Monday, January 23, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (4)

‎"Bach pierces to the heart": it's a phrase that's regularly encountered describing the incomparable music of Johann Sebastian Bach. One can try to rationalise why this is so, presumably a product of his exceptional genes, and his own life experiences. Reading about Bach's life one is immediately aware that death was a regular occurrence in his immediate family. He outlived 11 of his 20 children, 10 of whom died in infancy:

Johann Christoph (died 23 February 1713, aged 1 day)
Maria Sophia (twin of Johann Christoph, died 15 March 1713, aged 21 days)
Leopold Augustus (died 29 September 1719, aged 10 months and 14 days)
Christiana Sophia Henrietta (died 29 June 1726, aged 3 years)
Ernestus Andreas (died 1 November 1727, aged 2 days)
Christian Gottlieb (died 21 September 1728, aged 3 years)
Christiana Benedicta Louise (died 4 January 1730, aged 4 days)
Christiana Dorothea (died 31 August 1732, aged 1 year)
Regina Johanna (died 25 April 1733, aged 4 years)
Johann August Abraham (died 6 November 1733, aged 3 days)

Another son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, died at the age of only 24 (27 May 1739), and Bach's first wife Maria Barbara died unexpectedly aged only 35 (7 July 1720).

Whether this terrible toll accounts for the incredible depth and pathos within Bach's music can only be a matter of conjecture, but someone of Bach's intelligence and sensitivity must have undoubtedly lived constantly with mental anguish and pain, out of which his music must surely have provided solace and direction. Karl Richter, the greatest Bach scholar of the 20th century bar none, here conducts Julia Hamari in one of Bach's most moving arias from the St Matthew Passion, the famous song of anguish following Peter's denial: "Erbarme dich" ("Have mercy").

'Erbarme dich' from J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, sung by Julia Hamari with The Munich Bach Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded May 1971)

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