Bach Suites

Garrett, My son made almost the same comments you did after he recently attended a performance of the Bach B-Minor Mass at the San Francisco Symphony. I rushed to Bach's defense. I told him that I agreed that most Baroque and Rococo music is mostly "ear-wash," that is to say very pleasant and worthy but without the touch of greatness. However, I am convinced that Bach sits at the very top of the Western classical musical heritage. First, let's look at Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew." I have been a huge fan of opera since I was a teenager, more than forty years ago. However, after listening to so much great opera, and other classical music all these years, I am still not convinced that there is any operatic work greater than Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Here is the opening chorus of the St. Matthew passion: Like all vocal works, it is necessary to know the text being sung: Come, ye daughters, share my mourning, See ye --- whom? --- the bridegroom there, See him --- how? --- just like a lamb! O Lamb of God, unspotted Upon the cross's branch slaughtered, ... Have mercy on us, O Jesus! Here is an awe-inspiring Mezzo-Soprano aria, originally I think written for a castrato: Erbarme dich, mein Gott - Have mercy Lord, My God, because of this my weeping! Look thou here, Heart and eyes now weep for thee Bitterly. Here is a chorus that always gives me the shivers. It is sung five times in the Matthew Passion, with variations: O head of blood and wounding, Of pain and scorn so full, O Head, for spite now fettered Beneath a crown of thorns, ... I suppose it all comes down to the question of whether the St. Matthew Passion is a greater work than Tristan und Isolde. It is a difficult call, but I think it is, especially when you factor in that Bach was necessarily writing in a less complex musical style. You say you detect a transcendent, spiritual aspect in Bach's Cello Suites. And I would absolutely agree. But did you ever listen to Bach's even greater Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (BWV 1001-1006)? These are some of the most amazing musical pieces I have ever heard. Here is the Fugue from Sonata #1, played by Henryk Szeryng (masterpieces such as this must be performed by a virtuoso, or not at all. Just like all great opera.) This sounds like several violinists playing a fugue against each other, but it is one man, and one violin. Here is another excerpt, played by Isaac Stern: The "Big Three" of Western Music is usually said to be Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. But as a big fan of opera, like me, don't you agree that Wagner not only equaled Beethoven, but went well beyond him? Robert Sheaffer
— May 20, 2011 12:40 a.m.

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!