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Bach’s Greatness as a Composer
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The concept of the "great" composer

Jack Botelho wrote (January 10, 2004):
"I understand there is a centuries-old tradition of fine scholarship and research into J.S. Bach, initially a product of German efforts arising from 19th century nationalism. It does not take much imagination to understand the consequences of applying this same painstaking care of research to other composers. I also understand there is also an entire world-wide musicological establishment built on studying Bach, and that this establishment may become distinctly uneasy with approaching music history from a "genre", rather than a "composer" point of view. We must remember that it was only in 1947 that the first full-length genre study approach to baroque music was published (Bukofzer) which before that time were only "great" composer studies."

The above seems to imply that there are many composers of the genius of JS Bach just waiting to be discovered, but this cannot be so. The above also went un-replied by list members so I'll have a go at it:

First there is the question of what makes a composer "great"? I would venture with JS Bach that is the very high quality of compositions he left in all genres, indicative of a composer who was unwilling to relax his high standards.

Also, Bach, like the craftsman A Stradivari (quality of craftsmanship a key factor of baroque artisanship) must have been very self-critical in a constructive sense - Bach must have always sought to improve and refine his work.

A question which arises is - what are the characteristics of a high quality composition?

Finally, with regard to what makes a composer "great" is the variable of "natural genius" which a given environment either encourages to develop or restricts. There is considerable debate about exactly how constructive Bach's immediate musical environment was.

Any further ideas anyone?

Jose E. Amaro wrote (Januarty 12, 2004):
[To Jack Botelho] Since I am new to this Bach list let me introduce myself to members. I am coming from the ItalianBaroque list and mainly interested in pre classical music, focusing in particular in vocal genres: Opera, Cantata, Oratorio, Motets. Right now I am not contributing to these lists since I am in the business preparing an exhaustive catalog of my classical CD collection, which has been exaggeratedly increasing last years and this is the only way to get some control on it. I have cataloged up to the date around 900 CDs, in 50 pages in two-column format, and still have a similar number of CDs waiting. I'll put the catalog on-line when finished.

Now about your message:
< First there is the question of what makes a composer "great"? I would venture with JS Bach that is the very high quality of compositions he left in all genres, indicative of a composer who was unwilling to relax his high standards. >
At this respect let me make a correction, since there is at less one genre to which JS Bach did not contributed, and it is Opera. And this precisely the most important genre at that time, what made a composer "Great". Think about the great German composers of the time, all linked to opera, such as Hasse, Graun, Keiser, Telemann, ... and of course Handel. Some of the Bach profane cantatas are the only approximation to such a genre, but they are in German, not in Italian, as prescribed by the taste of the public.

John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
Article on Bach

[To Jack Botelho] I absolutely agree with this. Bach believed that the purpose of all music was to give glory to God and pleasure to the soul. Anything else was a "devilish hubub". He was a deeply religious man with great faith. He prayed for God's help with his compositions (see the inscriptions before and after many of his works) and I think achieved something remarkable in so many of his compositions.

John Pike wrote (January 12, 2004):
[To Jack Botelho] As someone has commented, Bach did not write any operas. This does not matter at all in assessing greatness. In so far as the term is useful at all, it is something to do with the sheer quality of the art produced and, in Bach's case, the quantity as well. This quality has a number of facets: the universal emotions expressed so well, the richness of harmony, sheer overall beauty, wonderful melodies, the timeless appeal of the music, the spiritual appeal, the other worldly nature of much of the music and so on. The fact that Bach achieved all this in so many genres is all the more amazing.

Jack Botelho wrote (January 13, 2004):
[To Jose E. Amaro] Nice to have you on this list, Jose! Your database/catalogue of your collection must be exhausting to construct but in the end very rewarding - I look forward one day to admiring it when/if you post it sometime in the future.

Thanks for pointing out the importance of opera - indeed it was the most important genre for court society across Europe at this time. Thanks for the correction and I should have stated "the high quality of compositions in all the genres that J.S. Bach composed in".

It is interesting to note our friend and collector at Italian Baroque. He often refers to Bach but he means J.C. Bach. Humorous, perhaps? But J.C. was more famous than his father in the 18th century, although father and son belong to two different periods of music history (according to style - basso continuo period vs. homophonic, "classical" period).

We have touched on the standard of musical performance in the 18th century in general here already, but one thing I do admire is the fine "taste" in music recorded by connoisseurs of the time: perhaps in our age we have a long way to go to equal such taste?

I also very much appreciate your input here Jose for your broad awareness of baroque music and music of the 18th century across Europe (posted elsewhere). If there is one criticism of "Bachians" that I have, it is the far-too-narrow focus on this composer to the deteriment of this entire, massive, period of western music.

 

Question and information

Uri Golomb wrote (September 13, 2014):
Does the name Franz-Peter Müller ring a bell for any of you? Do you have any information on him?

Let me explain:

I have recently come across a website that offers a wealth of baroque recordings, mostly from the 1950s-1970s, for free download: http://www.baroquemusiclibrary.com/

Some of you may know it already, as several of the recordings are featured in Aryeh's discographies (that's how I found them in the first place). Most of these recordings are of largely historical interest (for people like me who enjoy investigating the development of Baroque performance in the age of recordings), but there are a few gems – such as Scherchen's cantata recordings (I, at least, have a soft spot for them), or – outside Bach – some nice Purcell and Handel recordings with Alfred Deller.

Which bring me back to my question. One of the recordings I downloaded was the complete Brandenburg Concertos and Suites with a group called the Brandenburgisches Bachorchester, conducted by Franz-Peter Müller: http://www.baroquemusiclibrary.com/74123Web.html

As you will see, the website makes some rather extravagant claims for these recordings (e.g., "We believe that these performances are unique in the way the orchestra manages to capture the complete change of mood between each Concerto and each Suite"); yet very little information is actually provided: where were these recordings made? When? Who are the soloists in the concerti? Who is this Franz-Peter Müller?

Since my interest in this recording is primarily historical, it would be nice to know more about its history. A google search did not yield any useful information. I even considered the possibility that the orchestra and conductor are both pseudonyms (I have heard of cases where, for copyright or other reasons, recordings by one group or conductor were released under another, invented name). Even if that's the case, these recordings do exist, and some orchestra and conductor must have made them. On strimusical grounds, I do believe that they were all made by the same orchestra and conductor; and my working assumption is that they were made in the 1960s or 1970s.

Any information wil be greatly appreciated.

Uri Golomb wrote (September 13, 2014):
Ps to my previuos message; I do plan to ask the website team the same question. If I get a definitive answer, I'll let you know.

Jean-Pierre Grivois wrote (September 13, 2014):
[To Uri Golomb] I really do not understand why so many people want to classify JSB a baroque musician.
For me, he is the contrary of all what baroque musicians try to express.
He is out of any style and eternal.

Claudi Di Veroli wrote (September 13, 2014):
[To Jean-Pierre Grivois] With the utmost respect for the opinions and writings of our esteemed member Grivois, I beg to differ, and strongly.

Musicologically, although JSB certainly applied musical (and even mathematical structural) elements in such a way that ALMOST nobody else did (but some came very near, such as Handel and Telemann in some works), the style is and remains essentially Baroque, and so it does up to the end of his life, when for a good decade young musicians like his own sons were composing in the new rococo-classical style. This is not just MY opinion, is the conclusion long- and well-established by current musicology, and I for one am very careful in going against this: the “everybody else is wrong”, unless you (like Einstein) have VERY strong proofs (including proving HOW everybody else is wrong), has systematically proved to produce wrong theories (the sagas of Frederick Neumann and Herbert Kellner are good examples).

Then comes the other piece of information. The score is a shorthand. It is meant to be performed according to the time’s customs. If you do otherwise you incur in contradictions. And indeed, the performance of the very complex JSB music poses many conundrums we all know. Cantata movements are MOSTLY in Italian style, and the main performance issues are articulations and ornamentations: easy to resolve by applying well-known Italian Baroque manners. Keyboard music is different, with many French-style pieces for which, again, the only satisfactory solution is to apply well-known French Baroque manners.

Julian Mincham wrote (September 13, 2014):
[To Claudio Di Veroli] Many today think of JSB not only as being A baroque composer, but as being THE baroque composer. It is not simply a matter of the timing of his life (first half of the 18th century) but more importantly, his use of harmony, instruments, structures, driving rhythms, stock bass figurations etc that place him as such. What complicates matters slightly is his vastly eclectic nature and his ability to draw ideas from all sorts of styles. This, combined with his mixing and combining of established baroque forms (the Brandenburgs are virtually a text book in this) serves to give him a totally unique status.

But in all basic elements he remains rooted in baroque practice. It is just that he did more to extend and rethink these basic elements than most (or all?) of his contemporaries.

Jean-Pierre Grivois wrote (September 13, 2014):
[To Julian Mincham] Let me just respond with a kind of joke of french musician Pierre Boulez.
"We can always restore old instruments with great care, but we can never reconstruct an ear of the 18th century."

Uri Golomb wrote (September 13, 2014):
Jean-Pierre Grivois wrote:
< Let me just respond with a kind of joke of french musician Pierre Boulez.
"We can always restore old instruments with great care, but we can never reconstruct an ear of the 18th century.">
Well, that's not entirely a joke – and Boulez does have a point. But just because we neither, nor should, listen with an 18th-century ear, doesn't mean it's pointless to understand what the composer expected his colleagues and listeners to comprehend in his music.

Here is a quotation from Andrew Parrott (whom I interviewed 12 years ago) which addresses this point:

I absolutely reject – as a self-fulfilling prophecy – the idea that ‘modern ears’ (whose?) necessarily listen in a single, fixed way that differs fundamentally from that of our 18th-century forbears (Bach himself? or his least sophisticated parishioner?). No two people listen identically, and each of us can in any case learn to listen in different ways – which is just what I aspire to encourage both listeners and performers to do. […] by opening ourselves up to new (old) styles of playing and singing, to unfamiliar tunings, pitch-levels, tempi, articulations, forces, sonorities, embellishment and so on, we may discover hidden musical worlds that can speak to us every bit as directly as more recent ones. We may still not end up listening ‘as Bach’s congregation did’ (whatever that may mean) but – through a little effort on our part – we may perhaps acquire at least a little of the general understanding that Bach could have expected from his listeners.

 

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Last update: ýNovember 10, 2014 ý00:42:12