Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Johann Sebastian Bach

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: St. Matthew Passion

We mark the first performance on April 11, 1727 – on what was Good Friday 295 years ago today – of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the St. Thomas Church (or Thomaskirche) in the Saxon city of Leipzig. The Passion was 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 revised his St Matthew Passion between 1743 and 1746, and it is this revised version that we will hear in performances and recordings today. Our game plan for this post will be, one, to discuss what a “Passion” is and what the “gospels” are; two, to observe the structure and scope and make some blanket observations about the artistic quality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; three, to discuss “the masterpiece syndrome” and some of the good and bad things that phrase implies; four, to once again venture into the unmapped minefield that is contemporary identity politics and attempt to create a meaningful context for the St Matthew Passion; and finally, five, to speculate on how the parishioners and church officials who, having filed in and taken their seats at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Well Tempered Clavier and Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues

Background Johann Sebastian Bach: Well Tempered Clavier What is referred to as the Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) is actually two separate sets of compositions, arrayed as Book One and Book Two. Each “book” contains 24 sets of preludes and fugues: one prelude and fugue in each major and minor key. Book One is a mix-and-match collection that evolved from a series of preludes that Bach composed and compiled for his son Wilhem Friedmann in 1720. Over the next two years Bach extended and added to the collection, until – in 1722 – he went public with an album of 24 preludes and fugues.  This first collection of 24 preludes and fugues – “Book One” – proved to be so popular that between 1738 and 1742 Bach composed a second set of 24 additional preludes and fugues, which was issued as “Book Two”.  It was the WTC (Books One and Two) that kept Bach’s name alive during the decades of obscurity that followed his death in 1750. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the WTC was considered to be the basic manual for keyboard training.  Mozart was introduced to the Well-Tempered Clavier by his […]

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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: 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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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: What a Way to Go

9-11; a somber day for us all. A day for reflection, contemplation and yes, a day to grieve. Far more often than not, this post is about celebration: celebrating the life of a musician or some great (or small) event in music history. If we chose to, we could celebrate the lives and music of two wonderful composers today. The great French composer and harpsichordist François Couperin died in Paris, at the age of 65, 284 years ago today, on September 11, 1733. The wonderful Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt was born 82 years ago today, on September 11, 1935. However, I’ve chosen, today, not to celebrate but rather, to observe some particular deaths: stupid deaths, unnecessary and premature deaths. A grim topic but not an uninteresting one, given that death is one of the very few things each of us will eventually have in common. The cue for today’s post was the birth, 104 years ago today, of Betty Stone in Norwich, Connecticut. Ms. Stone was an alto and a member of the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. We read from an article that appeared on page 44 of the New York Times on May 2, 1977: “CLEVELAND, May 1—A […]

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