Bach - a 'god of music'?

I’m Graeme Kay from BBC Radio 3 and I’m the curator of tomorrow’s Discovery Day at Symphony Hall, as part of the Bach: A Beautiful Mind weekend.

There’s a strong choral focus to this edition of our Bach event – last night we heard Jeffrey Skidmore conduct Ex Cathedra in four of Bach’s Motets, contrasted with Jeffrey’s son Andrew’s performances of two of the unaccompanied Cello Suites. We heard two sides of Bach: the exuberant intricacy and demonstrative power of the choral settings, and the intimacy and raw emotional connection we felt to the voice-like sound we heard as Andrew’s bow darted across the gut strings of his 18th-century-style cello.

Tonight at Symphony Hall, two venerable institutions with connections back to Bach’s time will join forces: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the choir from St Thomas’s, Leipzig, where Bach was Kantor, will perform the St Matthew Passion, often dubbed Bach’s greatest work.

In tomorrow’s Discovery Day, we’ll be looking at the social history of Bach’s Leipzig, discovering the musical forces available to Bach and how he developed them, and looking at the ways in which Bach’s music influenced the Lutheran Church and – after its rediscovery in the 19th century – continued to resonate down the centuries to our present time.

Five key facts about Bach:

1) Bach is regarded by most musicians as a genius of Western music: he does not appear ever to written a piece of music of lesser quality.
2) He was a brilliant improviser on the organ and an accomplished harpsichordist.
3) Hugely prolific, he wrote at least one cantata for every Sunday of the year.
4) Brahms described Bach’s Chaconne (BWV.1004) as containing ‘a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings’.
5) Bach shocked audiences with his ‘theatrical’ setting of the Passion story.

A couple of years ago I commissioned a BBC producer colleague, Lindsay Kemp, who is an expert on Baroque music, to write a short introduction for a BBC Bach website I was editing.

‘‘Bach’s music,’ Lindsay wrote, ‘Seems not the work of a mere man, but something immutable and timeless reached down from the heavens, as if Bach were some kind of natural lawgiver, a musical Newton who has found the key to the secret of all music and opened it up before us. This is certainly what many later composers cherished him for, this ability to express the very essence of the ancient science of music itself, its absolute truth. Perhaps he is the nearest thing we have to a god of music.’

Lindsay’s short article contains some more vivid insights into Bach’s ‘beautiful mind’ – I thoroughly recommend it, and you can read it here