The Brilliance of Bach's Double

On the program:

Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 539 (trans. Alexander Goedicke) - Hamish Milne, piano

Cantata BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (translation) - Sandrine Piau, soprano; Klaus Mertens, bass; Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor

Concerto in D minor for two violins, BWV 1043 - Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz, violins; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 545 (arr. Arthur Honegger) - BBC Philharmonic, Leonard Slatkin, conductor


Brian McCreath [00:00:08] Through the course of roughly a half century, J.S. Bach built a catalog of music that's been, for hundreds of years now, the foundation for Western art music. He was deliberate about it, charting a course through the various styles and forms of music that mattered most to the culture of his time. Along the way, he learned from others, absorbing ideas from far away and reshaping them in his own voice. Antonio Vivaldi was one who Bach admired the most, and the Italian Concertos proved to be a creative spark. Bach arranged several of Vivaldi's pieces, and also took the template in his own direction to create works like this, the Concerto for Two Violins.

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BM [00:01:06] The brilliance of Bach's double is coming up on The Bach Hour.

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BM [00:01:20] Hello, I'm Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. The big projects that occupied Bach's life as a composer encompassed everything from collections of short harpsichord pieces to monumental sacred choral works. Concertos were, you might say, a side hustle, something Bach would put together for the Friday night concert series he ran for a number of years. But these works, especially the Double Violin Concerto, nevertheless remain some of the composer's most popular. You'll hear why later on.

[00:01:52] Also on the program is Bach's Cantata No. 47, "Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden," or "Whoever exalts himself will be abased." And if you'd like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston's Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at First, here is music originally for the pipe organ, and arranged for piano by Soviet composer Alexander Goedicke. This is pianist Hamish Milne with the Prelude and Fugue in G Major, here on The Bach Hour.

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BM [00:10:35] This transcription of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G Major, originally for the pipe organ and performed here by Hamish Milne, is one of several by Alexander Goedicke, who, even though he was an organist, joined other Soviet composers in exploring Bach's organ works through the piano as pipe organs through the Soviet era fell into disrepair. I'm Brian McCreath. You're listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB. The human tendency towards arrogance is at the heart of Bach's Cantata No. 47. It begins by quoting a parable from the Gospel of Luke: "Whoever exalts himself will be abased, and whoever abases himself will be exalted."

[00:11:11] Like those parables, it's something of a riddle that leads to a certain kind of mental twisting and turning, which Bach reflects in that first movement through a brilliant fugue for the chorus.

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BM [00:11:37] The soprano soloist then begins to take apart that saying, singing a plaintive melody at first for the words, "Humility originates from Jesus's kingdom."

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BM [00:11:54] And then turning more aggressive for the words, "Arrogance is like the devil. God teaches everyone to hate it so that pride does not prevail."

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BM [00:12:17] The bass soloist continues with words that are blunt and uncompromising: "Mankind is dung, filth, ashes and earth. Be ashamed, proud creature. Repent and follow Christ's footsteps." Not exactly inspiring words to 21st century ears. But though the words are harsh, the music is filled with beauty and nuance.

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BM [00:12:56] The text of this piece was written by a court official in Eisenach. And its judgmental tone, born of its time and place, probably wouldn't play well were it written today. But on the other hand, the general idea of calling arrogance to account is still a part of everyday culture and discourse. In that sense, Bach's music can lift ideas out of their 18th century trappings to carry a relevance to this day.

[00:13:21] Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our website, Here's a performance of the Cantata No. 47 with soprano Sandrine Piau, and bass Klaus Mertens. They're joined by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, all directed by Ton Koopman here on The Bach Hour.

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BM [00:33:01] Bach's Cantata No. 47 uses words and phrases that are unlikely to inspire or uplift the modern spirit. But if the language is harsh, it's worth remembering that the Protestant Reformation was a battle still being fought across Europe at the time it was written. A stern evaluation of oneself fit right in with a worldview that was equally stern in its evaluation of others. If the printed words fail to inspire us today, Bach's music offers the possibility of processing those words with beauty, grace and meaning. This performance of the Cantata 47 was by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir and directed by Ton Koopman. The soloists included soprano Sandrine Piau and bass Klaus Mertens.

[00:33:46] Bach wrote brilliantly for virtually every musical instrument in use during his day, including some that were already fading into obscurity. He was known as one of the greatest organists of his time, so much so that he was regularly called to cities and towns around northern Germany to evaluate and test newly built instruments. But when he was a boy growing up in his extremely musical family, it was the violin that gave him his first means for musical expression. Later, as he lived into his life as a composer of monumental works for organ, harpsichord, orchestra and chorus, he also continued to write concertos for the violin.

[00:34:22] As it turns out, we'll probably never hear most of them. Along with what could be dozens of cantatas, scholars believe that the majority of Bach's concertos have been lost over the centuries. But here's one that survived. This is the Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz are the soloists with a Freiburg Baroque Orchestra here on The Bach Hour.

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BM[00:50:15] The Double Concerto in D minor by J.S. Bach, performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, The soloists were the two artistic directors of that ensemble, Petra Müllejans and Gottfried von der Goltz.

[00:50:24] Just as Alexander Goedicke's circumstances in the Soviet Union were reflected in a Bach transcription you heard earlier, the time and place of Arthur Honegger, specifically France in the 1920s, reflected in his arrangement of another piece Bach wrote for the pipe organ. This is the Prelude and Fugue in C Major. Leonard Slatkin leads the BBC Philharmonic here on The Bach Hour.

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BM [00:56:06] A full range of 20th century French orchestral color, including a couple of saxophones, defines Arthur Honegger's arrangement of this Prelude and Fugue in C Major that Bach originally wrote for the pipe organ. Leonard Slatkin led the BBC Philharmonic. Remember, you can hear this program again on demand when you visit, where you can also hear the 24/7 Bach Channel. Thank you for joining me today. And thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I'm Brian McCreath and I'll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.