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English Bach Quotes from Johann Sebastian Bach to Alfred Dürr

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Henrik Bakager, Danish teacher and musicologist
Rick Beato, American musician, music producer and teacher
Victor Borge (1909-2000), Danish pianist and entertainer
Malcolm Boyd (1932-2001), English musicologist
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), German composer
David Bruce (b. 1970), British composer and YouTube performer
Julian Clarkson, Baritone, Monteverdi Choir (2000)
Collins Encyclopedia of Music (1959/1976)
Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), English ethologist and evolutionary biologist
Alfred Dürr (1918-2011), German musicologist

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Well-tempered Clavier. or preludes and fuges through all the tones and semitones, both as regards tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertiam minor or Re Mi Fa. For the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning, as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study, drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach p.t. Capellmeister to His Serene Highness, the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, etc., and Director of his chamber music. Anno 1722.

The Well-Tempered Clavier I (title page)

I cast my lot, in the name of the Lord, and made the journey to Leipzig, took my examination, and then made the change of position. Here, by God’s will, I am still in service. But since (1) I find that the post is by no means so lucrative as it was described to me; (2) I have failed to obtain many of the fees pertaining to the office; (3) the place is very expensive; and (4) the authorities are odd and little interested in music, so that I must live amid almost continual vexation, envy, and persecution; accordingly I shall be forced, with God’s help, to seek my fortune elsewhere.

Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. I am married for the second time, my late first wife having died in Cöthen. From the first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living, whom Your Honor will graciously remember having seen in Weimar. From the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living. My eldest son is a Studiosus Juris, and of the other two [from the first marriage], one is in the prima class [the last class of school] and the other in the secunda, and the eldest daughter is also still unmarried. The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both vocaliter and instrumentaliter within my family, particularly since my present wife sings a good, clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly.

Excerpt from a letter written 28 Oct 1730 to Georg C. Erdmann, Danzig

It cannot remain unmentioned that so many poorly equipped boys, and boys who have no talent at all for music, have been accepted into the school to date that the quality of music has necessarily declined and deteriorated. And those who do bring a few precepts with them when they come to school are not ready to be used immediately.

The thorough bass is the most perfect foundation of music, being played with both hands in such manner that the left hand plays the notes written down while the right adds consonances and dissonances, in order to make a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God and the permissible delight of the spirit; and the aim and final reason, as of all music, so of the thorough bass should be none else but the Glory of God and the recreation of the mind. Where this is not observed, there will be no real music but only a devilish hubbub.

Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

I have always kept one end in view, namely, with all good will to conduct a well-regulated church music to the honor of God.

My masters are strange folk with very little care for music in them.

I was obliged to be hard-working. Whoever is equally hard-working will succeed equally well.

Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret.

What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.

Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.

It is the special province of music to move the heart.

It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.

Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.

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Henrik Bakager, Danish teacher and musicologist

In Bach’s biographies, it is no coincidence that less flattering features of him are dimmed or not mentioned at all. First and foremost, biographers want to create a religious composer, a mythical hero who worked devoutly and dutifully in the service of God. If he did not sit on the organ bench shrouded in rushing sounds that rose as an unspoken tribute to the Lord, then he sat almost in holy prayer in the study and wrote cantatas. But because the music is about God and sounds divine, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the composer is either.

In 1802, Johann Forkel published the first biography of Bach in the hope that he would not be forgotten but, on the contrary, preserved as a national treasure. At that time, no one could imagine how important Bach would be to generations of musicians and composers and to music research and history writing. Only because of the Bach research in the 19th century, interest arose in otherwise forgotten Baroque composers such as Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Scarlatti and Telemann. The Romantics knew that Bach’s music was unique and contained an incomprehensible beauty, but they were unable to understand the composer behind the works from a time period other than their own. Today, everybody agree on the depth and greatness of Bach’s music, but concerning the question of who the composer was, it’s another matter.

Bach was no more of a church musician than he had left the organ office completely as a 32-year-old, though he could easily have secured an attractive position with the reputation he had. Today, many still mistakenly believe that Bach was employed as an organist throughout his life. This reveals the profound influences of the early Bach biographies and the romantic legacy. If he was no organist, at least he became a cantor. But he had great difficulties identifying himself with the role of cantor in Leipzig. Serious quarrels with the authorities about fees, the rights of the cantor and his teaching duties taxed his energy, and in 1739 he directly said that he didn’t bother to perform the passions, because it was a burden to him anyway. He rarely signed letters and never his title pages with cantor, but instead used the more prestigious titles such as director musices, capellmeister and hoffcompositeur. He was extremely scrupulous about money and did not restrain himself from lamenting that when a healthy wind blows in Leipzig, it causes a drop in his funeral allowances.

He did not receive the inspiration to compose his works from God, but from natural musical instincts which he only through hard work and unceasing efforts managed to fully realise. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel writes that his father often worked throughout the night to uncover “the deepest secrets of harmony in the most elaborate form”.

This was Bach’s mission with his music. Discovering and crafting melodies of unique quality and letting them blend into one another in colourful harmonies. To create a balance between melody, harmony, rhythm and text, so that even the tiniest details of the work have a bearing on the whole. As a musical sculptor, he shaped his material crystal clear and perfect and at the same time so deeply moving that his music probably in all future will be a source of inspiration.

He worked his entire life searching for the innermost secrets of music and said in modesty to his students: I have had to be diligent; who is equally diligent will be able to bring it just as far.

EXCERPT FROM AN ARTICLE IN “WEEKENDAVISEN” IN CONNECTION WITH THE 250TH BACH ANNIVERSARY (JULY 2000)
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Rick Beato, American musician, music producer and teacher

Since the beginning of my channel I’ve been wanting to make a video on Bach. People have asked me: why haven’t you made one on him yet? Well, one of the reasons is: I wasn’t sure what to call it, and what it would be about. Because there’s so much to talk about. But I think I’m just gonna call it: What Makes Bach Great. I mean: what makes his music still relevant over 300 years later? Why am I talking about it right now? That’s what I want to explore.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. During that time, he left a legacy, that musicians and music historians will be delving into for centuries to come. His limitless musical explorations expressed the order of the physical and biological universe in exquisite mathematical precision and detail. His music was written to express the divine beauty in all creation, and his influence on all successive composers is unparallelled and remains so to this day.

But let’s get into what makes Bach’s music extraordinary. I wanna talk about Bach’s use of harmony. And to do that I’d like to begin with a particular Bach Cantata, which is Cantata #54: Widerstehe doch der Sünde – which translates into “Just resist sin”. It’s opening chord is one of the most striking in all of Bach’s harmonic arsenal. It was really unprecedented for the time. There’s a great video of Glenn Gould discussing this exact thing that was actually in my original edit of this video that was taken down.

That last little clip I played had a very sophisticated harmonic moment in it. It’s in bar 20 – this is the E major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, that was actually András Schiff playing it. But there’s one point in bar 20, where the bass note goes to G and you have this – a Gmaj7#5 chord. That’s actually out of the Melodic Minor scale, that is not a sound that you will hear again until the 20. century. You can say: oh, that’s just a simple suspension. Bach specifically went to that sound – he heard that sound. That is 150 years ahead of it’s time! You don’t hear that in Mozart, you don’t hear it in Beethoven, you don’t hear it in Chopin, you don’t hear those sounds until you start getting to Keith Jarrett 😊 Really, no there are some 20. century composers – if you listen to Alan Rawsthorne, he has an oboe concerto that you’ll hear lydian augmented chords.

These are the kind of sounds Bach was using in 1722 – 230 years before. At the end of the piece, András Schiff actually goes from this A diminished chord down to E major seventh resolving up to E major. These sounds are all through Bach’s music, take the very first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier in C major, he uses major seventh chords, he uses dominant seventh chords over the tonic – he has so many sophisticated harmonic devices that he uses.

Youtube video – what made bach great? (2018)
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Victor Borge (1909-2000), Danish pianist and entertainer 😊

Johann Sebastian Bach is the first of the Three B’s. As a matter of fact, he came so first that in his day he was just about the only B around (unless you count Buxtehude, and nobody counts Buxtehude much any more). Of course, there were dozens of other musical Bachs, and even some Baachs, but they were just relatives.

Although Bach often specialized in sacred pieces, he liked to have a good time as well as the next fellow. I’ve already mentioned his twenty children (possibly twenty-one). Well, he also wrote a number of cantatas that are as bright and cheerful as any comic opera of the period.

One of the brightest and most cheerful of them was prepared for the birthday party of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. Duke Christian didn’t fool around when it came to birthdays. Especially his. He invited a couple of hundred friends over, and for three weeks they had fox hunts in Weissenfels during the day, and Saxe parties in the palace at night. Bach’s Cantata came in between, and was mainly about how Sheep could Safely Graze because the Duke’s friends had chased away all the foxes.

Fortunately, Bach found enough to keep himself busy even without operas. He taught hordes of students, he inspected organs, he invented all sorts of odd musical instruments (like a lute with a keyboard, and a glockenspiel with pedals), and he composed everything from mighty masses down to cute little canons. Everything he created bore the stamp of genius, but along with that genius went hard work and pride.

That was Johann Sebastian Bach. This undertaking has been carried out to the best of my ability, he said about his Musical Offering. He could have said the same thing about his whole life.

My Favorite Intermissions (1971)
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Malcolm Boyd (1932-2001), English musicologist

Today a performance of the B minor Mass or the Brandenburg Concertos can be relied on to fill a cathedral or a concert hall, and festivals devoted largely or exclusively to Bach are a common-place in the musical calendar.

Every generation of music lovers seems to find in the works of this incomparable artist that Gemütsergötzung, that “refreshment of the spirit”, which his title-pages promised, and which his music so richly provides.

“BACH” (MASTER MUSICIANS SERies) (1967)
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Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), German composer

Study Bach, there you will find everything.

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David Bruce (b. 1970), British composer and YouTube performer

If you spend some time with Bach chorales you start to understand how it’s made up like a bit of a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Each line has to function as a singable line in it’s own right. But it also has to fit into this harmonic structure as it goes along, and understanding that will, I think, help you tremendously whatever kind of music you make.

So why did I call Bach a dangerous composer? Well, I think he’s only really dangerous for us classical composers. We all have a sense of Bach as being like the pinnacle, the Mount Everest, of composers if you like. His music seems to have this perfect balance and purity. Those melodic and harmonic elements are perfectly integrated, the parts are built from independent lines, and the pieces are built from single ideas played forwards, backwards and upside down. It’s all pure balanced and logical.

So because Bach’s music is so good, so universally loved, so timeless, it’s tempting to think that his is the model we should follow. So if we don’t have independent parts but we happen to like melodies with chordal accompaniments we must be somewhere further down that mountain range. And if we don’t develop everything from one small idea and instead grab things from multiple sources, maybe even multiple cultures, then we’re further down still. Bach becomes like a fantasy of purity, and I’ve seen composers time and again aspiring after his purity and perfection who end up writing slightly turgid academic pieces which technically are beautifully integrated and beautifully merry the 2D of the melody with the 3D of the harmony but the emotionally have nothing to say. It’s genuinely hard because part of the joy of trying to compose is pitting yourself against the great minds of the past and seeing how far up that mountain range you can climb.

But I suppose what I’m saying is: you don’t have to do all of those things to be still a really great composer – Debussy, Tchaikovsky and many others tended to write a melody with a chordal accompaniment, so not all the parts feel independent. And many fabulous composers seem to write really unique pieces despite drawing influences from all over the place. Are these composers further down that mountain range than Bach? Well perhaps, but they still write really great music. And I think it would be good if some of us were humble enough to aim for these slightly lower but still glorious peaks, instead of freezing to death, starved of oxygen, aiming for Mount Everest 😊

YOUTUBE VIDEO – Is BACH The Most DANGEROUS Composer? (2019)
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Julian Clarkson, Baritone, Monteverdi Choir (2000)

If you just want a very personal view on what this year has meant as far as the music is concerned, it has shown that Bach is an astonishing versatile man. Whatever sort of mood you’re in now, or I’m in, I can feel I can almost pick a text appropriate to my mood and find it’s been set by Bach in the most appropriate way, and I find it immensely reassuring, somehow.

during John Eliot Gardiner’s bach pilgrimage tour (2000)
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Collins Encyclopedia of Music (1959/1976)

The chief influences in Bach’s music are the Lutheran chorale, the church and organ music of his predecessors and the contemporary French and Italian styles in instrumental music. In his lifetime he had a great reputation as an organist, but his music was considered by many to be over-elaborate and old-fashioned.

He combined extraordinary contrapuntal skill with a mastery of picturesque and passionate expression. His genius required no special stimulus; it overflowed the channel of his daily employment. His music was written for a practical purpose – for the court orchestra at Köthen, for the Sunday service at Leipzig, for the instruction of his sons, for the gratification of patrons, and for his own use.

Bach was a universal musician, whose music has a universal appeal. It is steeped in the flavour of its period, yet belongs to all time.

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Richard Dawkins (b. 1941), English ethologist and evolutionary biologist

Desert Island Discs is a British Broadcasting Corporation programme in which somebody each week is cast away on a desert island and has to tell the presenter what 8 records he or she would take, and the idea is to spin a little story of your life using this music. And one of the records was from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. This is a religious piece obviously, it’s about the passion of Christ.

The presenter, who was obviously in a sort of weak way religious herself, couldn’t understand why I chose this religious piece. It’s an extraordinary shallowness of understanding on her part – did she really imagine that I couldn’t enjoy a work of fiction, a novel, because I know that the characters in the novel aren’t real? I mean, it’s the most astonishingly reduced and shallow point of view. Of course you can appreciate great music even though it is about the passion of Jesus whom you don’t actually believe had a passion. It’s fiction, and it’s great fiction, it’s great music, Bach’s music is sublime, that particular aria is just wonderful as much of Bach is – Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, these are supreme achievements of the human spirit – Shakespeare is another – and who would be so blind, who would be so deaf, as not to revel in these supreme achievements of humanity.

interview in connection with the release of “A better life: 100 atheists speaks out on joy and meaning in a world without god” (2013)
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Alfred Dürr (1918-2011), German musicologist

Johan Sebastian Bach´s idea of composing a collection of preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys was new and revolutionary in the second decade of the 18th century, particularly when considering that the tuning in use up to then distributed pure and “impure” intervals irregularly throughout the keys. The result was that one could play very well in many keys, but not at all in others.

Of course, there had long been attempts to make all keys accessible to musical practise; Andreas Werckmeister’s Musikalische Temperatur was perhaps the best known. In their works, however, composers generally avoided the keys of the circle of fifths which were the most distant from C major, the point of departure. In fact, as late as in 1728, Johann David Heinichen reported that compositions were only rarely written in the keys of B major and A-flat major, and never in F-sharp major and C-sharp major.

Thus, after a few ephemeral attempts by various composers, Bach was the first to conquer the entire breath of tonality in his Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, thus providing the musical world with a masterpiece of keyboard literature.

The Well-Tempered Clavier I – Bärenreiter (2002)


Check out the Carus Choir app, if you are a choir singer !

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