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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.

Last but not least: Pianist Sir András Schiff on Last Sonatas Project

Editor’s note: Pianist Sir András Schiff performs three concerts of the “The Last Sonatas” by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert February 16-20, 2016. Below is his reflection on the project.

andras schiff

Photo: Sir András Schiff. Courtesy of the artist.

“Alle guten Dinge sind drei” — all good things are three, according to this German proverb that must have been well-known to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Introducing their last three piano sonatas in three concerts — twelve works, twelve being a multiple of three — is a fascinating project that can demonstrate the connections, similarities and differences among these composers.

The sonata form

The sonata form is one of the greatest inventions in Western music, and it is inexhaustible. With our four masters of Viennese classicism it reached an unprecedented height that has never been equaled, let alone surpassed. Mozart and Beethoven were virtuoso pianists while Haydn and Schubert were not, although they both played splendidly (Schubert’s playing of his own Lieder had transported his listeners to higher spheres and brought tears to their eyes). The piano sonatas are central in their œuvres and through them we can study and observe the various stages of their development.

Lateness is relative, of course; Haydn (1733-1809) and Beethoven (1770-1827) lived long. Mozart (1756-1791) and Schubert (1797-1828) died tragically young. It’s the intensity of their lives that matters. In the final year of his life Schubert wrote the last three piano sonatas, the C Major string quintet, the song-cycle “Schwanengesang” and many other works. What more could we ask for? These last sonatas of our four composers are all works of maturity. Some of them – especially those of Haydn – are brilliant performance pieces; others (Beethoven, Schubert) are of a more intimate nature – it isalmost as if the listener were eavesdropping on a personal confession.

Lateness is relative

Both Beethoven and Schubert had worked on their final three sonatas simultaneously; they were meant to be triptychs. Similarly, Haydn’s three “London sonatas” — the only works in this series that weren’t written in Vienna — were inspired by the new sonorities and wider keyboard of the English fortepianos and belong definitely together. It would be in vain to look for a similar pattern in Mozart’s sonatas. For that let’s consider his last three symphonies — but his late music is astonishing for itsmasterful handling of counterpoint, its sense of form and proportion, its exquisite simplicity.

Let me end with a few personal thoughts. The last three Beethoven sonatas make a wonderful programme. They can beplayed together, preferably without a break. Some pianists like to perform the last three Schubert sonatas together. This, at least for me, is not a good idea. These works are enormous constructions, twice as long as those of Beethoven, and the emotional impact they create is overwhelming, almostunbearable. It is mainly for this reason that I am combining Beethoven and Schubert with Haydn and Mozart. They complement each other beautifully, in a perfect exchange of tension and release. Haydn’s originality and boldness never fail to astonish us. Who else would have dared to place an E Major movement into the middle of an E-flat Major sonata? His wonderful sense of humour and Mozart’s graceful elegance may lighten the tensions created by Beethoven’s transcendental metaphysics and Schubert’s spellbinding visions.

Great music is always greater than its performance, as Arthur Schnabel wisely said. It is never easy to listen to, but it’s well worth the effort.

Pianist Sir András Schiff performs three concerts of the “The Last Sonatas” by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert February 16-20, 2016. 

Are there artists whose “late” creativity you admire? Discuss in the comments below.

What music speaks to you?

Do you have a composer or specific piece of music that’s followed you throughout your life? Inspired by Sir András Schiff’s well-known love of Bach, I did an informal poll of current students and recent graduates at U-M School of Music, Theater, and Dance. Here are some of their responses:

word cloud of composers mentioned by students

Image: Music that speaks to music students, visualized.

I love anything by Bach – I find it really easy to learn and play. I think very linearly in music and not vertically (harmonically), and Bach’s piano works are typically all about the interplay of lines. — Christina Liu, ’12 M.M. Piano Performance & Chamber Music Performance

marlo williamsThere’s just so much there to work with, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is absolutely delicious and different every time depending on the emotional ingredients you put into it. It changes with your life. It’s like magic. — Marlo Williams, ’16 M.M. Double Bass Performance

My favorite composer changes weekly, but one piece I always return to is Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It’s beautifully quiet, tranquil, and has an element of darkness and sadness that I find incredibly alluring. Although I am no longer a violinist by trade, whenever the chaos gets to me, I always retreat to this work. — Gunnar Foster, ‘15 B.S. Mathematics

emily hoffnerAs a horn player, Mahler never stops speaking to me. There are just so many characters that he allows the horn to be in his symphonies…and so many soulful voices and colors. In 2012 I performed Mahler 7 with USO, and just last week I played it at a festival.  It reminds me of the “good ole days” at Michigan. — ‘14 B.M. French Horn Performance

Appalachian Spring & Beethoven 7. I played these my first year at Interlochen as a high school student. It was the first time I was in a really good orchestra. — Chris Livesay, ‘14 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

kat stiehI initially loved Apocryphal by Vinnie Sperrazza, a New York jazz drummer, because of its use of space and its instrumental effects. I keep returning to it and finding appreciation for it in new ways. — Kat Steih, ’14 B.S. Physics and Performing Arts Technology

The musical Sunday in the Park with George  because Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music have so much humanity embedded under every choice of note and word. His work opens up all my wounds and heals them at the same time. — Kevin Goldberg, ‘16  B.M. Music Directing and Conducting for Musical Theatre

zoe kumagaiMinuet I in G major from the Cello Suite No 1 by Bach. But I don’t have a very good explanation. It just feels good. — Zoe Kumagai, ‘14 B.M. Double Bass Performance

I’ve always been drawn to Tchaikovsky, and since my voice recently dropped into a proper tenor range, I’m learning Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin (which has always been one of my favorite operas). It’s such a huge joy, and I feel like I really connect with both the subtleties of the characters and the overt romanticism of the music. — Holden Madagame, ‘14 B.M. Vocal Performance

tessa-romanoAnything by Mozart because his coloratura for mezzo is so satisfying to sing. Also, I love the jazz standard called Misty because jazz is something I sing for myself, although I don’t really perform it.  — Tessa Romano, ’15 M.M. Vocal Performance

Brahms Requiem is up there on the list of pieces I could play all day and forever. — Rachel Paxton, ‘16 B.M. Instrumental Music Education

maren laurenceI am always drawn to Debussy’s music; to me, his music is magical. His music has a certain feeling of calmness that transports you into a fantasy. When I play it, I feel a story in everything.  — Maren Laurence, ‘14 B.M. Harp Performance

As far as the tuba goes, I always find myself playing the Arild Plau concerto, which is probably the most beautiful piece we have. It’s incredibly simple and elegant, which is a great contrast to the ponderous and bombastic music tubas so often play. — Mike Frasier, ‘14 B.M. Tuba Performance

libby-seidnerI return to Bach’s Partita for Solo Flute often as a performer because it provides never ending technical challenges, and has renewed meaning for me depending on where I am in my life.  — Libby Seidner, ‘15 B.M. Instrumental Music Education


matt-rynesThe piece I keep returning to is the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen. No other piece walks the line between rapturous beauty and grotesque horror so convincingly. When I first heard the piece a long time ago, I was completely overwhelmed by its scale and sense of euphoria I felt by the finale. — Matt Rynes, ’14 M.M. Clarinet Performance


annika sokolofskyComposers who are awesome again and again: Donnacha Dennehy, Julia Wolfe, Evan Chambers (duh!), Dan Trueman, Alan Bern — Annika Socolofsky, ’14 M.A. Composition



If you’d like to see a musician play one of his all-time favorite composers, stop by one of Sir András Schiff’s three concerts February 16-20. More info at 

So, do you have a piece of music that you love to perform? Is there a composer or band that you just can’t stop listening to? Share below.

Community Spotlight: U-M Piano Professor Arthur Greene

Editor’s note: Isabel Park is a regular contributor to UMS Lobby and an undergraduate pianist in the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Isabel explores connections between the UMS season and student life.

andras schiff
Photo: Pianist Andras Schiff performs in Ann Arbor February 16-20, 2016. Photo by Nadia Romanini.

This winter, master pianist Sir András Schiff visits Ann Arbor for three concerts exploring the “The Last Sonatas,” later-life sonatas, of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. He says of the sonata, that it is “one of the greatest inventions in Western music, and it is inexhaustible.”

We often view the musicians on stage as learning students or a developing performers, but, perhaps more rarely, do we think of the musicians as a teachers. Teachers can play a significant role in shaping a student’s musical style and artistic ideas. To gain some insight into the perspective of teachers and find out more about what it’s like to help younger musicians grow into independent artists, I talked to my own teacher at U-M, Arthur Greene.

Isabel Park: We’ve worked on the Beethoven Op. 109 together. Can you give an overview of the process of teaching a piece from the teacher’s perspective?

Arthur Greene: There are two sides to teaching. One is communicating and developing a conception of the work – to put it in an overly simplistic way, what the work means. The other is responding to the particular student’s way of playing and learning. With a late Beethoven sonata, our work is weighted towards the meaning of the music, because it is so particular, dense, and at first enigmatic. As far as the student’s playing, I always try to combine technical suggestions with musical ideas, based on what is working or what is not working for the student.

IP: I know this is a difficult question, but when is a piece “good enough” or ready to be performed?

AG: We had a visiting “great artist” when I was first teaching at Michigan, Eugene Istomin, to teach every few weeks. He said that in his life there were never any performances he was happy with, and usually he was very distressed after playing, because they fell so far short of perfection. I don’t think like that. When the music feels part of you, well memorized, with technical issues working 90% of the time, and if you feel you have something to say with the piece, it is ready to play.

IP: Is there anything that, say, can’t be taught to a student – or anything that you consider to be the responsibility of the student?

AG: Almost everything is the responsibility of the student. Most great teachers, such as Theodore Leschetizky, would have been unknown if they didn’t have students the caliber of Ignaz Friedman and Artur Schnabel. Teachers can inspire and guide, but the student should not rely on the teacher ultimately, or else he or she will never be an artist.

IP: What kind of a role do these classical sonatas play in the piano/classical music repertoire in general and in the repertoire of a pianist?

AG: Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn represent the summit of the tonal system, and their sonatas are simply great music, so I can’t imagine being a pianist without playing them.

IP: For this program, Schiff is exploring the “last” sonatas of four master composers and the ways in which later-life creativity or near-death creativity was expressed for each of them. What’s your take on this programmatic structure, especially given that your work focuses on nurturing the emerging creativity of student pianists?

AG: Most composers whose works I know well develop a more subtle, complex, and personal style in their later works – Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart for example. These are the pieces I am personally most drawn too, and I am not surprised that Schiff is as well.

IP: It’s often said that one shouldn’t say the masters until one as older (this is said humorously). What do you think about this idea?

AG: Kids might not have the last word on late Beethoven, but I’ve heard horrible performances of mature works by mature pianists as well. I like the idea of a work maturing in one’s soul for many years. Also, the idea that one must learn all the patterns of earlier music of a composer before tackling the later works is dangerous, because it fosters a paint-by-numbers way of playing. It is better to consider each pattern, phrase, and piece on its own, rather than as a meme. Overly patterned playing, and the desire to find the correct way to play something, are the reasons piano playing has become so dull.

IP: What are your favorite works to introduce to students?

AG: Chopin mazurkas. They are fascinating emotionally and rhythmically, and most of them are rarely played.

Thinking about the teaching embedded in music adds another dimension of complexity and inspiration to a performance. I’m excited to listen to pianist András Schiff’s programs with an eye for these complexities.

Sir András Schiff performs three concerts in Ann Arbor February 16-20, 2016.

Goldberg Variations – A guided tour from pianist András Schiff

Editor’s Note: András Schiff performs the Goldberg Variations at Hill Auditorium on October 25, 2013. Below is his guided tour of the work.

Pianist Andras Schiff sits at piano to perform the Goldberg Variations.

“Se non è vero, è ben trovato.” (If it isn’t true, it’s well invented.) Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in his 1802 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach described the history of the Goldberg Variations with the following anecdote: “Count Keyserlingk, formerly Russian ambassador to Saxony, often visited Leipzig. Among his servants there was a talented young man, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – a harpsichordist (Cembalist) who was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and later of Johann Sebastian Bach himself. The count had been suffering from insomnia and ill-health and Goldberg, who also lived there, had to stay in the room next door to soothe his master’s suffering with music. Once the count asked Bach to compose some keyboard pieces for Goldberg, pieces of mellowness and gaiety that would enliven his sleepless nights. Bach decided to write a set of variations, a form that prior to this, hadn’t interested him much. Nevertheless, in his masterly hands, an exemplary work of art had been born. The count was so delighted with it, he called them ‘my variations’. He would often say: ‘My dear Goldberg, play me one of my variations.’ Bach had probably never been so generously rewarded for his music. The count gave him a golden goblet with a hundred Louis d’Or!”

Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

Like all legends, this one also suffers from dubious authenticity. It is difficult to comprehend why this work, published in 1741 by Balthasar Schmid in Nürnberg, does not bear any dedication to Count Keyserlingk or Goldberg. This excludes the possibility of a commission. It is also hardly believable that Goldberg (born in 1727) would have been sufficiently developed as a musician (at the ripe old age of 14!) to handle the extraordinary musical, technical and intellectual difficulties of this composition.

However, like all legends this one also contains some elements of truth. Bach’s works in variation form are few and far between. The rare examples are the Aria variata alla maniera italiana BWV 989 (1709), the Passacaglia in C minor for organ BWV 582 (1716/17), and the Chaconne of the D minor Partita for solo violin BWV 1004 (1720). The dates show that two decades separate the Chaconne from the Goldberg Variations. He subsequently returned to this neglected genre in 1746/47 with his canonic variations on a Christmas song for organ “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her” BWV 769.

Bach was a composer with encyclopaedic ambitions. In all the genres of sacred and secular music that he worked with, he reached heights that even to equal – let alone surpass – would be unimaginable. Had the circumstances of his life been different, and had he been court composer in Dresden, then no doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach would have become the greatest opera composer, too. In 1731 our encyclopaedist embarked on a huge project: Clavier-Übung (Clavier exercise), a collection of pieces of various styles written for different keyboard instruments. The first part (1731) contains six partitas. It represents the highest art of Baroque dance suites. The second part (1735) juxtaposes the Italian Concerto with the French Overture (not bad for a composer who had never been outside Germany). The third part is a collection of organ pieces: the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, the Four Duets, and several chorale preludes. In the fourth and last part, Bach wanted to finish with a crowning achievement, and thus the variations provided him with a real challenge. He probably felt a certain prejudice against this form. Many of his illustrious contemporaries had produced brilliant examples that had received much applause. Bach was never interested in cheap success and his goal was to try to elevate the usually extroverted variations onto a hitherto unknown artistic and spiritual level.

The title page announces: “Clavier-Übung containing an aria with different variations for harpsichord with two manuals”. This is one of the three instances where Bach specifically calls for such an instrument (the others being the Italian Concerto and the French Overture). The theme is a beautiful aria written by Bach in 1725 for his wife in the famous Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. It is symmetrically devised in two halves of sixteen bars each. Present day listeners must be careful not to be led astray by the beguiling quality of its melody, they should first concentrate on the bass line. Standing in front of a cathedral, we are overwhelmed by its size and grandeur. Our eyes are constantly diverted towards the splendour of the towers and the cupola at the top, while we tend to neglect the foundations on which the whole building rests.

This ground bass is like that of a passacaglia or a chaconne, it is the alpha and omega of the construction. There are thirty variations, after which the Aria returns in its initial shape, thus uniting the beginning with the end. Bach clearly asks the performer to repeat each section. Not doing so would destroy the perfect symmetry and its proportions. Great music is never too long. It is certain listeners’ patience that is too short.

“Aller guten Dinge sind drei” – All good things are three, thus the thirty variations are divided into ten groups of three. Each group contains a brilliant virtuoso toccata-like piece, a gentle and elegant character piece and a strictly polyphonic canon. The canons are presented in a sequence of increasing intervals, starting with the canon in unison up until the canon in ninths. In place of the canon in tenths we have a quodlibet (what pleases) which combines fragments of two folk songs with the ground bass. The tonality remains G major for the most part, with shadows of tonic minor in three variations (nos. 15, 21 & 25).

Let us go on a journey together, and let me be your guide. A guide should not talk too much, but it’s essential that she or he has already been on this trip many times, and thus can draw the passengers’ attention to the details that are relevant.

Listen to András Schiff’s recording of the Goldberg Variations on this recording and read his complete notes.

Goldberg Variations: A Fun Fact

Nowadays, we celebrate the Goldberg Variations for their beauty and economy, the virtuosity the work demands of the performer and transformative journey this music affords the listener. In this, we forget how the Variations was first performed – on a harpsichord. My first composition teacher, Robert Edward Smith, is also a harpsichordist, and his recording of the Goldberg Variations captures the vibrant energy produced by this instrument’s unique expressive palette.

Photo: An Italian harpsichord. (via)

Generalized as a static instrument, the harpsichord on Robert’s recording is different, and possesses multiple registrations, much like stops on an organ. These allowed him to create gentle, muted timbres in the work’s intimate sections and boisterous, multi-layered colors in more energetic and raucous passages. Although we understand the piano to be a more dynamic instrument than the harpsichord, this special recording of the Goldberg Variations demonstrates how well the harpsichord produces different expressive colors, and suggests Bach must have been aware of this capability when writing for the instrument.

Take a listen to another performance of the Variations of the harpsichord:

Pianist András Schiff performs the Goldberg Variations at Hill Auditorium on October 25.