Tuesday 23 June 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Johann Sebastian Bach)

Disclaimer: Please, be aware that all anachronisms in the following post are intentional.

Whilst rummaging through the archive of Killer Opening Songs for tonight's section, I came across an interview that K.O.S. conducted with Herr Johann Sebastian Bach for the German newspaper Critische Nachrichten aus dem Reiche der Gelehrsamkeit (Critical News from the Land of Erudition) at some point in the 1730s on the eve of the release of the famous composer's groundbreaking album 'Violin Concertos'. I herein reproduce verbatim the conversation between the German maestro and Our Regular Section of Lethal Introductory Tracks.

K.O.S: Many thanks, Herr Bach for kindly accepting our invitation to discuss your upcoming album.Bach: Nein, nein, it's my pleasure. I read your publication avidly and I have become a member, too.

K.O.S.: Mr Bach, my first question is, why did it take you so long to put those violin pieces on record? After all, as in the case of our Killer Opening Song tonight, the Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004, they date from a decade ago, give or take a couple of years here and there.B: Hmmm... that's a good question. I guess that my work in both Cöthen and Leipzig were geared more towards organ, clavicord and choral pieces. As you know, it was in the latter place where I achieved the distinction of Compositeur to the Royal Court Capelle. This position brought with it more responsibilities than the ones over which I had kept watch before and therefore my violin pieces were put on hold. And on top of that there was also my Clavierübung project to oversee.

K.O.S.: And yet, the public will probably wonder why you kept us waiting all these years for a set of solo numbers that demonstrate your command of performing techniques. Do you think that there was some trepidation on your part as to how this album would be received?B: I wouldn't say trepidation, gar nicht. I would say that... meiner Meinung nach... erm... if I was to record an entire catalogue of previously unheard old pieces, I had to be sure that the fun and creative elements were both included in the final opus.

K.O.S: And your neverending desire to explore new sounds.B: Genau so! Yes, that too. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I must admit that the end result shows my ability to bring into play, without even an accompanying bass part, dense counterpoint and refined harmony with distinctive and well-articulated rhythmic designs.

K.O.S.: I would add to that that there's a joyful feeling to it, too.B: The joy you hear comes from that exploration you mentioned before and which took me through every facet of violin technique, including multiple stoppings. At the same time I experimented a little bit with some chords and the ability to produce through them contrapuntal textures that extend even to what you might call a fugue.

K.O.S.: Is it true, then, that to you music comes first and your personality second? The reason why I am asking is that in allowing someone of Gidon Kremer's stature to perform your Partita No.2 in D minor, you're in a way ceding centre stage to someone else.B: To me, music is the strongest link between God and us humans and I consider myself lucky enough to have served the Good Lord as his humble messenger so far. Gidon is to me another instrument through which to channel this divine blessing. Sometimes as I am playing at the St Thomas school, where I currently work, I look up and say to myself: Jesum, ich will hier bei dir stehen, which as you know is part of one of my most famous choral works included in the libretto of the St Matthew Passion BWV 244.

K.O.S.: Hence the austere expression on the album cover. Sorry, but I just had to get over that question. There you are, holding a sheet with three short lines of musical notation. Was there a statement in the choice of cover?B: I didn't want the frontispiece to be a distraction from the record's main objective: to introduce the public to a set of hitherto lesser-known works. Besides of what use would it have been if I had posed with a paper roll like a conductor or a keyboard like a performer? Simplicity is an attribute hard to earn and easy to lose.

K.O.S.: Let's go back to the introductory track. A 'Sarabande'? What made you choose such controversial style for one of the partita's sections?B: What do you mean by controversial?

K.O.S.: I'm sure that someone as knowledgeable as you are, will be acquainted with the history behind the Nsala-banda, to give this dance and music its proper African name.B: Vielleicht you could elaborate further on that point, bitte. To me the Sarabande is an elegiac, meditative and noble rhythm.

K.O.S.: Herr Bach, according to the writer, producer and musician Ned Sublette, the Zarabanda was the rock and roll of Spain in the late sixteenth century, a good one hundred years before you were born. Originally from the Congo this dance travelled on a slave ship to the Americas, especially to Cuba, went back to Europe - through Havana -, reached its peak in Sevilla during the annual May festival of Corpus Christi and then was watered down and became part of the classical music canon. Obviously, the clergy in Spain were appalled when they first saw it. A mimetic performance that simulated sexual action, with hips swaying and breasts touching was not the sacred idea in which the Creator was usually celebrated. By the time it spread across Europe, first to Italy, then to England, later to France and finally to Germany, it had become a rather tamed rhythm.B: And that's der Rhythmus you will be able to hear in the Killer Opening Song of the 'Violin Concertos' album.

K.O.S: Right, let me ask you another question. Is this album, maybe at a subconscious level, a riposte to Herr J. A. Scheibe's article in Der critische Musikus?B: No, Herr Scheibe is entitled to his opinion of my music.

K.O.S.: But the column was little less than a poisonous attack on both your persona and oeuvre. He even dared to draw Handel into his critique, when he mentioned that you had, and I quote, 'insufficient agreeableness when compared to a great master of music in a foreign country'. Other charges included: turgid and confused manner, obscuring beauty by too much art and removing the beauty of harmony.B: Danke schön, I am aware of his comments, you did not have to repeat them. I take it that you have also read what my friend J. A. Birnbaum, Leipzig resident and teacher of rethoric, had to say in my defense.

K.O.S.: Yes, I am. Still, to most music lovers the comparison with Handel will not have gone amiss. Have you ever met him?B: Nein, niemals. There was an attempt, abortive unfortunately because of a fever I ran at the time, to meet him many years ago when he was still living in Halle but since he has spent most of his life in England, I have never had the pleasure of his company. Now, all this talk of competition between Handel and me, and the fact that his pieces are more 'natural' than mine, whatever that means, look, I would like to put all this behind me. I am just interested in making music and of course music that appeals to mein Gott. Because that's what I am, one of God's creations.

K.O.S.: Finally, Herr Bach, how would you like to be remembered? As a performer, composer, teacher, scholar...?B: As a man who wrote mostly music for 'The Heaven's Castle'.

K.O.S: Danke schön, Herr Bach.B: Bitte sehr.


This post could never have been written had I not consulted the following books and article:

'The Life of Bach' by Peter Williams, published by Cambridge University Press

'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician' by Christoph Wolff, published by Oxford University Press (my colon)

'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' by Ned Sublette, published by Chicago Review Press (my colon), more specifically, Part II, Chapter 6 'By Post from the Indies'

'Divine Inspiration', article written by JH Elliott and published in The Guardian's Saturday Review, 4th April, 2009.
'The Life of Bach' focuses mainly on his obituary and offers a snapshot of his life and character. 'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician', on the other hand, is not only a detailed account of the composer's personality and his approach to work but also a fascinating insight into Germany's cultural, political, economic and social life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' is a thorough analysis of the genesis, development and influence of Cuban music. Having studied the works of Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera and Natalia Bolívar, I cannot recommend Ned's text enough, not just to those who are interested in finding out why Cuba has been making the world dance for so many years but also to those who are keen to explore the contribution of African rhythms to the canon of European classical music. At best this is an area that has been largely downplayed, at worst it has been completely ignored with the usual snobbish position that classical music is superior to African harmony. 'Divine Inspiration' gave me a sense of what the baroque world brought to 17th- and 18th-century Europe especially its sophisticated displays of religious images.
It is this last element to which I would like to refer briefly before wrapping up this post: religion. As a person who wears his atheism on his sleeve, I might have surprised some of my friends and acquaintances, mainly those who know me personally, in my use of religious terms and idolatry. But there was no way in which I could have written about Bach without including his pious devotion to God. Nor did I have any inclination to do so. To me religion is a phenomenon that existed before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone. That's why, for many years now, I have approached it from a cultural perspective. And this has given me the benefit of meeting people from various religios backgrounds (I line-manage a Muslim man, for instance) and learn from their lives, customs and traditions. In his final days, even when he knew he was about to die, Bach performed one of his most ambitious works, the cantata 'Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir' (We thank you, God, we thank you). With such strong faith like the one he displayed throughout his life it would have been puerile, not to mention immature, of me to edit that facet out of his life. Besides, Bach was a product of his time and as such was raised within the boundaries of the four main institutions of his time: church, court, town hall and school. Needless to say, he incorporated all of them in his exceptional body of work.

I hope you enjoy tonight's column, I had a lot of fun writing it. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Britain, my Britain (Sawbridgeworth)', to be published on Thursday 25th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Music might just very well be the strongest link between God and humans.

    My two disc Bach album is one of those things I can't live without.

    Excellent and creative post, Mr. Cuban. Thank you!

  2. good music
    all ten minutes of it.
    Gave me a sort of feeling elegant and aristocratic.

  3. I love this post. Awesome.

    I especially liked the connection of music with God.

    But I really like the part of the slave ship and the music in Spain at the time and how he may have heard the sounds and did it then.

    This was so interesting. I love when you write about music.


  4. I think as Willow says that music might well be the strongest link we have with God, so much that speaks to and from the soul is bound up with it. Another brilliant post.

  5. Much more in line with your thinking on God...

    Bach was definitely a product of his time, but as the comments left suggest, people still make the music/God connection.

    All very interesting. An exceptional post.

  6. This post is almost too much to comment on, CiL, too much a product I think that merits discussion rather than a simple remark. I read it last night and put it away. I think I should do that now, too, since scholarship is as much a part of it as are thought and opinion.

    Two sentences from me, though. Your appreciation of religion in Bach's life made me smile and value your point of view even more. Your willingness to explore and to experiment is a pleasure to witness.

    Oh, yes .... great music, too. Thank you.

  7. Hi Cuban!

    I was living in Germany, just in front of the house where Bach was born. I could barely believe it. Interesting post!

  8. Your musical tastes are so eclectic!! And I'm so jealous you had this opportunity to chat to JSB, he sounds like such a nice man :-)

    Very informative post, thanks for this. Incidentally I was just listening to Bach's Oboe Concerto in G minor (largo), another stunning piece and I totally agree with the music being the strongest link between God and humans... And now I really want to learn violin, but I think I would need another life for that.

  9. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Rafe, it's more than ten minutes, mate, believe me.

    In regards to the link to which Bach referred in his life between God and music, I would point at another liaison mentioned in one of his biographies, that of music and nature. To me music is an extension of that natural sound around us, from the rustle of the leaves on an autumn day to the crashing of the waves on a stormy one. But then, given my inclination towards secularity, I would think so. When I listen to his instrumental pieces - I must confess that his cantatas and chorales are not my cup of tea - I do feel a profound connection to my natural surroundings, it's almost as this natural force is dragging me, through the power of music, towards a realms that helps me, in a way, to explore my own unconscious mind. Hard to explain, and all to do with emotions.

    Many thanks to you all for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  10. Ahh, the healing soothing power of good music with its emotionally reactive affect and benefits. An extraordinarily informative and immensely eloquent post, Mr Cuban. I am in awe. (Funnily enough, my husband is currently enthralled with Julia Ficher’s Bach Concertos accompanied by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields chamber group which he has been listening to on his way to and from work. In fact, I can hear his approach in the evenings because he opens the car windows when coming down our lane and allows the music to soar.)

  11. I so appreciate entering your alternate universe. To be in the company of Bach! I'd like to recommend a rendition of the Bach Prelude, and the Bouree, performed by the great Ukulele virtuoso, John King, who recently passed away. On YouTube..many of his selections..a great talent.
    Thanks for all the work you do.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you! That was such a great treat!


  13. oh...that's unfortunate...all I got was ten minutes of Bach.
    But I see now, those arrows indicated that there were more parts...

    anyways, if your saying that the concept of control that I've bestowed upon myself is relative, well then I agree...

    But such mindset is good to have for our health.

  14. Good evening! I wanted to stop by and let you know how much your comments at my site meant to me. AND, I shared with the kids this morning that someone from London (!) was excited that they were exploring their gifts in art, song, and dance, and they were amazed! I hope you don't mind that I did so. One particular cutie wanted to know if you wanted to see the video when it's done. So, I'd be happy to send it, however, there's a Christian message. This was a delightful post, by the way, have you read The Bach Reader-Arthur Mendel, I believe, a collection of Bach's own letters. Outright funny, he's not quite as nice or as humble as you make him out. You'd enjoy it I'm certain.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Cuban, thank you so much for this - aside from all the information, I truly enjoyed the interviewee's cheeky mixture of humility and self-importance...

    I confess I also found the lengthy justification for including religion quite interesting - not that I do not agree with the inclusion. On the contrary, I was taking it for granted (so thanks for the opportunity for self reflection, too) that if you talk about Bach you also talk about faith and God. It may be a reflection of your position, but I think it is also a reflection of the time we live in and of the narrow and narrowly defined space available for discussions of spirituality - that such justifications are needed. Thanks for taking the plunge!

  17. Hey Cubano!!! Excellent post!!! You should be the presenter of one of our concerts!!!

    Didn't know about the Zarabanda... very interesting!

  18. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Yes, Chris, you're right. Bach was not that nice, sometimes. He could be capricious and wilful, one of the reasons why he spent some time in the slammer. Also, he could be very egotistical on occasions. Not a lot is known about his private life, which I think is the way it ought to be.

    I have just received a CD entitled 'Bach in Havana'. It's pure musical heaven. Bach's works arranged by a Miami-based salsa group. Splendid.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Taro Hakase & Iwao Furusawa - Swingin' Bach

  20. Danke schön for the bringing Herr Bach to life for us! Very creative, entertaining, and informative post! Ausgezeichnet!

  21. Many thanks, Manuela, for that link. I enjoyed it so much!

    Thanks, dutch, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Excellent post with the entertaining interview and the music. The creation of music is a special link with God and the universe.

    Thank you for your kind comments on my historical post.

  23. Many thanks, Barbara.

    Greetings from London.



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