Happy Bach's sort-of Birthday!

Mar 21, 2014

It's Bach's Birthday! - or is it? The calendars in Eisenach on the day of his birth read March 21st, but back in 1685 Thuringians were  still using the Julian calendar, so our equivalent date is "March 31st," ("equivalent" in being about ten days after the vernal equinox). But old habits die hard, especially addictive ones, and Bach is by far my primary addiction. How about if we just party for ten days?

If you're a regular listener [first, THANK YOU!; second:] you'll know that for me, a day doesn't quite feel complete without a little Bach. Also, while I don't usually observe composer birthdays (I figure that you probably would prefer I don't), today I am playing multiple works inspired by Bach, from Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony to Beethoven's "Eroica Variations" to Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue no. 5 to the Fuga y Mysterio section from Piazzola's opera Maria of Buenos Aires to a section from the Pulitzer-winning little matchgirl passion by the U of Iowa-educated composer David Lang - his creative response to the St. Matthew Passion, which we'll  also sample.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace the party never needs to stop, so I'd like to share with you some of the wealth of Bach-related material available online. Even five years ago I could hardly imagine how much Bach material would be available to your computer or smartphone, ranging from primary historical sources like autograph scores and parts to cutting-edge scholarship to thoughtful commentary to great performances. Here are a few sources you might find interesting:

  • The Bach Bibliography - Want to search for anything that has been published about Bach, on any topic, in any publication? You can find all of it in moments thanks to the great Japanese Bach scholar Yo Tomita. In 1997, he recognized that the new technology of the internet made possible a complete worldwide bibliography, and his employer,  Queen's University of Belfast, as well as the Bach Archive of Leipzig, have since thrown their support behind him. Today its easily searchable collection includes over 52,000 items. And it's free and open to everyone.
  • Bach Digital - the online service of the Bach Archiv-Leipzig, where every single autograph Bach score is being put online. Once again, it's free - help yourself!
  • Bach Network UK - this collaboration of world-class Bach researchers is putting scholarly work online for free - no gated academic publishing restrictions for them! They are also taking the trouble to write for lay readers. They deserve our attention partly because there has rarely been more ferment in Bach scholarship. Ne materials and advanced methods are causing ongoing re-evaluation of old ideas. In the latest issue, Raymond Erickson continues his groundbreaking research into Bach's relationship to the Jews of Early Enlightenment Germany; it's not as simple a matter as we once thought. Ruth Tatlow presents evidence for Bach's previously unsuspected interest in precise mathematical proportions. She also argues that Bach research is being fundamentally changed by the increasing accessibility of the evidence..
  • Sir John Eliot Gardiner just published an especially important book about the composer, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, which I recommend to everyone interested in the composer  (here's George Stauffer's informative review and heres's NPR's story). Whether or not you have time to read it, I also strongly recommend seeing the companion BBC documentary, "Bach: A Passionate Life," since it is now available for free on youtube. Its audio and visual components - the music, the churches, the documents - add a rich immediacy that the book can't fully convey, for all its new information and original thinking.

Remember - you have ten more days before Bach's birthday is officially over for 2014. My advice: party on!