Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for J.S. Bach

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

The Easter Holiday has come and gone, but the melody lingers.  The “melody” to which I specifically refer is Johann Sebastian Bach’s epic St Matthew Passion, which was first performed on Good Friday, April 11, 1727, at the St. Thomas Church (or Thomaskirche) in the Saxon city of Leipzig.  Revised versions of the St Matthew were performed three more times in Bach’s lifetime, all under his direction in Leipzig: on April 15, 1729; March 30, 1736; and on March 23, 1742.  Bach then further revised the passionbetween 1743 and 1746, and it is this final version that we will hear in performances and recordings today.  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 choirs 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 […]

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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: Feast or Famine

I have come to realize over the eighteen months I’ve been writing these Music History Mondays that a date-sensitive blog (like this one) is a metaphor for life itself. On some days you just can’t buy a break while on others there are so many different possibilities that choosing one becomes well nigh impossible, a case of feast or famine. For example. Last week – Monday, April 30th – it was famine. Bereft of a major (or even minor) musical event to write about, I unearthed the fact that on April 30th, 1977 the rock band Led Zeppelin set a new attendance record for a single-act, non-festival ticketed concert, when it played to an audience of 77,229 at the Pontiac (Michigan) Silverdome. This week, today – May 7th – it is feast. And not just any feast; no, today’s date in music history is a cornucopia of gustatory delight; a smörgåsbord the length and breadth of Stockholm; the Carnival World Buffet at Rio Casino in Las Vegas (reputed to be the largest daily pig-out in the world). Check it out: May 7, 1747: Johann Sebastian Bach met with King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) of Prussia in Potsdam. May 7, […]

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Music History Monday: Not So Happily-Ever-After

On this day in 1721 – 296 years ago – Johann Sebastian Bach’s employer, the 27 year-old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen married the 19 year-old Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg. It was, for Bach, the final nail in the coffin lid of what had once been his dream job: that of Kapellmeister (master-of-music) for the court of Cöthen, in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was a position he had held since 1717 and one he had fully expected to hold for the rest of his life. Alas; as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”: man plans and God laughs. Sebastian Bach (as he was known to his family, friends and colleagues; “Johann” was but a Bach family patronymic that went back generations) was nobody’s fool. He knew his worth, and at a time when artisans like himself were expected to keep a low profile and “know their place”, Bach was an outspoken, often cantankerous employee, something that got him into trouble with his bosses on a regular basis. The November 6, 2017 Music History Monday post describes just such an event, when Bach got himself tossed into jail for a month for attempting to quit […]

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Music History Monday: J.S. Bach, Jailbird

Exactly 300 years ago today – on November 6, 1717 – the great Johann Sebastian Bach was tossed into jail and spent nearly a month cooling his heels courtesy of his boss, Prince Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. You see, in 1717, a working-class artisan like Bach did not mouth off to the boss. And that was the crime for which an unrepentant Bach served his time. Some perspective There are some precious people who so well represent the best of our species that merely mentioning their names makes us nod and smile: Da Vinci and Michelangelo; Shakespeare and Dickens; Newton and Einstein; Lincoln and Churchill; Ruth and Mays; Gandhi, King, and Mandela. If we were to ask the composers Mozart, Beethoven, Clara and Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky – and even that nasty French snothead Claude Debussy – whose was the most precious name in the history of musical composition, they all would have said – without a moment’s hesitation – Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a sad irony that Bach never felt this love in his lifetime. On the contrary, in his own lifetime – which ran from 1685 to 1750 – his music was considered by most of […]

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