Bach Looks Back

by Michael Barone, Minnesota Public Radio
July 26, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — It is perhaps worth remembering that on July 28 back in 1750, one of the great musical minds of western culture closed his eyes for the last time.

J.S. Bach died, likely of eventual complications (stroke, pneumonia) following a very unsuccessful operation on his eyes. He was 65, and left behind an extraordinary and timeless treasure of compositional ingenuity and musical excellence.

In his last years in Leipzig, among many other projects, he assembled a volume of representative examples of his compositions in the genre of organ chorale-preludes. He had done this years before with the Orgelbuchlein, those settings notable for their efficient brevity (one or two pages).

This later volume, which turned out to be his last 'collection' of chorale-preludes, known as the Leipzig Chorales, contains works that mostly were composed about the same time as the Orgelbuchlein settings (during Bach's tenure as court organist in Weimar, 1708-1717) but differ from those in being in long-form...one of them the longest significant chorale-prelude from his pen (there IS one longer piece, but it is mostly just a simple harmonization of a VERY long hymn).

In some cases, Bach transferred the early versions into his Leipzig volume with little change. In others, he made alterations, adding a few extra bars, altering textures, tacking on a 'second half'. But in all cases they are choice scores, selected by Bach for a purpose as representative of his 'best'. And they are. Of the setting of the communion-preparatory hymn "Schmucke dich, o liebe Seele...Deck thyself with gladness, o my soul", included by Mendelssohn in his famous organ recital at the St. Thomas Church in 1840, where Schumann was introduced to it, Bach's rhapsodic and ornamented setting caused Schumann later to reflect: "The melody is hung with wreaths of gilded leaves, and flooded with a spirituality that prompted you, Felix, to confess: "If life were to deprive me of hope and faith, this single chorale would replenish me with both".

So, this is wonderful stuff, and our listeners can hear the whole lot of it this weekend on PIPEDREAMS. Sunday morning, July 28 (2013) from 6-8 a.m.

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  • Piano Sonata No. 14 "Moonlight" 12:01 Ludwig van Beethoven
    Alessio Bax, piano
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  • Trio for Piano, Clarinet & Cello, 3rd movement 11:53 Alexander von Zemlinsky
    Richard Stoltzman, clarinet
    Judith Lynn Stillman, piano
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