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What is it about Bach?

“I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” — Albert Einstein

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Image: Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Hearts added.

Recently, I stumbled upon an NPR interview with Sir András Schiff about his Well-Tempered Clavier project; in it Schiff shared his love of J.S. Bach and the special connection he feels to the composer.

As a bass player I’ve rarely had the good fortune of having solo pieces written by big-wig composers; instead, I’ve usually begged, borrowed, and stolen from cello, the violin, and the viola repertoires. It’s a blessing and a curse; I’m never made to perform only music expressly written for the bass, but I’ve also rarely had the pleasure of playing a piece written with my comfort and capabilities in mind. J.S. Bach is one of the many composers who never wrote for the bass, but whose music I’m perfectly happy to play anyway.

Bach is like snorkeling

gil shaham

Photo: Gil Shaham, who plays Bach Partitas on March 16, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

John Eliot Gardiner, the author of the Bach biography Music In The Castle of Heaven, jokes that Bach is like snorkeling. “Being in Bach’s music has that sense of otherness: it’s another world we enter, as performers or listeners. You put your mask on, and you go down to a psychedelic world of myriad colors” (Burton-Hill, 2014)

In my experience, every musician has an arduous yet ardent relationship with Bach. His music, like no other, seizes us, conquers our hearts and souls, and spits us back out slightly changed. Each listen brings a slightly new experience.

Bach and me

The first time I played music by J.S. Bach was in high school band. We used a Bach chorale each class to focus on phrasing and intonation. I looked forward to these fifteen minutes every day. I found that being embraced by the wholehearted reverberations of the other musicians’ Bach-playing left me with a kind of peace and calm unmatched by anything I’d felt before. Each detail of the chorale seemed minute and gargantuan at the same time, and I could find the patience to work on problem areas in my own playing because my love and respect for Bach was so great.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the first piece bass professor Diana Gannett assigned me was the Gigue in the First Cello Suite. Playing through a Bach Cello Suite is perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding acrobatic feats that I’ve forced upon myself as a bassist. I have listened to countless cellists perform Bach’s masterworks for cello, so my competitive self is disappointed when I fall short of the standard they’ve set; nevertheless, these cellists have also helped define my musical goals. Bach keeps. Bach keeps me humble while giving me unflagging energy for the process of becoming a better musician.

I would never consider performing Bach for an audience; I find that my relationship with Bach is about the intense personal experience of playing his music for my ears alone. It’s become a morning ritual, something I cannot live without.

As Schiff says in his interview, playing Bach is a work in process that never ends. He continues to say that there are new stations that you arrive at on your exploration of the mystery of his music, but you can only hope to see a wider horizon along the journey. I’ve only just begun my journey as a professional musician, and my love for Bach is sure to be what sustains me.

Are you a lover of Bach? If not, what piece of music or what composer is “sacred” to you?

Gil Shaham performs Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas with original films by David Michalek on March 26, 2014.

Take a break and listen to Mstislav Rostropovich play Cello Suite No. 1 in G major BWV 1007


Burton-Hill, Clemency (2014, September 17) Can Any Composer Equal Bach? Retrieved on July 30, 2015.