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A Celebration of the Life of Bach

A celebration of the life of Bach, with readings from his own words, and the words of those who knew him. With readers Roger Allam and David Annen.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Christmas Eve 2017 17:30

Music Played

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Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Motet ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’, BWV225 (excerpt)

    Performer: Trinity Baroque, directed by Julian Podge).
    • Raumklang RK2601.
    • 15.
  • Johann Matthias Gesner

    On Bach’s playing and conducting read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Cantata ‘Erhalt uns Herr, bei deinem Wort’ BWV126 (excerpt)

    Performer: Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, directed by Ton Koopman.
    • CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72214.
    • Track 20.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Dedication of the Brandenburg Concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047 (3rd movement)

    Performer: European Brandenburg Ensemble, directed by Trevor Pinnock.
    • AVIE AV2119.
    • Track 3.
  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola read by Roger Allam

    From Bach’s obituary

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Organ Sonata No. 1 in E flat major, BWV525 (1st movement)

    Performer: Simon Preston (organ).
    • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8628.
    • Track 1.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Dedication of the Clavierübung, Part 1 read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord)

    Partita No. 1 B flat major, BWV825 (1st movement)

    • HANSSLER CD 92.115.
    • Track 1.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Report on the choristers at St Thomas School, Leipzig read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Motet ‘Fürchte dich nicht’ (excerpt)

    Composer: Bach. Performer: Leipzig Thomanerchor, conducted by Kurt Thomas. Performer: Leipzig Thomanerchor, conducted by Kurt Thomas.
    • BERLIN CLASSICS 0091032BC.
    • 4.
  • Johann Christian Kittel

    A reminiscence of Bach, by one of Bach’s pupils read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Cantata ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’, BWV35 (1st movement)

    Composer: Bach. Performer: Concentus Musicus Wien, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Performer: Concentus Musicus Wien, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
    • DAS ALTE WERK 2564 69343-7.
    • 1.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Letter to Georg Erdmann, Imperial Russian Residence agent in Danzig (and childhood friend) read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Wedding Quodlibet, BWV524 (excerpt)

    Composer: Bach. Performer: Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki.
    • BIS-CD-1411.
    • 14.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Letter to his cousin Johann Ernst Bach read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Cantata ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht’ BWV211 (‘Coffee Cantata’) (excerpt)

    Performer: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki.
    • BIS-CD-1411.
    • 14.
  • Johann Adolph Scheibe

    A Criticism read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, BWV1001 (3rd movement)

    Performer: Viktoria Mullova (violin).
    • ONYX 4040.
    • Track 3.
  • Johann Abraham Birnbaum

    A Reply read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Sonata No. 3 in A major for violin and harpsichord, BWV1015 (3rd movt)

    Performer: Rachel Podger (violin), Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord).
    • CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS 14798.
    • Track 13.
  • Luise Culmus

    A letter to her fiancée read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV826 (6th movement)

    Performer: Kenneth Weiss (harpsichord).
    • SATIRINO SR 011.
    • Track 13.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Letter to Johann Georg Martius read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Fugue in E minor, BWV856 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1)

    Performer: Richard Egarr (harpsichord).
    • HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907431.2.
    • Track 20.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Dedication of the B minor Mass read by Roger Allam

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Mass in B minor, BWV232 (Laudamus te)

    Performer: Ida Falk Winland (soprano), Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen.
    • HYPERION CDA68051.
    • 6.
  • Spenersche Zeitung

    An account of Bach’s visit to Frederick the Great at Potsdam Palace read by David Annen

  • 00:00

    Bach

    Musical Offering, BWV1041 (Ricercar a 6)

    Performer: Sonnerie.
    • VIRGIN CLASSICS 545139 2.
    • Track 17.
  • Berlinische Privilegirte Zeitung

    Report on the arrival in Leipzig of the celebrated English eye-surgeon Dr Taylor read by David Annen

  • 00:01

    Bach

    Violin Concerto in E major, BWV1042 (3rd movement)

    Performer: Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque.
    • CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 30910.
    • Track 6.
  • 00:01

    Bach

    Motet ‘Jesu meine Freude’, BWV227 (excerpt)

    Performer: Monteverdi Choir, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • SOLI DEI GLORIA SDG716.
    • 12.
  • Spenersche Zeitung

    Bach’s Death notice read by David Annen

Producer's Notes

For a Words and Music programme to feature music by only one composer (a prerequisite of today’s edition being part of an all-Bach day on Radio 3) is a pretty unusual thing. It does, however, have the advantage of helping to suggest what direction to go with the readings. For if all the music has to come from one man, and thus by definition from his own time, so surely should the words.

Like many composers of his time, Bach is a difficult person to get to know. We are lucky that the survival of so many of Mozart’s letters means that we have a strong impression of his personality; for most other composers before 1800 we have very little to tell us what they were like as people. The few written words we have of Bach are on the whole business-like – most of them, indeed, are memos and reports to his employers. Sometimes he wrote to other members of his family, though even then he was hardly gossipy. The writings over which he took most care seem to have been the formal dedications of music he was either publishing or sending to powerful (often high-born) personages from whom he was hoping for recognition, or even a job. These are the materials – seemingly unpromising at first – that form the basis for the readings in this programme. They are read by Roger Allam.

Yet words in almost any context can be giveaways: Bach’s business letters, for instance, often reveal how impatient he could be, how little he could suffer fools; his letters to friends and kin often bristle with mentions of the contrasting frustrations and joys of his professional existence, while at the same time showing the importance to him of family life; and the dedications of compositions to the likes of the Margrave of Brandenburg or the Elector of Saxony combine a quiet confidence in his own abilities with a necessary obsequiousness that, to the modern ear, sounds shocking from an artist so revered.

To complement these snapshots of Bach’s mind and personality we have readings from a selection of reviews and reminiscences by people who knew him or otherwise had dealings with him, from his sons and pupils, to consumers of his music, to the anonymous reporters of the Berlin and Leipzig press. They reveal that, for all that he never enjoyed the same degree of professional success and international fame as contemporaries such as Handel or Telemann, his eminence as a musician was certainly recognised in his own time – even the writer who set out to criticise him starts by calling him a ‘great man’. These excerpts are read by David Annen.

As for all the music being by Bach, well that of course is no restriction; the permutations from well over a thousand works are virtually endless! A route must be found, however, and in this truly humbling task my choices have been driven by a hope to find music which in the moment can reflect or illuminate the texts that surround it, that can somehow succeed in drawing this man and his work even closer together. If I succeed, it is still only one solution.

Producer: Lindsay Kemp

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