Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Daily Bach

"Rarely does a day go by when I don't do some Bach. And when I do it it's never the way I did it the time before." Aaron Rosand
I would say that the person I have the most intimate daily contact with for the longest time has been Johann Sebastian Bach. He always adapts to whatever musical needs I might have at any given time in my life.

When I was a small child, before I played an instrument, I listened to my father practice Bach every day. When I was very little it was the Sonatas and Partitas for violin, and then when I was older (after the age of 6), it was the Cello Suites, and the Sonatas and Partitas played one fifth lower on the viola. My mother practiced Bach Flute Sonatas and transcriptions of non-contrapuntal movements from the Sonatas and Partitas and the Cello Suites, and when I began to play the flute I did the same. I also learned all the flute parts from the Bach Cantatas that my (then future and now former) teacher Julius Baker compiled after his years as the flutist of the Bach Aria Group, and from my mother's books of arias with instrumental obbligato by voice type.

That led me to learn the arias in the context of their cantatas. If it was for flute and by Bach, I knew it. My first Cantata was Number 78. It was, perhaps, the first recording I bought for myself: Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Choir Orchestra with the Magnificat on the other side.

I even bought the parts when I was in high school. My father told me that Cantata 78 was the first Bach Cantata he ever played. He played it at a Unitarian Church in Cleveland when he was there working for what was to become NASA (he was called to sub for a violinist had trouble getting up on Sunday mornings). The conductor was Robert Shaw. Cantata 78 still has its place for me in the pantheon of Bach Cantatas.

I always felt disappointed by the A minor Suite for Solo Flute. It never seemed to be as interesting as the solo string music, or the accompanied Flute Sonatas, but I still played it every day before I became a string player.

My daily Bach took me from age 13 through age 31 or so on the flute, recorder, and baroque flute, and as soon as I had enough technique to believe I could attempt the Sonatas and Partitas on the violin, it became my daily goal to navigate through them. When I found myself with a viola (I bought one for $100 at a neighbor's garage sale), the first pieces I tried to play were the Cello Suites (Watson Forbes' transcription). Once I got enough technique to play movements from the Sonatas and Partitas on the viola (the ones movements I heard my father play when I was growing up), they joined my daily Bach. Now I practice all the movements on the violin, and practice all the Cello Suites on the viola.

I have never been much of a keyboard player, but I still manage to find pleasure in playing the Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Klavier on the piano (albeit slowly). Bach's keyboard Partitas taught me the joy of completely exhausting all the contrapuntal possibilities presented by a small amount of material, and some movements from his English and French Suites, along with the two-part inventions taught me the limitlessness of writing with only two voices. When I got my viola d'amore, and instrument that I'm sure Bach played, I made a transcription of the Fifth Cello Suite for it. That's the way I learned my way around a new instrument: through Bach.

I learned to play the flute, the baroque flute, the piano, the violin, and the viola from Bach. I discovered the wonders of "baroque interpretation" through Bach, and I discovered the wonders of "romantic interpretation" through Bach. Bach has shared my deepest passions, my deepest sorrows, my flights of musical and intellectual fancy, and my frustrations. Teaching Bach is always the greatest way of communicating with a student, and discovering the ambiguities of Bach--phrases that can work in thousands upon thousands of ways--is a parallel to all of life. It is sturdy music that means as much to me today as it did when I was a very small child. It is music that I can throw my whole self into, and though much of my daily Bach is grooved into my psyche, I never have the same experience playing it. Never.


Anonymous said...

Love Bach. A lot. To the point that one of the things on my ‘If I won the lottery’ list is to buy the violin parts for all of Bach’s choral music. In the meantime I’ve been looking for compilations of violin obbligato parts from Bach’s choral works & what I have been able to find so far seems quite incomplete. Do you know of any compilations for the violin similar to Baker’s Bach compilation? I know about the Kalmus compilations (violin as well as other obbligato instruments), I also obtained one (all violin) by Barenreiter. There are also a lot of ripieno parts that I’d like to have as well so several years ago I listened to an online clip of every non-recitative track of every Cantata & Mass and compiled a list of the ones I liked. Over the years I have acquired the sheet music for a lot of it via compilations & individual Cantatas, but I still have a ways to go & need to put it together in an organized way.....just thought I’d post here in case you know of any sources that I may not have found yet.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I feel the same way about Bach. I was not very interested in classical until middle school, when I saw some episode of "Northern Exposure" with an eccentric violinist who was playing the fugue from the 1st sonata alone in a forest. I immediately learned it for the classical guitar to play in front of some class. From there, I went on to play the piano, violin and pipe organ. Bach is the only thing I would play on those instruments, my only reason for spending time to learn them. Sometimes, a few bars will get stuck in my head for days, until I set down the score and play the section in question over and over, examining all the sounds that arise from that particular combination of counterpoint. Once it is has become integrated into my brain to whatever degree it was necessary, then I move on