Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Bach

Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

We cannot (and will not!) talk about Sebastian Bach’s landmark Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin without first considering what is, to my mind, one of the most perfect examples of human ingenuity this side of cave painting, and that is the violin. The Violin The violin is a miracle of ingenuity and nature, of art and science.  Here are some particulars.   The instrument we call the “violin” appeared around the year 1530 and continued to evolve until it reached its (more-or-less) definitive size and shape – in the late 1600s and early 1700s – in the hands the great violin gurus of Cremona, Italy: Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), and Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri (1698-1744).  Depending upon whom you talk to, the violin consists of up to 83 parts. (That’s because different ways of counting will yield up a different number of parts; for example, the back of a violin can be made up of one or two pieces of wood.)   Whatever.  No matter how you count the individual pieces, the violin ultimately consists of three essential components: the resonating body (the sound box), typically 355 millimeters (or 14”) in length; the neck with the fingerboard; and […]

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Music History Monday: The Wayward Bach, His Wayward Daughter, and the Bachs of Oklahoma

We mark the death on August 1, 1784 – 238 years ago today – of the German composer and organist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in Berlin at the age of 73.  Born in the central German city of Weimar on November 22, 1710, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who from here on we will refer to as Friedemann Bach, was the second child and first son of Johann Sebastian Bach (who from this point forward we will refer to as Sebastian Bach). Friedemann Bach was a gifted musician, the equal (in my opinion) to his more famous brothers Carl Philip Emanual and Johann Christian Bach.  But unlike his brothers, Friedemann harbored personal demons that poisoned his relationships with others and led to his financial ruin later in his life.  We’ll discuss these issues in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, as well as the singular disaster Friedemann’s poverty eventually wrought, when he chose to the sell off so many of his father’s precious musical manuscripts, which were then lost for all time. For the remainder of this post, we’re going to shift our focus to Friedemann Bach’s only surviving child, his daughter Friederica Sophia, who was born in the Saxon city of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion

A Bit O’ Review To recap something of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a massive, roughly three-hour-long sacred oratorio that sets to music the story surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as told in chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew.  Musically, it is a full-blown religious opera presented in concert form, with a narrator, a cast of characters, two adult choruses and a separate boys’ choir, eight vocal soloists and two orchestras. It is replete with arias, recitatives, choruses, and action music of every stripe.  With a libretto by Bach’s long-time collaborator Christian Frederic Henrici (known as “Picander”, 1700-1764), the St Matthew Passion features 68 different musical numbers, divided into two acts, or parts: Part One featuring 29 numbers, and Part Two 39 numbers. In terms of its scope, spiritual and expressive power, range of expression, and sheer (frankly inexplicable) beauty, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is, as a work of art unique, sui generis, one-of-a-kind: an artwork defined only by itself, comparable only to itself.   Bach biographer Karl Geiringer writes: “The St Matthew Passion represents the climax of Bach’s music for the Protestant Church. His own conception of its importance is […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig van Beethoven and the Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach

We mark the birth on March 21, 1685, of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, in what today is central Germany.  He died 65 years later, on July 28, 1750, in the Saxon city of Leipzig. I can hear the howling now, “Dr. B, hello, Bach was born on March 31, 1685, not March 21; March 31: it says so on Wikipedia!” Chill out and unknot those jockeys; let’s talk.   Wikipedia and various other sources do indeed indicate, not incorrectly, that Bach was born on March 31.  But according to the irrefutable and unassailable Bach scholar Christoff Wolff writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sebastian Bach was born on March 21.  And in fact Bach celebrated his birthday on March 21.  So what gives? A Brief Contemplation of Dates (by which we do not refer to one’s social life but the calendar) Old style and new style; in style and out-of-style.  It is a question of almost Talmudic complexity.   We’re talking about calendars and the confusion wrought by changing calendars. In 46 BCE (two years before his conversion into a human pincushion), Julius Caesar proposed replacing what was the 10-month Roman […]

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Music History Monday: A Marriage of Convenience

On April 22, 1723 – 296 years ago today – the 38-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach was elected music director and cantor of St. Thomas church in Leipzig. Despite the fact that it was a prestigious position, Bach felt scant enthusiasm for the job and considered it a step down from his previous position. Bach’s reticence was shared by the Leipzig authorities’ reticence towards Bach, who was – in fact – their fourth choice for the job. Bach and Leipzig were “a marriage of convenience” and therein lies the story for this week’s Music History Monday. Sebastian Bach (as he was known to his friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances) was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia, in what today is central Germany. He was the eighth and last child (of five surviving children) born to Elisabeth and Johann Ambrosius Bach.  To say that Sebastian Bach had a genetic predisposition towards music is like saying that giraffes are genetically predisposed to necking. For generations, music had been the Bach family trade. In 1735, the 50-year-old Sebastian Bach compiled a list of forty-two family members who had been professional musicians during the previous 150 years. It was a “short list”, as […]

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Music History Monday: The “Revival” Begins

On March 11, 1829 – 190 years ago today – the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a heavily edited version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio St. Matthew’s Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin. Composed in 1727, 102 years before that sold-out performance in Berlin, Mendelssohn’s performance of the passion was the first to take place outside of Leipzig, and it caused a sensation. It single-handedly initiated what is now known as the “Bach Revival”, which brought the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – in particular his large-scale works – to the attention of a broad-based listening public for the very first time. At the time of Mendelssohn’s performance, the great man himself had been dead for nearly 79 years. Bach’s Death Sebastian Bach (as his contemporaries knew him) was built like a bull and had the constitution of one as well. At no point in his life had he suffered a serious illness until the late spring of 1749, when at 64 his body began to give out: among other things, he suffered from neuropathy (numbness and pain in his hands and feet, the result of damage to the peripheral nerves of same) and eye pain and vision problems (likely […]

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Music History Monday: Like Father, Like Son

236 years ago today – on January 1, 1782 – Johann Christian Bach died in London at the age of 47. The youngest surviving son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach (who himself had died 32 years before, in 1750), J. C. Bach attained a level of fame and respect in his lifetime that was far beyond anything ever experienced by his old man. In the centuries since, the elder Bach has rightly been recognized as the singular genius that he was. But we will not denigrate the son as we elevate the father, and thus J.C. Bach must be recognized as one of the most important and influential composers of his time. The Fabulous Bach Boys You want to talk good genes, great genes, crazy-awesome genes, a geneticists dream come true? Let’s talk about the Bach family. From the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century, the Bach family of Thuringia and Saxony, states in what today is central Germany, produced over eighty professional musicians, from fiddlers and organists to town musicians and court musicians to Kantors and Kapellmeisters, culminating – of course – with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). (For our information: entries on the Bach family take up […]

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