March 31 is a day to celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach. He was born in 1685 in Germany. He was a prolific composer, talented musician and icon of the Baroque music period.
We asked our musicians to share their favourite selection from Bach’s immense catalogue so we can all celebrate his music on this special day.
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Gordon Gerrard, Music Director
CANTATA 132, Movement 1
Richard Burdick, RSO Principal Horn
I finished a recording a few weeks ago of a multi-track-horn version of my all-time favorite Bach piece – Cantata 132, Movement 1. I recorded it at “horn pitch” so the lead soprano line got a little high, but with computer magic, I did it, and am very happy with the recording. This work is amazing; it’s like the melody is rising and falling at the same time.
3rd Brandenburg Concerto
Christian Robinson, RSO Concertmaster
Happy Birthday to the amazing J.S. Bach, one of my absolute favourite composers! Over his life he turned out masterpiece after masterpiece of staggering intellectual complexity AND emotional depth…a perfect marriage of brain and heart. For me, Bach just seems to operate on a level that so few humans ever attain, and playing his music is always both a tremendous terror and a tremendous joy because of the knowledge you’re playing a truly perfect piece of music (and you don’t want to mess it up!). It’s tough to pick one piece or one performance out of so many, but a video I’ve come back to a lot lately is this recording of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto by the crackerjack NY-based ensemble The Knights.
I love this recording for so many reasons (the performance is absolutely killer!!), but a special highlight for me is how The Knights weave the middle movement (which is extremely short in the original, just a short chord progression) into the song “American Tune” by Paul Simon (complete with vocalist from the ensemble!). This stunning tune by Paul Simon is actually based on a very famous chorale by Bach, and it’s used to great effect in this video (the middle movement starts around the 5:25 mark in the video). It’s a truly amazing performance that never fails to move me, and shows how wide Bach’s influence extends.
The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,1st Prelude – G major “The Cello Song”
Simon Fryer, RSO Principal Cello
As a cellist I am inevitably drawn to Bach as the foundation of the repertoire for my instrument. The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are works of endless fascination, each one being a jewel and demonstrating so many facets of the abilities of the instrument and its player. Any cellist worthy of the name will have studied, and possibly performed, all six suites, and these astonishing works have been recorded by more artists than one could shake a stick at.
Each suite is focussed into a different key and begins with a Prelude – a semi-improvisatory exploration of the home key. This is followed by a brief tour of Europe through dance: Allemande (German), Courante (French), Sarabande (Spanish), Minuets/Bourrées/Gavottes (ancient formal court), and finally Gigue (Celtic). The first three suites (Bach loved to do things in threes!) are in keys rooted in the cello’s three lower strings (G,D,C). Then for the last three, he branches out into Eb for the 4th, C minor involving a scordatura (tuning the A string down to G), and lastly D major but using a 5-string instrument (added E string). Bach was never happy unless he was innovating!
Everyone’s gateway work into these Suites would have to be the 1st Prelude – G major. So popular it has become known as ‘The Cello Song’ perhaps largely thanks to Steven Sharp Nelson of the Piano Guys, but for a picture of the original you could do a lot worse than experience Yo Yo Ma’s video here: