Tag Archive: Bach

David Hasselhumbug - "The Night Before Christmas"

Christmas time is here, and with it the bescrooged revelation that people will use the festive season as an excuse to listen to some of the most torturous music to have been conjured in the human brain.  We should all, of course, be free to listen to whatever we feel pleases us most, and I have no trouble watching people listen to music – whatever the kind – on headphones.  But there’s a marked difference between the plotted murder in a private study and the circus of a public execution in town square, and one problem is that prefab holiday schmaltz greets you in the most public of spaces.  Picture Christmas music extending its net over the crowds in a shopping mall food court.  Merry humbug!

Someone was kind enough to put together this humorous pictorial run-through of the “Fifty Worst Christmas Albums of All Time.”  There’s something wowingly warped about so many of the albums pictured there – in the twilight zone manner, say, of North Korean propaganda posters.  So it has become my seasonal obligation to remember that two of the more otherworldly artists on that list – Hasselhoff and Heino – are not the only words that begin with the letter H.


Happily, like Jacob Marley, Hasselhoff’s career as a pop artist is as “dead as a door-nail” – “a coffin-nail” – and future generations will chiefly remember the ghostly Heino for his memorable album art.

(Allow me here to link parenthetically to one of the most remarkable and utterly confounding holiday moments, Christmas with Heino, which is seemingly without parallel and possibly the stuff of pure transcendence.)

Jest aside, Christmas in Germany has not always been all Heino and Hasselhoff.  It was after all a German (and another “H”), Georg Friedrich Handel, who with the Messiah in 1742 gave the English-speaking world its most famous choral Christmas work.

Since Handel’s Messiah continues to fill concert houses the world-over, I want to point casually to three other masterworks (of German origin) that could be as mandatory a part of one’s holiday season as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” album, and the act of routinely spiking the eggnog.

I. Michael Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (~1620)

Praetorius (1571–1621), possibly the first historically significant composer of Lutheran church music, put together his Christmas mass at some point towards the end of his life.  In a recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort we have one of the more remarkable performances of Christmas music on the market.  The album is one in a line of many McCreesh projects that attempt to reconstruct the experience of being in the particular time and place of a work’s genesis.

Listen here for a taste of what it might have been like to attend a Lutheran mass on Christmas morning in 1620 Dresden.  It’s an ambitious recording that breathes history, and as a musical experience, it’s incredible.

II. Heinrich Schütz: Weinachtshistorie (1664)

Schütz (1585–1672) was nearly 80 years of age when he published his Christmas Story in 1664.  As a young man, Schütz had studied under Gabrieli (and later Monteverdi) in Venice, the then-centre of European music.  In an attempt to write music fit for the ostentatious interior of St. Mark’s basilica, Gabrieli had taken to writing music on a grand scale: Dividing his choir and instrumentalists among the upper galleries on all sides of the room, he inaugurated the so-called polychoral style.  Schütz returned to Germany, heavily influenced by the musical life of Catholic Venice, and he took up work principally in Dresden, where he devoted his remaining decades to the composition of sacred music.  Like Luther, Schütz freed up the German language, and his Christmas Story of 1664 – which you can listen to here – is a fine and festive example of his art.

III. Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio (1734)

And where else to end this quick jaunt through Luther-land than with Bach (1685-1750), to whom all roads seem to lead?  You can listen to the opening movement of his Christmas Oratorio here.  Anyone who’s visited Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) won’t have difficulty picturing the periwiged Bach leading his musicians on a Christmas afternoon in 1734:  Sunlight warms the stained-glass windows; a seasonal, communal calm meets the crisp air.  And then a thought – the thought of Heino, of Hasselhoff, creeps in.  Humbug!

Johann Sebastian Humbug (stained-glass window of Bach in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

Bach Humbug!  Merry, merry Humbug!
Suggested Classical Recordings:
  • Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort; Archiv, 1994).
  • Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachts-Historie (Rene Jacobs & the Concerto Vocale; Hamonia Mundi, 2011).
  • J.S. Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium / Christmas Oratorio (Nikolaus Hanoncourt & the Concentus Musicus Wien (Teldec, 1993).
Very Special Mention:
  • Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965).

Casals, Abbaye Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, 1954 (copyright Yousuf Karsh)

No conversation about historic recordings of J.S. Bach’s music can begin to take flight without mention of Pablo Casals’ early discs of the Six Suites for Solo Cello.  And no musician has been more closely associated with the Suites than the Catalan cellist who first discovered a dusty score of the set in a small shop on a Barcelona side street.  That was in 1890, just as he was entering his teens.  Casals would later tour them in the interwar years, eventually giving them relative permanence on record, both in sessions at Abbey Road and in Paris (1936-39).

Watch him perform the first half of the opening Suite in this documentary footage taken in the French abbey pictured to the left, in 1954.

It’s important to remember the 1930s as a decade of certain striving for classical music in the studio.  Only to scratch the surface: In that period we find Edwin Fischer carrying out the first complete recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on the piano (1934-36).  For his own part, pianist Arthur Schnabel sat down in the studio to capture the first complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas (1932-35).  So it is that Casals’ recordings of the Six Suites take their place somewhere alongside those historic studio performances of the “48” and the “32,” respectively, the so-called “Old Testament” and “New Testament” of keyboard literature.

But when Casals set up to put down the complete performances of Bach’s music for solo cello, the six suites were not yet part of a fixed tradition of any kind.  If it’s true that tradition can never quite properly be called fixed, it’s still the case that unlike Fischer’s contemporaneous recordings of Bach, or Schnabel’s of Beethoven, Casals was not putting his stamp on works that were considered part of a perceived “canon” as such.  Few, at the time, were at all familiar with the Cello Suites.  It was through Casals that they saw the light of day for the very first time, and it was Casals who illuminated the road for cellists and audiences to come.

In his memoirs, Licht und Schatten (Light and Shadow), Casals expresses the state of neglect into which the suites had fallen:

“These suites had been deemed academic rubbish, mechanical studies without musical warmth – can you imagine that?  How could they be considered cold – these works, that positively radiate poetry, warmth and feeling of sound?  They are the quintessence of Bach’s work as a composer – and Bach is the quintessence of all music.”*

Before Casals, to search for the suites was to jump at shadows.

In The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece journalist and author Eric Siblin illuminates the story of the cello suites in the context of Bach’s own life, sketches out Casals’ lifelong relationship with them, and colours the whole with personal reflections about his own initial search for, and continuing journey with Bach’s cello music.  Siblin’s stellar and approachable book is an invitation to come along for the ride.

As Siblin suggests, it is in no small way due to Casals that we have come to listen to Bach’s music for solo cello as part of a greater musical story of some kind.  These six soliloquies, voiced by a single performer on his solitary instrument, have since found their audience.  This is desert island music.  An inexhaustible well.

If there’s something strikingly apocryphal in talk about historic recordings such as these, then perhaps it’s because they have the paradoxical effect of holding a continued sway over the imagination while simultaneously granting us a view of how things no longer are.  It’s conceivably an expected consequence of the ever-changing nature of musical taste that the slippery notion of historic vision should be recast in the more measurable concept of the historical document.  This, so it goes, has proved to be the fate even of the most influential of “testaments.”

Casals’ Bach.  Cello Suite Jesus!


*Quote taken from the liner notes to the Naxos Historical issue of Casals’ Cello Suites (linked to below).

**Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009).

Recommended Recording:

Edwin Fischer (1886-1960)

My grandfather, who was a disarmingly intelligent but warm and selfless storyteller (not pictured), once told me of a concert he attended at some point in his youth.  The recital took place in Düsseldorf, the city of his birth, and the pianist was Edwin Fischer.  I can’t be sure of the exact date of the performance, but my struggling sense is that it would have taken place somewhere between 1918 and 1925.  To insist on nailing down the specifics would be to crucify the moment, since so much of the meaning we draw from the past takes shape through a hazy layering of myth and fact.

“all the old accumulated rubbish-years which we call memory, the recognizable I, but changing from phase to phase as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared, carrying nothing of what was into what is…” ~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

My grandfather never relayed to me the details of the program itself, but one thing stuck with him for decades: Fischer had the younger members of the audience join him on stage.  He invited them to gather around the piano to watch him perform an encore.  With that warm gesture my grandfather found himself next to one of the old masters of the piano, youthfully spellbound by a performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Minor (BWV 849)  from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Listen here to Fischer’s 1933 studio recording of that very piece.

The prelude is all beauty in a minor mode; the fugue, which eventually reaches out with its “trumpet call” (4.44), is a darkish gem.  My grandfather always singled out that moonstone as his most treasured of the “48.”

In 1960, some three to four decades after that recital in Düsseldorf, Fischer’s renowned student, Alfred Brendel, would reverently recollect that “with Fischer, one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before his soul when he communicated with the audience.”*

When I listen to Fischer’s recording of the C-sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue, I suppose that a “curtain” of some sort does fall.  But it’s a curtain drawn by the invariably limited reach of memory, drawn between me and the faded world of a childhood in Düsseldorf, between me and a Germany pre-‘33.


Recommended Recordings:

  • Edwin Fischer: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 & 2 (EMI).  You can read a review of this CD issue here.  These are the very first recordings of the complete “48.”  The same performances have been reissued on the Naxos Historical label, but I haven’t heard them and am unable to speak to their sound quality.


* Quote taken from Alfred Brendel’s “Edwin Fischer: Remembering My Teacher” (1960), published in Thoughts and Afterthoughts but legally fetched online.

Landowska at her Pleyel harpsichord in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt (1933).

In November of 1933, harpsichordist Wanda Landowska put to wax the very first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It’s true that the Goldbergs, at least since the time of Glenn Gould’s historic piano recording for Columbia in 1955, have been widely recorded by pianists and harpsichordists alike.  In fact, the market has been so inundated with stellar recordings of the Golbergs that I sometimes catch myself wishing that the record industry – to summon but one of the mercilessly many, inane slogans from the business world – would diversify its portfolio.  But I know that it’s ultimately an embarrassment of riches, and I remind myself that in 1933, before the Goldbergs met the gramophone (and well before the levy broke) the public had very little opportunity to hear this great music.  Audiences, for that matter,  had very little exposure to the harpsichord, Landowska’s ultimate instrument of choice.  Peering into the early twentieth century, we find a time in which the harpsichord was perceived as a relic of a bygone age.  We find an era in classical music history that is often characterized as the golden age of the piano.

Landowska was instrumental in reviving the harpsichord as something other than a mere museum piece.  By the time of her first recording of the Goldbergs, Landowska had already publicly championed the instrument for close to three decades.  She had scoured Europe for clavichords, harpsichords and examples of other period keyboard instruments.  Her years of study of the keyboard music and literature of the preceding centuries culminated in 1909 with the publication of La musique ancienne.  Shortly thereafter, she commissioned the Pleyel company to build her a personalized instrument that was capable of greater dynamic range and tonal colour than more conventional, less muscled harpsichords.  She exhibited four such Pleyels to American audiences during a tour of the US in 1923.

You can hear one in action here in a sampling of her Paris Goldberg sessions of the subsequent decade.

Landowska’s performances, like her writings, were positioned and persuasive, and their impact on music culture was both immediate and sustained.  As a result, the harpsichord came to be resurrected as the instrument on which to perform Bach “properly.”  So considerable was the move to “proper” – which is to say “historically informed” –  performance practice that pianists were reluctant to go near the music of the periwigged one.  (Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau in the ‘30s, and Rosalyn Tureck shortly thereafter, are three of the more remarkable exceptions to that lamentable trend.)

The Harpsichord: “the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” ~ Sir Thomas Beecham

In Landowska’s wake came the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) brigade.  Its proponents, for whom I’ve coined the term HIPsters, followed Landowska in holding that music should be played in accordance with the standards of performance – and on the instruments – of the historical period in which it was composed.  Now it’s all in good fun that I call them HIPsters here; and I recognize that their opinions are rich and varied, if sometimes prone to dogmatism.  I’ll write more on another day, and I mention them here for a simple reason:

In following through on Landowska’s contention that musical interpretation should everywhere be informed by the principles of performance of a given historical period, HIPsters came to believe that Landowska’s own interpretations of Bach’s music were bygone and inauthentic – which is to say not “historically informed.”  Writing of the Pleyel and its chief ambassador, one writer tells it as he sees it:

“Undue emphasis was laid on the ability of the harpsichord to vary its tone color. . . .  These instruments produced an enormous variety of sounds, all bad.  However, Pleyel was blessed by the genius of a young Polish pianist named Wanda Landowska, who in a transcendent exercise of pure imagination found a way of using even the Pleyel to make viable music.  Thus, for nearly fifty years the movement to revive the literature of the harpsichord was to be dominated by this perversity.”*

The Pleyel was a harpsichord in name, perhaps, but it had the capacity for sonics that were not proper to keyboard instruments of Bach’s day.  Some chose to label it a “perversity,” and found equally perverse Landowska’s approach to Bach’s music: Landowska, high-priestess of Baroque music, played it like a hopeless Romantic (or so some thought).

“You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” ~ Wanda Landowska

It’s true that Landowska was also sometimes guilty of taking a firmer-than-necessary stance on the nature of correct or proper performance.  But the mythologized words above, so often taken out of context and even falsely attributed, were actually said in jest during an interchange with cello great Pablo Casals in 1941.

Landowska am Cembalo ("Landowska at the Harpsichord") 1920

In La music ancienne of 1909, published in English some 15 years later as Music of the Past, Landowska attempts to debunk “the sorry legislators of taste” who, in the name of progress, undersold the harpsichord and the musical riches of a bygone age: “In all times, not only the mediocre minds, but sometimes the cultivated musicians as well, have imagined that their art had surpassed that of their predecessors.”**

It turned out that in dusting off the harpsichord, Landowska had inadvertently laid the ground for a school of Historically Informed Performance that would imagine that its art had eclipsed her own.

Myths of progress, myths of “proper” performance: In the extreme, they run counter to the notion of art as something in motion, bound to unfold in ways unforeseen.

In coming to terms with the history of music, it’s as important to look ahead as it is to look back.  And that, in my view, is yet another expression of artistry that is truly historically informed.  If we can draw lines, if we can impose boundaries, then I see them as traced in sand rather than as set in stone.  I still believe that the history of music is guided by a principle of process rather than of progress.

Landowska’s 1933 recording of the Goldberg Variations – a work which she called “a secular temple of absolute music” – is an invitation to think it through all over again.


Recommended Recording:

  • J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations / Italian Concerto / Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (1933-36) – Wanda Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord – Naxos Records. (More info here.)

Harpsichord Comparison:

You can sound out for yourselves the differences between Landoswka’s Pleyel harpsichord and a period harpsichord from Bach’s day by clicking on the two great performances below.  (Remember that in terms of audio fidelity, the Landowska has the disadvantage of some sixty years):

  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Landowska, Pleyel Harpsichord
  • Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue – Christophe Rousset, Harpsichord (Henri Hamsch, Paris 1751)


* Quote taken from Frank Hubbard, “Reconstructing the Harpsichord,” in The Historical Harpsichord I, edited by H. Schott (New York, 1984), p. 8.

** Wanda Landowska, Music of the Past, translated by William Aspenwall Bradley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), p. 5.

Nathan MilsteinNathan Milstein’s performances of Bach’s music for solo violin are of a special kind.  There is a rare intensity, rare focus in his playing.  You can actually hear the concentration – both in the emotive power and in the architectural design that he draws from the music.  This is as true of his 1950s recordings on EMI as it is of his 1970s versions on Deutsche Grammophon, and you can take in a wildly good 1968 television performance of the work here.

Bach was thirty-five years-old and living in Cöthen when the Chaconne was published in 1720 as part of the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin.  It was conceived as the last movement of the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, and stands as the culmination of Bach’s chamber music output.  Structurally speaking, the Chaconne consists of 27 variations built over a simple bass figuration.  Deeper still, it is a flight full of struggle and of eventual reconciliation, a journey that everywhere pushes.  It pushes the practical limits of the violin, the technical limits of the interpreter, and the conventional limits of the musical imagination.

Milstein’s vision of the Chaconne is full of white light, of white heat.  I have other favourite performances of Bach’s music for solo violin, but I hear in Milstein’s a measured intensity that I don’t find elsewhere.  It overwhelms.  Milstein’s interpretations were the first to make me realize just how emotionally searching this music can be.  His were the recordings that made me ask: How can we begin to approach this music?

Musicians have gone about it in different ways.  Among the more notorious, it was none other than Johannes Brahms who expressed his bafflement at the scope of the work, and responded by writing a now-neglected piano transcription for the left-hand.  Italian virtuoso Feruccio Busoni’s controversial piano transcription (and rewriting!) of the Chaconne has now become an accepted  part of concert programs.  And then there’s Stokowski’s sonorous take, his transcription of the piece for full orchestra.  There are others still; and while purists may disapprove of the “liberties” taken by such creative efforts, I view them as invitations to see the Chaconne in a new light. 

As I see it, the views of purists can be stale right out of the gate.  But Bach has no best before date.

Moving deeper still: In 1994 German music professor, Helga Thoene, suggested that Bach had built the Chaconne on motifs from his choral works – and that the texts of these quoted pieces suggest that Bach conceived the Chaconne as a hidden memorial to his wife, who had died earlier in the year that it was composed.  A recent project by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble attempts to sound out Thoene’s theory.  And while the idea that the Chaconne has a secret or esoteric meaning is a speculative one – a groping for something that might not be there – it stands, again, as a reminder that there is still so much to be found in this music.  (You can decide for yourselves here.)

Morimum: Christoph Poppen & The Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)Interpretations of this kind take risks.  And they should: because this music takes risks; it has reach.  Isn’t it best to explore it and to hear it in a spirit similar to that in which it was conceived – one of openness, invention and discovery?  Renewal is what I hear when Milstein begins the meditative middle section of the Chaconne.  It is the breaking of a new day. 

I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and I know that there are at least as many ways of seeing the Chaconne.  


Recommended Recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin:

  • Nathan Milstein (Deutsche Grammophon, 1973)
  • Itzhak Perlman  (EMI, 1995)
  • Henryk Szeryng (Deutsche Grammophon, 1968)

Also Recommended:

  • Morimur: Christoph Poppen & the Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series, 2001)

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