Mozart’s brief motet, Ave Verum Corpus, was one of the springs that fed the Romantic period. Written in the last year of his life as a gift to a friend to thank him for a kindness, it is hard not to consider the prophetic words of the prayer: “Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, sacrificed on the Cross for man, whose pierced side overflowed, with water and blood, be for us a foretaste in the test of death.”
The Ave Verum Corpus is one of the great Conversation in history and ground zero for the lasting influence of Mozart throughout the generations, even though it is not among his most popular or most performed works. The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (more about him later), transcribed this work—the best Romantic composer (in my view) giving direct credit for his inspiration. Mozart’s harmonic innovations, subtle as they are, would influence composers for the next hundred years. The opening is presented in a simple D major progression, a “happy” key for the birth of Christ, before the tonal center changes to A major and with its three sharps, more chromatic lines are added to create a density in describing the significance of the crucifixion and of Christ’s suffering. The passion itself—the line “on the cross”—is presented in a perfect fourth by the soprano, rising above everything else in the music, before the Christ’s death and the implications of our own mortality are presented in Mozart’s favorite key of D minor.
And all of this in about 3 minutes of music. Genius indeed.
W.A. Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus:
W.A. Mozart, (arr. F. Liszt), Ave Verum Corpus:
And, of course, Liszt wrote his own version, in 1871, demonstrating how small the step it is from Mozart to the height of the Romantic Period.
I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.
Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.
As difficult as it was to do justice to the works of J.S. Bach in these pages, so too is it difficult to even scratch the surface of his monumental legacy. Bach did more than take the Baroque Period to the grave with him; his influence is ubiquitous in all music that follows. His legacy is everywhere, omnipresent, even if we don’t always recognize it. Mozart studied his scores; so too did Beethoven (a MAJOR Conversation to come). His music was a profound influence on Debussy and Schoenberg and, through them, his influence was amplified through jazz, pop, and the formal music of today.
This blog cannot begin to reckon with such a legacy. Instead, I have compiled a playlist that tries to show, in a limited and incomplete way, how Bach’s music remains with us, right up to that hit song from the other day.
The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Massin B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.
Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Massin B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.
So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.
In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.
I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.
Fellow blogger BigMikeHouston of Classical Music with Big Mike (https://classicalmusicwithbigmike.com/) wrote this week about the singificant differences a conductor’s interpretation can make on how the music sounds. He’s absolutely right. And his observation gave me the idea of talking about the Period Instruments Movement, derided in some circles as being too egg-headed. Let’s see if I can make the case that period instruments and contextual interpretation can improve the music. And since we are still on Bach, this short entry gives me a perfect opportinity to look at yet another of my favorite Bach works: The Magnificat. No need to watch all of these vidoes, the first five minutes or so of each will be enough.
Let’s set a baseline, and this performance under the baton of Herbert von Karajan will do nicely. To my eyes, this is likely a late 70s performance (he did record the Magnificat in 1979 with the Berliner Philharmonic, but I can’t tell if this is a video of that recording or not). Regardless, this video presents one of the best, if not the best, conductor of the mid-20th century leading what was (and remains) one of the five best orchestras in the world, all playing on modern instruments and sounding very much like a work composed in the mid-Romantic period.
J.S. Bach, Magnificatin D Major
This next video presents one of my favorite conductors, Emmanuelle Haïm leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is better, bringing in a historically-inforrmed chorus, but paired with modern instruments. True to form, Haïm’s interpreation is spot on. Her Magnificat is taken a much better tempo and the singing is truly magnificent.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Moving on, let’s listen to Nikolaus Harnocurt, one of the high priests of the movement for period insturments, leading the Concentus Musicus ViennaWein and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Listen the difference that, in particular, the period-appropriate brass makes to the opening. That said, this performance is taken at far too slow at tempo and, to my eyes, the strings are modern–I think I can spy some tuning pegs behind the bridges on the violins and the bows also appear to be modern.
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major
Finally, we have a more recent recording of the Netherlands Bach Society under Van Veldoven. This, in my view, is the real McCoy. Period insturments down to those great Baroque bows, historically-informed singing, and a proper (fast) Baroque tempo. And recording this in a church certainly helps–Bach would have considered church acoustics when considering the harmony. This is the one to listen to in its entirety–absolutely thrilling.
Going back to Berg’s maxim, which I quoted in the very first entry in this blog–“music is music”. There are no wrong choices. Miles Davis stopped his sextet from rehearsing at some point, declaring that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to explore other choices. And that’s fair. But for me, personally, I don’t Bach to sound like Mahler; Mahler is much better at that. And for that same reason, I don’t want Beethoven or Mozart to sound like Mahler either. That’s why I am drawn to historically informed performances. Communicating through music, across time and space, is a sufficiently difficult task without distrorting the artistic choices taken by composers hundreds of years ago. All four performances are beautiful, but I hear Bach most clearly in the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. And for me, that’s what matters.
Classical guitarists get comparitively little consideration and wrongfully so. We will have much to say about the classical guitar, particularly when we get to Benjamin Britten much further down the line. Compared with rock gods and jazz freaks, classical guitarists operate in a world where they are largely shunned by classical audiences and ignored by fans of other genres.
Not so here. Like the piano, the guitar is a wonderful instrument to convey the development of harmony across the centuries, tracing how the harmonic line evolved vertically through to the late Baroque period, rich as it was in counterpoint. Sean Shibe’s recordings present a wonderful chronicle of these developments and present, pardon the pun, a counterpoint to the lengthy written description here.
Let’s start with Shibe’s 2017 album “Dreams and Fancies”, on which Shibe presents a history of the English School, contrasting John Dowland (Renaissance) with more modern composers such as William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Malcom Arnold, and Lennox Berkeley.
I’d advise listening to the Dowland works, especially Praeludium, and then picking up a more recent release, “Bach”, which presents Bach’s works for solo lute, before moving on to “Camino”, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, before closing with some Benjamin Britten (off “Dreams and Fancies”) and Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint off “SoftLOUD”.
To paraphrase one critic: Bach may have been singular, but he contained multitudes. We will pick of this theme in the coming weeks.
While all of these albums are available in the entirety on your favorite streaming service, here is a curated playlist in Spotify, which is presented roughly in chronological order.
I have recounted many stories in this blog, some of which have been proven to be apocryphal. This one has the benefit of being absolutely true.
One Sunday morning in 1789, the boys’ choir at St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany shuffled to their feet to sing a dusty old motet that had been in the Church’s possession for generations. Doubtless, the boys considered the work to be both diffuclt and woefully old fashioned. In the middle of their performance, a young man stood up and demanded to know what the boys were singing, provoking gasps of outrage among the devout Lutherans around him. Faced with such a reaction and, perhaps, the realization that his outburst had been exceedingly rude, the man reseated himself for the duration of the service. At the end of the mass, the man strode briskly up to the cantor and demanded to see the score. Although no unified score existed, the church had a collection of the several parts, which the man proceeded to spread out across the church floor. Getting down on his hands and knees, the man began several hours’ study of the work, after which he asked permission to copy them. Permission granted, the man proceeded to create a unitary score, which remained in his possession for the rest of his life.
The motet, naturally, was by J.S. Bach. The young intemperate man was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
By the late Baroque period, motets had become a general classification for choral works that did not fit naturally into any other category. They were typically sung after the organ prelude at the start of the service. While the old motets of the Rennaisance had been sung a cappella, Baroque motets, particularly in Germany, were accompanied. Intrumental parts, including a figured bass in Bach’s own hand, survive to this day, laying to rest the debate as to whether the orchestral bits were added later. Debate still swirls around the number of instruments Bach intended and the motets have been performed with every conceivable option over the years.
Frankly, I don’t care. The motets are one of the singular glories in Western music. It is here that polyphony reaches its absolute zenith. The voices, true to Bach’s style, are all independent, moving from key to key seemingly without a break for the chorus.
The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the direction of René Jacobs, gets it the balance exactly right. Here they are performing the motet that so captivated Mozart. I find this music so stunning, I can only imagine what the effect of hearing it live had been on someone who could delve the very depths of the compositional technique that provoke such powerful human emotions.
Bach may have been best known during his lifetime as a peerless virtuoso at the organ and subsequently for his many keyboard compositions, but for me his real genius is revealed in his many choral works. These motets are a great introduction to what, for me, might just be the greatest music ever composed.
In the film High Society, Bing Crosby takes to the stage to educate “the great and the good” of Newport about the basics of jazz:
Take some skins,
Take a bass
Take a box,
One that rocks,
Take a blue horn New Orleans-born.
Take a stick
With a lick,
Take a bone,
Take a spot,
Cool and hot,
Now you has jazz jazz jazz, jazz, jazz.
“Now You Has Jazz”–Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong
Well, Bing knew a thing or two about jazz, but, with all due respect, many of the fundamental principles of jazz were centuries in the making. He might well have started, “Well, you take some pipes. . .,” because one of the great improvisers of all-time plied his trade behind a church organ in Leipzig, Germany during the first half of the 18th century. Some contemporaneous accounts report that Bach’s frequent bouts of virtuosity at the organ distracted parishioners from the sermon, much to the consternation of the minister. Quite possibly, however, many parishioners were there for the music first and foremost, with a bit of salvation on the side.
Of course, improvisation during the Baroque period was not new and certainly didn’t begin with Bach. But much like Corelli, Bach was a true virtuoso and, possessed with the greatest compositional mind in history, his flights of musical fancy must have been breathtaking. Here is one account:
It was on May 7, 1747, that Bach visited Frederick the Great at Potsdam. The Prussian king preferred the pianoforte — then called ”forte and piano” — to the less nuanced harpsichord or the organ; so much so that he had 15 of the instruments built for him. During this visit the king led Bach from room to room to try them out. (Bach had encountered pianos before the royal visit; he had complained that their action was too heavy, their treble too weak.) Frederick played for Bach a theme of his own and then asked Bach to improvise a fugue on it. After Bach obliged with a three-voice fugue, the king demanded a more spectacular six-voice fugue. Bach improvised a six-voice fugue on a theme of his own, but on his return to Leipzig wrote out a six-voice fugue on the royal theme. He had it printed with a number of other works all based on the same theme, and sent it to Frederick as ”a musical offering.“
Charles Rosen, “Best Piano Compositions: Six Parts Genius”
The parallels with jazz go deeper than just Bach’s ability to improvise. Dave Brubeck notes that “the similarity between the figured bass that Bach used with the choir, and the chord progressions that a jazz musician uses are kind of a similarity in that you improvise in these progressions.” That’s where my ears keep going–back to Bach’s revolutionary bass lines. The man could swing.
Consider Bach’s Prelude in C. First, listen for Bach’s use of diminished harmony. A diminished chord “sounds wrong” and thereby creates tension in the music. So much of composition is about creating this musical tension and providing a release. In Baroque music, the release is almost always immediate. Richard Wagner would set the world on fire in the late 19th century by sustaining that tension over the course of a five hour opera; Claude Debussy would throw out the need to resolve tension altogether, opening up soundscapes that still dominate our musical language. But in Bach, the tension resolves quickly, if not immediately.
Second, listen to how Bach’s use of secondary dominant chords create a lush harmonic landscape in his music, something that jazz musicians would come to rely on centuries later. While dominant chords resolve to the tonic, a secondary dominant, which is an altered chord, resolves to a related chord — a scale degree — to the tonic. This technique opens up harmonic possibilities in composition. Bach opens with a C major chord, thereby establishing the key of C major. That chord leads to a standard ii-V-I progression, bringin us back to another C major chord. But the next measure begins with an inverted D minor 7 chord, followed by an inverted G7 chord, whcih brings us back again to C. Sounds familiar? This is the Circle of Fifths in action. Another example: Bach introduces a D7 chord, which is different from the Dm7 chord in the second measure because it has a F# rather than a F. Why? Because he’s going to move to G major next and then back to C. The secondary dominants give us a taste of G major, while allowing Bach to reassert C major in the end. The unexpected resolves to the familiar. And that final cadence, resolving to the tonic? Deeply satisfying.
Is this jazz? Let your ears decide. A Spotify playlist is embedded at the end of this entry.
J.S. Bach, Prelude In C:
Did a dusty old composer who rarely strayed from his home influence the development of jazz some 200 years later? Yes, he did. First, Bach inspired many jazz pianists, especially the great John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Here they are doing, more or less, straight Bach. Note that swinging bass line!
Modern Jazz Quartet (after Bach), Fugue in A Minor:
Fats Waller studied Bach, as did Bud Powell and Bill Evans. Here are some of their works that have their roots in Bach’s music.
Fats Waller, Bach Up to Me
Bud Powell, Tempus Fugue-It
Bill Evans, Valse
This is where Evans drew his inspiration (and quite a bit of the melody) from:
But it’s not just jazz pianists who revere Bach. Let’s take one of my favorite sax men, Lee Konitz, along with fellow sax legend Warne Marsh:
Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, Two Part Invention, No. 1
Benny Goodman, Bach Goes to Town
How about guitar? Here’s Django Reinhardt jazzing up Bach’s Double Concerto, which will feature later on in this blog.
Django Reinhardt, Improvisation Sur le Premier Mouvement du Concerto en Re Mineur de J S Bach
So, it’s clear that Bach can swing, but can he cha-cha-cha? Funny you should ask.
Tiempo Libre (after Bach), Fuga Cha-Cha-Cha
So, what would a swinging J.S. Bach sound like today? Possibly quite a bit like the great Barbara Dennerlein, whose swinging version of Bach’s iconic Tocca & Fugue in D Minor sounds like it was written yesterday (or at least in the 1950s).
J.S Bach, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (improv. Barbara Dennerlein)
And that, folks, is “precisely how jazz music is made.”
Sting released an accoustic version of his 1980s solo hit Russians in light of the war in Ukraine. It is, I think, a decided improvement on the original.
This new version, stripped of the lyric about President Reagan, is a bit more one-sided, but the message of universality remains the same. Perhaps this is why Sting’s melody was lifted wholessale from the great Soviet composer Sergei Prokoviev. There will be much more to come about Prokoviev later in this blog, but I do find it telling that Sting’s song is grounded in Russian music.
Specifically, the main theme can be found in Prokoviev’s Lieutenant Kije score. Originally composed for a silent film, the score was reworked as an orchestral suite. The theme opens the second movement–Romance–for which Prokoviev wrote an optional vocal part for baritone. Here are both versions, first with the baritone and then with the cello subbing in, as it does in Sting’s version.
One final note: In considering how composers borrow themes and ideas from each other, it is important to note that this theme did not originate with Prokoviev–he lifted it from a Russian folk song, a common practice that stretches all the way back to the Baroque Period at the very least.
The Cello Suites are constantly inspiring cellists and composers, but have also made their mark across the arts. Here are two notable examples:
J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude (from Weir’s Master and Commander)
J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 5: Sarabande (from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers)
In fact, Bach’s Cello Suites have featured in a ton of movies, from classics like Autumn Sonata, Antonia’s Line, The Pianist and Through the Glass Darkly, to more recent Hollywood fare such as Hangover Part II, MI-5, and Still Alice.
But the greatest influence of the Cello Suites must be in music. As noted last week, Rostropovich chose the prelude of the first suite to perform as the Berlin Wall fell (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiwXUJJjL6g), claiming that “nothing in the world is more previous to me than these Suites.”). Perhpas this is why his great friend, the English composer Benjamin Britten, chose to compose his own suites for unaccompanied cello.
Britten’s first suite has a direct compositional line back to Bach. Like Bach’s suites, Britten’s Suite No. 1 draws inspiration both from Baroque dance and Baroque composition (the fugue, which recalls the first fugue of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). But these are no mere homages. Britten was surely influenced by Rostropovich’s muscular technique and unique timbre as much as he was by Bach. Echoes of Debussy, Ravel, and Elgar can also be found in the score. This is, in the end, a reflected Conversation–it is Britten speaking to Bach through Rostropovich.
Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite No. 1:
Finally, a word about the remarkable cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. His influence on the history of music is as immense as anyone who was not a composer in their own right. As one critic noted:
His unique technique, inimitable sound and abundant enthusiasm made him a magnet for composers the world over. The ‘speaking’ quality he imparted and the depth, power and expressivity, his power of communication, most remarkably in the lower register of the cello, opened up all sorts of possibilities. He was also not backward at begging, cajoling and commissioning works, either. The list of compositions written for, dedicated to, or commissioned by Rostropovich is a subject in itself: Glière, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Messiaen, Bernstein, Dutilleux, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Piazzolla, Lutosławski and Penderecki are just a few of the most famous names. No cellist, and few musicians of any sort come close to expanding the repertoire of an instrument quite so widely during their own lifetime.
A true titan of the music world, we will not see his like again.
In the 1940s, Bela Bartok heard the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin play Bach’s solo sonata for violin in C major at a concert in Asheville, North Carolina. Inspired, Bartok composed his own sonata for solo violin, dedicating it to Menuhin. Reflecting what was all to common a trend, Menuhin found the composition too difficult to play and requested some changes. This reportedly affected the harmonics, although since most (if not all) recordings reflect Menuhin’s preference for standard 12 notes of Western music, rather than Bartok’s original score which utilized quarter-tones (that is a 24-tone scale). Nonetheless, Menuhin described the second movement as “perhaps the most aggressive, brutal music I was ever to play.” While absolutely a product of the Modern Period, Bartok’s composition, from its use of counterpoint to its hint of chaccone and the use of fugal composition, wears its homage to Bach on its sleeve.
Of the many recordings to select from, here are two favorites. Hilary Hahn performing the Bach and Gidon Kremer wrestling with the Bartok. Listening to Kremer, easily the most technically proficient violinist of his generation, you can hear exactly why the Bartok is considered to be right at edge of what is possible to play on the violin. Naturally, Bartok composed it at the piano.