Glenn Gould, known for his legendary recordings of Bach’s music, laughing as engineers let him hear how his humming spoiled his recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations. He wouldn’t let them remove the humming over fear it would diminish the recording quality. 1955.
It’ll be a day of glorious music on The New Classical FM: back-to-back Bach to celebrate the anniversary of the composer’s birthday today, March 21. It is the 333rd anniversary of the birth of JS Bach. It’s rather mind-boggling for me to describe the complexity of his music, his contrapuntal writing, and how on earth he managed to layer one melody over and over itself, in different pitches. Despite this, the music as we hear it sounds organized and beautiful, appealing to both the intellect and the senses, without ever sounding jumbled or messy.
JS Bach wrote everything – masterpieces for keyboard: preludes and fugues, English and French suites, the mammoth “Goldberg Variations”, and concertos for keyboard. He wrote countless choral pieces, and works for chamber ensembles (who doesn’t love the Brandenburg Concertos?). What always blew my mind about Bach was his enormous output of work vs. the actual quality of the work, which remained consistently at the genius level.
Bach’s music was a constant in my household growing up, and it still is; when I want to listen to classical music outside of work, Bach is often my first choice. I remember learning how to analyze his fugues a la “The Matriarch” (my mother, a well-known Vancouver theory teacher back in the day): red pencil for the subject; orange for the imitation; green for the counter-subject. I’ve always analyzed the fugues that way since, so I could clearly see how I was to bring out each line at the piano. First- and second-year theory with beloved Professor James Schell at the University of British Columbia was the Unofficial Bach Fan Club. Most theory lectures are rather dry at best, but Professor Schell did his best to liven up his lectures making wisecracks and having us sight read various passages of Bach during class. He also had us compose little pieces in the style of Bach, to prove we had an idea of the musical structure. I do recall scribbling out an invention, and thank goodness he didn’t ask us to write a fugue.
When backpacking with a couple of university choir friends (tenor David Fankhauser and bass Derrick Christian), we decided upon a pilgrimage to the resting place of JS Bach, in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. I bought flowers and everything, and because I don’t speak German, was only able to manage, “wo ist Herr Bach, bitte?” to the locals (“where is Mr. Bach, please?”) and each person kindly pointed us in the direction of the church. I had previously asked Professor Schell if he had a message for Bach, and he replied with, in his trademark gravelly voice, “aaahhhhh, E-liz-a-behhhhh-th. Tell him ‘before thy throne, my God, I stand,’ a loose translation of the title of Bach’s last chorale, written as an offering of sorts before he died. I passed on the message, and after wiping away the tears, sat down on a pew and wrote Professor Schell a postcard, telling him that to be in the presence of such genius is the most humbling experience in my whole life. (It still is.) A few years later, he told me he kept that postcard in a box of prized possessions.
Glenn Gould recorded “The Goldberg Variations” in 1955, and again in 1981 before his death a year later. Here is the first recording, which is so vibrant, so fresh, and full of energy and hope – much like spring.
Danke, Herr Bach, und alles Gute zum Geburtstag.
JS Bach was born March 21 in Eisenach, Germany, and died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig.