Johann Sebastian Bach



Johann Sebastian Bach
(1685 – 1750)
“Whoever has had an opportunity of comparing together the works of art of several centuries…will …rather have adopted the opinion that Bach’s works cannot be spoken of by him who is fully acquainted with them except with rapture, and some of them even with a kind of sacred awe.”
-         Johan Nicolaus Forkel


 "Bach sollte nicht Bach, sondern Meer heissen"... 

("Bach should not be called Bach [brook] but Meer [sea]").

- attributed to Beethoven
"In the heart of every American there beats,
or at least I hope there beats,
the heart of a Bach afficianado."
- Tom Schweickert
That being the case, please visit this page for the occasionally changing tidbit about dear Bach that may be of interest to you. Perhaps you already hold him in awe; perhaps he is new to you. Either way, hopefully this page will be of interest to you.
For starters, I suggest we begin with:
My first big impression of Bach came through his organ works. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard this Toccata, played on my beloved Father’s reel-to-reel tape recorder (you remember those things, do you?). I was transfixed.
Now, I’ll admit that most organ music probably reminds people of horror movies or funerals – and it does quite well for those things, too, but happily there’s a whole lot more. Perhaps this bit will give you a slightly larger appreciation for the critter.
The first part of this work, the Toccata, is probably the most famous and often-used organ piece ever – by Bach, or anyone else. It is short and to the point. This is the usual monster movie piece, you may have heard it.
Called a “Toccata” (which simply means “touch’) it has no formal structure, it flows from here to there like one thought flying after another. This piece is one of the first classics an organist wants to learn and most never tire of hearing or playing it. In fact, on the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death all of the organists in the American Guild of Organists played this at the same time, from organs on the East Coast at 6pm to our coast at 3pm (we were at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco) to Hawaii at 12 noon. It was a glorious day.
This is the classic “big organ” piece. You have to play this as loud as your system will take it. The trouble is that most sound systems get overloaded because of the enormous harmonics that go into organ music, but the noise is part of the allure, I guess. Nicer if you have a subwoofer, too.
The second part is actually part of the first, called a “fugue.” “Fugue” simply means “flight” and is sort of the opposite of a toccata in that it has more structure. Fugues are the typical polyphonic thick-textured sound associated with Baroque music (the Bach era) and are fun to listen to, although for some people they can get boring if they go too long. The first few measures set forth a theme, or subject, and then that theme is repeated in different keys throughout the piece by another voice – which makes organs just wonderful instruments to play fugues on.   Variations such as inverrting the theme, stretching it out or compressing it and the like add fascinating quirks to listening to a fugue. 
The theme in this fugue as played by Dr. Jackson is played in the first five seconds, then repeated in a different key while the first voice messes around harmonically, then both voices play around for a bit, then a third and fourth voice enter. 
These then all start bouncing around nicely until at four minutes 03 seconds the pedals play the theme. Then all parts bonk around with theme and variations until about seven minutes 34 seconds, when a sort of finale begins that actually is a variation of the Toccata in the first cut. 
This is a really cool piece. You may recall hearing this in Fantasia – Leopold Stokowski transcribed this from organ to full orchestra. Doesn’t do it justice, but Disney made a lot of money on it anyway. His privilege.
Bach and Bluegrass
By the way, fugues and baroque polyphonic music in general are a lot like bluegrass – themes and variations, different sounds and keys, very rich texture. Bluegrass borrowed heavily from baroque, both are lovely.
Listen here!
So, here’s a YouTube link of Sean Jackson's most excellent work playing the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The nice thing about this video is that you get to see what a skilled organist must do to make the organ produce all those sounds. These monsters (the organs, not the organists) are the biggest and loudest instruments in the world, and for that I am grateful.
Notice all that Dr. Jackson must manipulate:  four keyboards (called manuals) for his hands to play, one large set of pedals for his feet, hundreds of pistons (called stops - these dictate which pipes will play) which he selects with his hands and his feet, and four large pedals to control the volume.
If you've never seen a pipe organ played up close and personal, you're in for a treat.  If you have, you're still in for a treat.
OK, so turn up your volume and enjoy this critter:  

 For further enjoyment, see Dr. Jackson skillfully playing Bach's:

 NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD (arranged by Virgil Fox)



Whoosh!  Well, after all that, and considering that the above embodies some four-part writing, let's finish with a technical description of what just happened as described by a contemporary of Bach:
“First then, each voice must have its own individual and flowing melody. It must not be thought that one has made a four-part setting if one lets several voices proceed in octaves with one another. There is perhaps in the whole science of writing nothing more difficult that this: not only to give each of the four voices its own flowing melody, but also to keep a uniform character in all, so that out of their union a single and perfect whole may arise. 
In this the late Capellmeister Bach in Leipzig perhaps excelled all the composers in the world, wherefore his chorales as well as his larger works are to be most highly recommended to all composers as the best models for conscientious study.”

                                                 Johann Philip Kirnberger, in the Bach Reader

 Stay tuned, as it were!