Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach – The Eternal Legacy

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

The story of Bach’s posthumous reception is often told as a narrative of fame emerging from obscurity. While it is true that J.S. Bach’s music enjoyed a dramatic reappraisal and rediscovery with Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 with the Berlin Singakademie, his music had not vanished completely. Whereas the musical careers of Bach’s illustrious sons, especially C.P.E., Johann Christian, and Willhelm Friedemann, eclipsed that of their father in the late 1700s, the elder was never forgotten.

2014.04.22_Mozart around 33 years

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

By 1800, Johann Sebastian and his works had become a specialist’s pursuit, known primarily to music students and composers. In 1789, Mozart made a point of reviewing Bach’s manuscripts when his travels brought him to Leipzig. Before being shown the collection of organ works he sought, the youthful genius heard the choir singing a Bach motet. An observer and Bach devotee, Friedrich Rochlitz, recorded what happened next:

The choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double-chorus motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy “Now, there is something one can learn from!”

Samuel Wesley

Samuel Wesley

Bach’s keyboard music was the currency of virtuosity and a necessity for artistic development, but the brilliance of his works was not fully appreciated until later. Some young devotees like Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) and Carl Friedrich Horn (1762-1830) went beyond practicing the keyboard works and chorales; their enthusiasm encouraged a worshipful attitude toward the man as well as the music. Wesley wrote to a friend that he “rejoined to find that you are likely to regard his [J.S. Bach’s] Works with me as a musical Bible unrivaled and inimitable.” Wesley was also friends with Horn, a man he described as “longing to find some spirited enthusiasts like himself to co-operate in bringing the Musical World to Reason and Common Sense, and to extort a Confession of the true State of the Case against the Prepossession, Prejudice, Envy, and Ignorance of all Anti-Bachists.”

After the 20-year-old Mendelssohn’s performance of St. Matthew Passion, the groundswell enthusiasm for Bach’s music became a wave of popular and critical interest. A prolific writer and musician, Robert Schumann inquired, “would it not be a timely and useful undertaking, if the German Nation decided to publish a complete collection and edition of all of the works of Bach?” No less than Beethoven essayed a similar sentiment: “That you want to publish Sebastian Bach’s works delights my heart, which beats wholly for the great and lofty art of this father of harmony, and I wish to see the enterprise in full swing.” A group of prominent musicians, professors, and museum directors formed the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society whose mission was the publication of a complete edition of Bach’s works come scrito, without editorial additions or corrections. The volumes began issuing forth for popular consumption in 1851 and concluded 49 years later with the 46th and final volume.

With increasing access to this imposing body of work, it should come as no surprise that many 19th century musicians were captivated by J.S. Bach’s music:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    “Study Bach. There you will find everything.” – Johannes Brahms

  • “O you happy sons of the North who have been reared at the bosom of Bach, how I envy you.” – Giuseppe Verdi
  • “…the most stupendous miracle in all music!” – Richard Wagner
  • “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.” – Charles Gounod
  • “Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.” – Paul Hindemith
  • “In Bach, the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” – Gustav Mahler
  • “And if we look a the works of JS Bach—a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity—on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.” – Claude Debussy

Bach’s music has been a source of inspiration for composers, music students, audiences, and creative individuals of all persuasions throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Thomas direct the American Bach Soloists and American Bach Choir in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-26), a program that traces the Bach tradition from moving works by the master and compositions by artists who were directly influenced by those works and Bach’s genius. Then, on the subject of inspiration, don’t forget about the ABS Festival & Academy (July 11-20), when ABS will explore the artists who influenced Bach and initiated the grand tradition. See you at the concerts this weekend and at the Festival!

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach in the 19th Century – Mendelssohn & Brahms

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

At their next concert, Jeffrey Thomas, ABS, and the American Bach Choir will celebrate the profound impact of the music of J.S. Bach on later generations in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28). In previous posts, we explored the program in terms of the cantatas and motets that will be heard as well as the resonances of those works in the compositions by living composers Sven-David Sandström and Knut Nystedt. Between Bach’s time and our own, however, a bridge had to be built, a tradition established, so that those manuscripts in the safe keeping of Bach’s descendants and friends might see the light of day and exert their influence. Perhaps the most influential architects of that bridge are two of the greatest musicians to come after Bach: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mendelssohn_BartholdyLike other musical talents of the era, Felix Mendelssohn was a devotee of J.S. Bach’s music, learning his keyboard works and singing the known chorales. But Mendelssohn was an outlier of the most extraordinary sort. Along with Mozart, who preceded him, and Paganini and Chopin who came later, he was one of the greatest musical prodigies to ever live; his talent and celebrity as a boy-genius knew no bounds. Friends of the Mendelssohn family and his teacher Carl Friederich Zelter believed Bach was a formidable example, perhaps the example, by which to temper and inspire the prodigy’s singular talent and he was permitted access to Bach manuscripts. The exposure yielded a profound impact both in Mendelssohn’s career as a professional musician and in his enduring legacy as a composer.

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas will conduct the American Bach Choir in Mendelssohn’s motet cycle Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr and his setting of the chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” which Bach set in the cantata Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126). Sechs Sprüche (literally “Six Sentences”) is a fascinating work with six different liturgically defined episodes—Christmas, New Year’s Day, Passion Week, Good Friday, Advent, and Ascension—presented in Biblical paraphrases sung by an eight-part choir. Bach is surely a model for this posthumously published composition that occupied Mendelssohn in his final years, as it is a cycle of formidable complexity and gorgeous musical expression. Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” is another fine example of Bach’s music reconceived by a Romantic mind for a different age. Thomas and the American Bach Choir will perform both Bach’s setting and Mendelssohn’s version.

BrahmsMendelssohn died young and the duty of carrying the Bach tradition fell to the able shoulders of one of classical music’s “Big B Three”: Johannes Brahms (the others being Bach and Beethoven, naturally). In his voluminous output of chamber, symphonic, sacred and secular vocal works, it is Brahms’s motets that provide the clearest example of esteem and veneration he had for Bach’s music. At “Bach’s Legacy,” his Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sentences), Op. 109, will open the second half of the program and set the tone for cross-generational inquiry that informed Thomas’s curatorial choices for the concert. The polyphony of the three-movement work presents complex textures, but the composer of such timeless examples of Romanticism as the “German Requiem” and Symphony No. 2 imbues the vocal lines with strong feeling and warmth. One might say the work is in the spirit of Bach, with the sensibility of the 1880s.

“Brahms, as much as any other composer, idolized Bach and his compositional techniques, and in many if not all of Brahms’ choral works he placed specific references to Bach’s style. As a contrapuntalist, Brahms was unrivaled among all the late-nineteenth century composers, and his choral works— specifically his motets—exhibit extraordinary technical and structural mastery and maturity.”

– Jeffrey Thomas


Johannes Brahms: Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109:1

Over 260 years have elapsed since the death of J.S. Bach, yet his music endures both in performances of his surviving works and in those he inspired. Join us for “Bach’s Legacy.” You might find that kernel of truth within this illustrious continuum to fire your own spirit and creativity. Tickets and more information are available here.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach and His Motets

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

2014.04.08 Der Geist manuscript

Bach’s manuscript of “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” – Click to enlarge.

Bach’s motets form an important part of his artistic legacy. These extraordinarily beautiful and powerful works hold a beloved place in the Baroque repertory and—in spite of their difficulty and the demands they place upon performers—are regularly performed. The motets have exerted a strong influence on composers of vocal music through the ages and for some, Mozart for example, they provided the point of entry for discovering Johann Sebastian Bach. Two of Bach’s motets—Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226)—and the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV-Anhang 231) will be performed by ABS and the American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at ABS’s “Bach’s Legacy” concerts (April 25-28). Vocal works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt will round out this program, specially curated by Maestro Thomas, which connects the world of Bach to our own by way of a shining and vibrant musical thread.

For all of their brilliance and centrality to the repertory, Bach’s motets present a host of authentication, identification, and performance practice challenges. For example, we can only be relatively sure about the occasion and date of the composition of one of the traditional six attributed to him, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. Outside the six, there are motet-like works—O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118) and Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231)—whose status as motets is debatable, and there are works like the motet Ich lasse dich nicht of which Bach’s authorship has only recently been established.


“ABS’s performances of Bach’s motets have been featured events both on our own Subscription Series and, in two separate years, at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition. They seem to be such a perfect fit for our wonderful artists, both vocalists and instrumentalists. In all of my travels, I have never worked elsewhere with musicians whose careful and thorough attention to the details of texts even remotely approaches the meticulousness and thoughtfulness of performances by our artists. I am always grateful for their mastery, but I am especially so in the compositions by Bach (the cantatas, motets, and passions) that are tremendously dependent on subtleties of text and rhetoric”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Provenance is admittedly sketchy and incomplete for this rewarding body of work, and the more basic matter of definition provides little in the way of sure grounding for inquiry. The simple question of “What is a motet?” does not have a simple answer as this particular realm of musical terminology has a history of imprecision and liquidity. “Motet” has been used variously to describe liturgical music in Latin, sacred music in the vernacular, secular polyphonic music during the late Middle Ages, a cappella works, or vocal polyphony with instruments. For Bach, his motets are fairly consistent with regard to a few important features. They are polyphonic vocal works for one or two choirs, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, often (though not always) based on biblical texts. They were presumably performed as prayers for recently deceased dignitaries.

Perhaps the least contentious in terms of date of composition, instrumentation, and occasion for which it was written is Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. The common assumption about Bach’s motets is that they were composed as funeral music, though Der Geist hilft is the only one bearing an autograph dedication; it was performed in October of 1727 at the memorial service of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. Debates about instrumental accompaniment of motets can be laid to rest for this one, as instrumental parts—strings paired with Choir I and winds paired with Choir II—exist in Bach’s hand. The only mystery is whether Bach intended the concluding chorale, “Du heilige Brunst,” to be played by the instrumentalists since Bach wrote music for the chorale into the vocal parts, but not for the instrumentalists. Should we surmise that this last portion was sung a cappella at the gravesite where the orchestra, especially the organ, would not have accompanied? The text of the chorale is a poetic benediction for the departed:

Heavenly fire, sweet consolation, help us now, so that joyfully and confidently we may faithfully serve thee and not be deflected by sadness. Oh Lord, prepare us through thy power and strengthen the reluctant flesh, so that we shall fight valiantly and pass through death and life to thee. Hallelujah!


Bach: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
La Chapelle Royale ~ Collegium Vocale ~ Philippe Herreweghe ~ 1985

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas has selected a sampling of Bach’s vocal music that will showcase the singular excellence of the American Bach Choir and instrumentalists of ABS. The works by Bach include the motets Komm, Jesu, komm and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, the chorale Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren, the early cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, and the sacred song Komm, süßer Tod. These compositions profoundly affected later composers such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt. Works by this great quartet of composers will also be also performed to demonstrate the depth of Bach’s influence. See you there!

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Sven-David Sandström’s Komm, Jesu, komm

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

SandstromSwedish composer Sven-David Sandström enjoyed an international breakthrough in 1972 when his orchestral work Through and Through was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam two years after its premiere in the composer’s homeland. From that point, leading musical assemblages worldwide have performed his compositions making him one of Sweden’s leading composers. Within contemporary choral music, Sandström’s music occupies a unique position that is both firmly rooted in the traditions established by predecessors like Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, yet also rigorously twenty-first century modern.

American Bach Soloists first performed one of Sandström’s works in May 2005 for “Sonic Tapestries,” an all-choral program that presented different approaches to consonance and dissonance in works by William Byrd, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and others. On that occasion, Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Choir performed Sandström’s Agnus Dei and it made a terrific impression on audiences and critics. San Francisco Classical Voice commented, “The final piece, Sven-David Sandström’s Agnus Dei, was the clearest example on the program of a contemporary composer’s upsetting the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance. Because the choir performed the piece with such virtuosity and ease, however, the difference in dissonance treatment in this piece seemed like just another change of color. The slow collapsing of the dissonant final chord into triadic consonance was exquisite.” ABS performed Agnus Dei again in 2008 as part of the “Vocal Visionaries” program along with Sandström’s setting of Henry Purcell’s “Hear my prayer, O Lord.”

“I think that everyone who heard our performances of Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and certainly every singer who participated in those concerts, has never forgotten the experience. Sandström’s deep admiration, even love, for Bach’s music is undeniable. Like Bach, he knows how to elicit an exact and specific emotional response from his listeners. He understands how we hear music and how we equate unrestrained willingness on the part of performers to reveal the music to their audiences with a safe and promising invitation to let ourselves go as we experience the sweeps of passionate authenticity that are such a great part of all of Sandström’s works.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Central to Sandström’s output of vocal music is a series of six motets composed after Bach’s originals. For “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28), Jeffrey Thomas will direct the American Bach Choir in Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) and Sandström’s 2005 setting. Utilizing the text and spirit of Bach’s motet, Sandström’s is a meditative work for the twenty-first century. It reinterprets the original with a different melodic and textural approach, yet retains the expressiveness and moving quality associated with the original.

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Sven-David Sandström: Komm, Jesu, komm

“Bach’s Legacy” will feature juxtapositions of extraordinary compositions by Bach with those of later composers. Along with dual versions of Komm, Jesu, komm, Bach’s setting of the chorale Verleih uns Frieden ganädiglich will be performed alongside Felix Mendelssohn’s version, and Bach’s Komm, süßer Tod will be paired with a setting by Knut Nystedt. We hope you will join us as we explore these fascinating connections and celebrate the Legacy of one of music’s greatest inspirations.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Knut Nystedt’s “Immortal Bach”

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

In celebrating the music and lasting impact of Johann Sebastian Bach in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28), the outstanding American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas will perform a selection of extraordinary and challenging choral works. The program will include motets from the pen of Bach and choral compositions by later composers that show his unmistakable influence. This artistic legacy became well-known and pervasive during the early nineteenth century following Felix Mendelssohn’s famous “rediscovery” of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, but Bach’s music continues to inspire with undiminished potency. One composer to find inspiration in Bach’s creations in our era is the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt.

Knut Nystedt (b. 1915)

Born in Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1915, Nystedt is one of Norway’s leading composers of orchestral and choral music. His compositions have been performed around the world and recorded by groups including Accentus, the Holst Singers, and Ensemble 96, whose 2006 GRAMMY-nominated album Immortal Nystedt featured solely works by the composer. His works are known for their beauty and challenging arrangements.

“Our Legacy program features not only works by composers who idolized Bach and incorporated what they learned from the Baroque master’s rhetoric into their own original compositions, but also two compositions (by Nystedt and Sandström) that are based on  actual works by Bach. Nystedt’s setting of the famous and beautiful sacred song, “Komm, süßer Tod,” utilizes multiple choirs of singers to create a spatially separated impression of music through time. The effect of overlaying harmonies and music moving slowly through space is awe-inspiring.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

The American Bach Choir are no strangers to innovative contemporary music. As recently as “An ABS Christmas” in December 2013 when they performed Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia (2011) and a David Conte’s arrangement of Silent Night (1989), Thomas and the Choir have earned rapturous acclaim in a broad range of styles and works. When they perform Nystedt’s Immortal Bach during “Bach’s Legacy” it will be an ABS premiere and the ensemble’s first performance of any of the Norwegian composer’s works.

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Click image to hear a performance of Knut Nystedt: Immortal Bach
(Komm, süßer Tod, komm selger Ruh) by the Monteverdi Choir

As the title suggests, Nystedt’s Immortal Bach honors the resonance of Bach’s creations through the ages. Utilizing both the melody and text of Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod, komm, selge Ruh” (Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest) and employing multiple choirs that begin and end the text at different points and at different tempi, Nystedt reconceives the balance and simplicity of Bach’s original in a complex and extremely moving new setting.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: An Early Bach Cantata

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

The surviving 200 plus cantatas composed by J.S. Bach constitute one of the richest legacies of any composer in music history. Often written for specific liturgical purposes and times of year, we can be relatively confident that the provenance of these masterpieces is accurate, yet some of them remain a bit mysterious. Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (“From the depths I call to you, Lord”), BWV 131, which will be featured in “Bach’s Legacy,” April 25-28, is a thrilling cantata, but one with its share of mysteries.

St. Mary's Church, Mühlhausen

St. Mary’s Church, Mühlhausen

Probably first performed in 1707 while Bach was the organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, Cantata 131 is one of his earliest surviving works. It is unlikely, however, that he composed it for performance at St. Blasius, but rather for another church in town, St. Mary’s. From an inscription in the autograph score, we know that the work was composed at the request of the minister at St. Mary’s, Georg Christian Eilmar. Some have speculated that Eilmar also fashioned the text of the cantata and recruited Bach to write music to commemorate the anniversary of a devastating fire that had struck the community. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the date and occasion for its creation, the cantata is a stirring work of profound impact utilizing oboe, bassoon, strings, and basso continuo along with chorus and soloists.

The text of Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is based largely on Psalm 130 (also known by its Latin title, De Profundis), yet also includes elements of the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” to underscore the message of supplication. (The full text of Cantata 131 is available here). Bach’s treatment of the text does not follow the operatic conventions evident in his later cantatas, avoiding recitatives or da capo repeats in its arias. Instead he favors an expressive presentation that appeals directly to the hearer without musical rhetorical devices. After the opening chorale comes an arioso for bass, “So du wilt, Herr, Sünde zurechnen” (“If you will, Lord, mark all our sins”). Another brief chorus precedes the work’s central aria for tenor soloist, “Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer Morgen wache bis zu der andern” (“My soul waits for the Lord from one morning watch to the next”). Continuo accompaniment and the pitches of the cantus firmus (the chorale sung in long tones) provide a supportive fabric for each soloist in these inner parts of the work. In the aria, the chorale supplies harmonic guideposts “from above” for the tenor soloist, as it occurs in a higher register.

“This superb cantata comes from the early period in Bach’s career when he was experimenting with various musical forms and rhetorical devices. Like the other early cantatas which are all quite dramatically different from each other, the immediacy of Bach’s intentions — how he wanted the listener to react to the music — is undeniable. The musical portrayal or rendering of the text couldn’t be more direct, and so much of the music is utterly hypnotic. It is a long-time favorite of all ABS musicians who have performed this cantata in the past, both in concerts and on recording.”

– Jeffrey Thomas


ABS Cantatas Vol. IV

ABS recorded Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir in 1994 and that performance is available on Bach Cantata Series: Vol. IV – Early Cantatas for Holy Week. From April 25-28, audiences in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis will have the opportunity to hear this moving work from Bach’s earliest period performed by the expert forces of ABS under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at “Bach’s Legacy.” We hope to see you there! For tickets and more information, please visit our website.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014