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Masaaki Suzuki and Bach's Italian Connections

Masaaki Suzuki outside among trees next to a church
Marco Borggreve
Harrison Parrott
Masaaki Suzuki

The conductor and organist brings Bach's fascination with Italian music to life in works inspired by Vivaldi and Pergolesi on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Concerto for Organ in D minor, BWV 596, after Vivaldi - Masaaki Suzuki, organ (Marc Garnier instrument at Shoin Chapel, Kobe, Japan)

Tilge, Hoechster, meine Suenden (Psalm 51), BWV 1083 (translation) - Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki, conductor

Concerto in A minor, BWV 593, after Vivaldi: I. Allegro - German Brass



Brian McCreath: There’s a quote that’s been attributed, in various forms, to Igor Stravinsky, William Faulkner, and Pablo Picasso, among others. Stravinsky’s version is “Lesser artists borrow. Great artists steal.” And if you take that at face value, and consider J.S. Bach to be a great artist, you won’t be surprised that the music underpinning Bach’s setting of Psalm 51, “Erase, Highest, my sins,” wasn’t originally his.


It’s a piece that was drawn from - or, yes, to use Stravinsky’s words, stolen from - Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. And you’ll hear how Bach made it his own, coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. “Stealing” to make great art may have been a clever expression from Stravinsky - and all those others. But there’s a truth in its essence. Taking in the work of another can unlock potential and ideas that simply weren't there before. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater somehow carried that power in Bach’s mind. And you’ll find a link to a translation of Bach’s work, “Erase, Highest, my sins,” at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s fascination with Pergolesi’s work came along only in the last few years of his life. But another Italian composer had a huge impact in the early stages of Bach’s artistic life. Antonio Vivaldi’s set of concertos called L’Estro Armonico, or “The Harmonic Inspiration,” were exactly that - an inspiration - for Bach, who re-wrote a number of them for organ, including this one. At the Marc Garnier instrument at Kobe Shoin University Chapel in Japan, Masaaki Suzuki performs Bach’s Concerto in D minor, after Vivaldi, here on The Bach Hour.


The geographic area that Bach lived and traveled in may have been small, especially by our standards. But he traveled far and wide musically, and one of his favorite musical destinations was Italy. The Concerto in D minor, performed here by Masaaki Suzuki, was originally a concerto by Italian master Antonio Vivaldi. And for Bach, it became a key component of his self-education, later telling family and friends that the Italian composer’s music “taught him how to think musically.”

Around three decades after Bach fashioned the organ piece you just heard from the raw material of Vivaldi’s music, he turned his attention to another Italian composer. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi had died at the age of 26 in 1736. But in his final weeks, he composed what became one of the most popular sacred works of its time, a setting of the Stabat Mater, the text that expresses Mary’s suffering as her son Jesus dies on the cross.

Bach, whose musical curiosity remained insatiable even into his sixties, was so taken with this piece that he re-cast it as the foundation of a different text - one more reflective of German Lutheran theology than Italian Catholicism and its connection to Mary. And the text he chose - or, possibly, adapted himself - is based on Psalm 51, a penitential prayer of King David that expresses a severe humility, a plea for forgiveness, and a praising of the Divine.

You can find a translation of this piece when you visit Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of “Erase, Highest, my sins,” with soprano Carolyn Sampson and alto Robin Blaze. Masaaki Suzuki leads Bach Collegium Japan, here on The Bach Hour.


J.S. Bach’s motet “Erase, Highest, my sins,” a piece musically based on Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. This performance featured Bach Collegium Japan and their director Masaaki Suzuki, with soprano Carolyn Sampson and alto Robin Blaze.

That piece was created near the end of Bach’s long life, capping off a near life-long fascination with music by Italian composers. And here’s one more trip back to Bach’s early years, when he was learning his craft by arranging Vivaldi’s concertos. This is German Brass with the opening part of Bach’s Concerto in A minor, after Vivaldi, here on The Bach Hour.


The opening part of the Concerto in A minor, originally by Vivaldi, arranged by Bach for the pipe organ, and transcribed and performed here by German Brass.

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.