance wearing gas masks. (Stern's gas mask was kept offstage in case he needed it.)
- For ten days after the September 11 attacks on 2001, public radio stations in New York City adhered to an all-news format. On September 23, WNYC-FM reverted to its classical format with a program titled “Bach: Solace and Inspiration.” The host, David Garland, described the music as something that would “reassure and renew the spirit.” Garland played Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, Sleepers Wake, and Sheep May Safely Graze.
- On September 11, 2002, Yo-Yo Ma played Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor at ground zero to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The names of those who died were read aloud as Ma played.
- On January 27, 2010, Steve jobs introduced the iPad to the press by playing Bach on iTunes. Jobs had been listening to Bach since he was a teenager. Yo-Yo Ma, one of Jobs’ friends, played at Jobs’ memorial in October 2011.
- Mozart studied Bach’s music and admired his ingenuity.
- Beethoven thought of the Well-Tempered Clavier as his “musical Bible.”
- Liszt memorized all forty-eight of the preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2.
- Chopin told his students that Bach’s music was “the highest and best school.” Chopin spent two weeks before every concert playing nothing but Bach and did not even practice his own compositions to prepare for a concert, playing only Bach.
- Mendelssohn admired Bach more than any other composer. His family had long supported a Bach salon in Berlin. Mendelssohn re-introduced Bach to European audiences after he had remained relatively unknown to the general public for almost eighty years.
- Schumann said, “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder…. We are all bunglers next to him.”
- Brahms said, “The two greatest events of my lifetime are the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach Gesellschaft's publications."
- Wagner proclaimed that the greatness of Bach was “almost inexplicably mysterious.”
- Stravinsky went through a “neo-Bach” phase, composing music that used “the wonderful jolts, the sudden modulations, the unexpected harmonic changes, the deceptive cadences that are the joy of every Bach cantata.”
- Villa-Lobos composed Bachianas Brasileiras, a collection of nine suites for various instruments and voice that were based on Bach’s style of composition.
- Almost all modern musicians playing a keyboard instrument, string instrument, or wind instrument have developed their musical technique by playing Bach’s music.
And why Bach? Why has Bach, more than any other composer, cast such an inescapable presence over music history?
First, let me state the obvious. Bach was a damned good composer, a highly skilled artist who gave us over 1100 pieces of music. In 1992, Phil G. Goulding published Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works and declared that Bach was the greatest composer of all time. In January 2011, a New York Times poll conducted by Anthony Tommasini also declared that Bach was history’s greatest composer. Even if he is not history's "greatest" composer, his music has certainly stood the test of time and remains as popular as ever.
The second reason that Bach’s music has become ubiquitous comes from its flexibility. Bach's music can be taken out of the early eighteenth century and easily transferred to the instruments and styles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Bach’s music can be transposed and transformed to adapt to changing technology. It can be adapted to almost any format or medium, from chamber orchestras to full-size orchestras, from lutes to rock bands to digital performances. Bach’s music lends itself to constant reinvention. We can also listen to it as it sounded in the eighteenth century, and it will still sound great to the modern ear.
There's no doubt that long after everyone reading this blog is gone, the world will still be listening to the ubiquitous Bach.
Paul McCartney explaining how Bach influenced his song "Blackbird"
Modern Jazz Quartet, Fugue in A Minor
Yo-Yo Ma Playing Bach at a September 11 Memorial
The inspiration and much of the information for this blog came from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie,
a book I highly recommend, as well as the other books shown below.
Paul Begala, harpsichord / Otto Büchner, violin / Paul Meisen, flute
– François Couperin, Preface to Pièces de Clavecin , Book 1 (1713)
This piece by Couperin for harpsichord is almost 300 years old and still sounds fresh. It’s difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying The Mysterious Barricades.
Katherine Shao, harpsichord (animated graphical score by Music Animation Machine)