This was the title of a presentation by Tim Rowe at the Society’s last meeting where he played a selection of the cantatas composed by JS Bach during his time in Leipzig. He was Kantor at the Thomas church.
Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach had a difficult childhood being orphaned by the age of 10 and spent his early years living with one of his brothers.
Tim explained that despite his enormous output and his amazing genius, very little in fact is known about him as a person. Almost no letters survive and there is no contemporary biography. There is even some doubt about what he looked like.
Focusing on the Leipzig years, upon being appointed, Bach set about composing music for the full Lutheran liturgical year. This was an enormous task. Tim provided a circular calendar explaining the timetable for the various cantatas. They were produced in an almost production line process, starting on a Monday, finished by Thursday, copied on Friday, rehearsed on Saturday and then performed on Sunday.
The performances were quite unlike the concert halls of today. There was considerable noise and confusion as people and animals came and went. Churches would employ a whipper to keep control of the dogs. Services lasted hours. People were segregated according to class. It’s a wonder in all the confusion that he music was heard at all.
We use the word ‘cantata’ to describe these works yet it is not the word used by Bach himself. Often pieces had ordinary generic words to describe them such as ‘church music’ or ‘church piece.’ 216 of his compositions survive from this period as regrettably, many manuscripts were lost, indeed, it has been estimated that 40% are missing. Part of the problem might have been paper since this was a valuable commodity at the time, still being produced by hand.
Bach’s modern reputation – his ‘unfathomable genius’ as Tim put it – owes a lot to Felix Mendelssohn who worked hard to revive him. Had it not been for Mendelssohn, his music may have continued to languish in obscurity. Mendelssohn was distantly linked to the Bach family through his maternal grandmother who was taught harpsichord by one of Bach’s sons and who collected his manuscripts.
Tim played a range of the cantatas all performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi choir under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner. These were recorded in the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.
This was a splendid evening listening to some wonderful works by this great composer.
The next meeting is on 5 March