One could call this area where I am writing a bit of blog my “Bach” room. Housed herein are a Bach bust that my parents purchased for a mere $10 in June of 1976 when they came to Ann Arbor for my master’s degree recital, a framed poster of the Bach statue outside of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, a Bach medallion with his image that is maybe 2″ in diameter that my sister purchased in Vienna, several issues of “Bach magazin” published in Leipzig four times annually, five or six Bach biographies, some Bach scores, and a few cds of his music. Of all my Bach memorabilia, however, probably the most distinctive item is a full score in book form of the “St. Matthew Passion.” It is roughly 7″ tall and 5″ wide . I purchased it in a now departed used bookstore in Evanston, IL for a mere $5. Had its price been ten times that number, I would have paid it. As it was, I paid the $5 and walked out of the place quickly and quietly before the proprietor realized what a gem he had on his hands. I carried this marvel to Germany and followed along while listening to a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” at St. Thomas, Leipzig.
I cannot pretend to know or understand a great deal of the “St. Matthew Passion,” but its opening chorus fascinates me. It has a sweep and a grandeur that sets a marvelous tone for the entire work. Apparently its first performance was on Good Friday, 1727, at St. Thomas. Two choirs in the west balcony were vying with each other as they sang their respective opening parts. Above this musical foray was a boy choir located in what was a “crow’s nest” in the east end of the church above and in front of the chancel. The boys were singing a chorale tune that was a portent of the message to follow. One can imagine the original performance was astonishing.
One year the “St. Matthew Passion” was part of the annual BACHFEST in Leipzig. A reason I am studying German is so that I can attend this festive series of concerts and understand the language of the people hosting it. The idea in my head is that if I can understand Bach’s native language, then I am one step closer to understanding his music. If one accepts the premise that both the language and the music of a culture reflect the people therein, then I am compelled to be all the more intent about learning the German language.
I have read that Bach probably never heard a good performance of any choral work he wrote, and that he would be pleasantly astonished at the time and effort put into presenting his pieces today. It is instructive to realize that Bach wrote for voices as if he were writing for instruments, and the result is often a challenging vocal line. I have imagined Bach, after composing one of his solo cantatas, for example, handing the manuscript to a singer, and advising him or her that the performance was a in a week or so. The singer might have been honored, or overwhelmed, to sing such a premiere, but doubtless would not have realized that the manuscript in his or her hands would someday be priceless.
A woman of my acquaintance has told me that the choir she leads sings nothing but Bach’s choral works. I cannot say that my fascination with the man and his music is carried to that extent, but my study is ongoing. I am wondering just what bit of memorabilia will attract my attention for my Bach room when next I visit his homeland.