Reality & Illusion, part 4: Bach, Dead and Reborn

I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On my list of greatest composers of all time, he shares first place with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When I was 14 I heard the late Pierre Fournier, a great French cellist, at a concert in my hometown. He played César Franck’s sonata for cello and piano (originally composed for violin and piano) and Bach’s Sixth Suite (originally composed for the five-string violoncello piccolo da spalla), among other pieces. The morning after his recital I decided to become a professional musician. Subsequently I heard him in two other live performances, one in New York and one in London. I collected some of his recordings, including his Bach Suites.

Here's Fournier in action. 

I heard Janos Starker play the Fifth Suite in São Paulo. I heard Anner Bijlsma play several suites in a single program in New York. I heard Maurice Gendron play the Second Suite in London. (As it happens, I also took master classes with these three great cellists; I played for them and received their feedback, though not on Bach’s Suites.) I heard plenty of cellists of my own generation play movements and whole suites. My LP collection of old included the complete Casals set, the Fournier set, and the Fifth Suite played by Aldo Parisot, with whom I studied for two years in grad school. My CD collection includes two period-performance sets, one of which played wholly on the violoncello da spalla.


Bach wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. I performed all three, sometimes with piano, sometimes with harpsichord. I heard Bach’s flute sonatas, both solo and accompanied, multiple times. I heard Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano, the organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord, and I played a few of those pieces myself at the piano. I heard his orchestral pieces, and played several of them in my youth—the Brandenburg Concertos, the Suites, a violin concerto or two. I heard the Passions and learned a couple of recitatives with my first singing teacher. I heard some of the cantatas, some of the oratorios, many of the trio sonatas. I know the six sonatas and partitas for violin solo by heart. As a teacher and coach, I’ve looked closely at many of Bach’s compositions, helping pianists, violinists, and singers—among others—figure out what’s going on and how best to learn the compositions and perform them.

It's quite paradoxal. Bach seems very present in my life. Yet Bach doesn’t exist.

What exist are my perceptions of Bach; my perceptions of Fournier and Starker playing Bach; my memories of my perceptions of Fournier, playing—more than forty years ago—an ephemeral, subjective version of an incomplete and ambiguous blueprint.

It’s how it goes, inevitably, for all of us. Using tools that we manipulate subjectively—the tools of sight and sound, the tools of analytical thinking, the tools of emotion and intuition—we take some “Bach-related information” (which could be a printed score or something learned by ear or something we’ve culled from a thousand disparate experiences and encounters) and we use all that information to shape “our Bach.”

And then we go psychotic and say, “This is Bach.” Or, “This is by Bach.” Or, “Bach composed this.”

I Am Bach2.jpg

No, no, and no.

You ought to say, “This is me, fashioned in a Bach costume.” “This is by me, as the result of an ongoing process that includes Bach-related information.” “I composed this, borrowing from Bach and multiple other sources going back decades. Strangely, every note in it ‘looks and sounds’ like the notes on a printed score with Bach’s name on it. Don’t you love those extensive, unexplainable coincidences?”

When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, "Bach was Bach." When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn't Bach.” He's . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.

A thing of beauty.

I’ll bypass the impossible task of delineating reality and illusion, and I’ll say that I prefer the psychosis in which Bach doesn’t exist to the psychosis in which Bach exists.

The moral of the story? It's a story in itself. Come back soon.