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Bach for Dummies

December 28th, 2005
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A friend contacted me in reference to my recent Bach post. Perhaps others might like to chime in and make recommendations.

Paul, I grew up listening to the Beatles and continue to be a huge Paul McCartney fan.  But in reading your posts and others, I’ve decided that in 06 I’d like to add some Bach to my CD library.  The problem is this – where to begin?  I visited my local Borders the other day and they carry quite a selection of Bach’s music.  Too many selections.  I had no idea where to begin.  Is there a "Bach for Dummies" book I can read for ideas.  A "Bach for Beginners" post on your weblog would be helpful for a guy like me.  Any suggestions?  Thanks and God’s best to you and yours. Thanks, George.

Great question George. I’m not aware of a "Bach for Dummies" type of book, but it sounds like a good idea. I’d appreciate it. There is a helpful Classical Music for Dummies that offers a nice overview.

Bach is known today chiefly by his instrumental works.
His choral works are less well known.
And, least known of all are his church cantatas.

As for recordings…there is a debate that rages among Bach lovers. It has to do with whether or not to listen to Bach recording on original instruments in what are known as HIP, historically informed performances, that is, performances that
attempt to come as close as possible to what Bach intended when he originally wrote the pieces. Obviously, that is a subjective effort, since we simply can not say for 100% what Bach intended when he wrote his music, but….honestly….most any and every good recording will provide the newcomer to Bach with beautiful music. The more advanced Bach listener will develop a library of recordings by certain conductors and performers, etc. I appreciate the work of Gardiner and Koopman. I’m collecting each of their complete recordings of Bach’s Cantatas.

Perhaps the best way to begin listening to Bach is…to begin listening to Bach. If you want a single CD that offers you a nice overview of Bach, here is the one I would recommend.

When, or if, you want to listen to entire pieces, perhaps you might want to check with your local library and check things out before you commit to buying them. Where to begin? That’s a  tough one. Here is what I would suggest.

Instrumental Works

Brandenburg Concertos
Orchestral Suites
Cello Suites

Choral Works

Mass in B Minor [often said to be the greatest piece of music ever written]
The St. John Passion
The St. Matthew Passion

Cantatas

You can find various collections of Cantatas. There are several complete collections. The newest collection is still in production, by Gardiner.

I would suggest you check this web site. It is part of the Bach Cantata group. Here you will find a lot of secularists who listen to the Cantatas mostly for the music, when of course, the words, which Bach obtained from various sources, are crucial as well. You can pay as much, or as little, attention to their debates and squabbles over how precisely to sing the Cantatas. Huge arguments will break out over whether or not one voice, or several, should be used for the various parts of the Cantatas. [I tend to believe single voices was the way Bach had it in his day, using only a group of voices for the chorale parts].

Then, pick out the Cantatas you are interested in hearing…for instance, BWV 80 for Reformation Day, and then find a collection of Cantatas with it on it.

I do prefer original instrument recordings that are historically informed. I do not prefer a "big orchestra" sound to Bach’s works, for he never wrote for large orchestras, which came after his time. Look for recordings that are all digital DDD for the best sound quality.

A word of caution. You can go as far, and as deep, as you want into this. But the further you get you will find that, as in all fields, there are fierce debates raging among the experts. Debates that are oh-so-important to them, but strike many of us as silly.

One thing to be careful about is to realize that many Bach lovers today want to enjoy Bach separate from the faith that drBachsignatureove him to do what he did. They want to listen to Bach purely as music devoid of any connection to his Orthodox Lutheran commitments. And, of course, that is possible. But to know Back best, and to enjoy him most, is to do so from the point of view of the faith he confessed, and that of course, was a hearty Orthodox Lutheranism.

Please let me say a word about musicians and music.

I’ve found that sometimes, unfortunately, musicians can really take the joy out of music. There are sensitive egos involved, and they are very easily bruised. I’ve learned that every musician knows, deep inside, that he truly does know the "right way" to perform any given piece of music and so you have to be careful when evaluating what musicians have to say about music. There is much to learn and I admire those who truly understand the wonderful intricacies, but don’t let them intimidate you.

This is somewhat akin to tasting wine. Just start tasting. When you find something you like, you’ll know it. You should not have to have a 500 page book or a Ph.D. in wine to know a good wine when you taste it. Similarly, with Bach and his music. Just listen. Read the liner notes for historical background and interesting information, but listen for a good long while before you start consulting too many experts. They have a way of sucking the wonder of it all right out of it. Somewhat like studying poetry too closely. So, study with discernment.

I hope this helps George. God bless your enjoyment of J.S. Bach.

Paul

 

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Categories: Bach
  1. David Gray
    December 28th, 2005 at 15:41 | #1

    If someone REALLY likes Bach I would suggest pursuing this:
    http://www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2001/Dec01/BrilliantBach.htm
    I bought my set from Germany for a little over $1 per disc. The performances are generally very good and it is lovely to know there is a Bach chorale out there and know that you can find the recording of it in your collection. I remember singing a Bach chorale years ago in choir, translated title was “All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall.” Found the recording and heard it for the first time in years.

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