Tag Archives: J.S. Bach

What Bach’s job benefits tell us


In the middle of my current Bach mini-0bsession, I’ve come across a couple interesting things.

The first, and not hard to find, was that I can see the entire documentary of the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir cantata pilgrimage of 1999-2000 on YouTube, and it’s a beautiful thing. This is one of the last major cultural documents from the pre-9/11 era, for me, and it’s poignant to see in the New York section of the program the World Trade Center standing there where it was supposed to be.

But aside from the shading that piece of history casts on the enterprise, this was a remarkable effort, and I would imagine being part of it was extraordinary and something you would never forget. I have cherished my Vol. 15 set of the cycle for some years now, and it’s good to see what part it played in the larger story.

The other thing I’ve found interesting is in the economic arena. J.S. Bach, as we read in Christoph Wolff’s solid, illuminating biography (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician), did well for himself when he took a job in Weimar in 1708, when he would have been around the same age as a college graduate today:

And with an initial salary of 150 florins plus incidentals (18 bushels of wheat, 12 bushels of barley, four cords of firewood and 30 pails of tax-free beer) , he could indeed look forward to “a better living,” as his Muhlhausen resignation letter reads.

In addition, as a court servant (he was the organist) he was entitled to lodging in one of several buildings reserved for court employees in the middle of town.

JSBach.jpgFirst, there’s the money, and if we use Wolff’s table at the back, we find that 150 florins was roughly equal to somewhere under $9,500 in 2000 dollars, which is around $11,700 today, according to a couple of calculators I used on the Net. So Bach at 23 was making a little less annually than the pastor of a church,  but about three times as much as a barber, if we can take wages from the 1720s and assume they were comparable a few years earlier.

Not bad, and at this time in his life he already had a reputation as one of the most brilliant young musicians in the German states. But what I find really interesting are the benefits.

Imagine if today you were to get a job in which you would get not just your salary, but guaranteed housing, as well as the equivalent of wheat, barley, beer and wood. In other words, you’re getting bread as well as fuel to heat the house and do cooking. So it would be as though you got your job at some company somewhere, and in addition to a decent salary, you’d get a place to live, as well as some of your power costs and food staples taken care of.

That’s a pretty good deal. Say you worked at Acme Widgets in its accounting department. They pay you $30,000 a year. Then in addition they pay most of your power costs — somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 a year — plus enough wheat and barley to make bread all year round, and the table suggests that the 30 bushels of wheat and barley was worth in the neighborhood of $2,000.

So you get free housing, $30K a year, plus $4,000 for food and energy costs. Well done, Sebastian! And that’s not even counting the beer!

When was the last time an American employer paid its workers anything but salary? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a Cost of Living Voucher along with the salary, plus a Beer Voucher to go along with that? Is there anything else we generally require? This also is at a time when you weren’t expected to keep horses and a carriage for yourself that you bought from Dietrich down at Hohenstaufen Motors. Transportation was on foot or it was public, unless you were an aristocrat, in which case you hired people to do that.

The real fact of the matter is that we as workers in today’s global economy are required to support a gigantic industrial complex that influences most of the laws under which we live and which burdens us to the point of bankrupcty. We have to have cars, which cost far more to buy and operate than most of us have, but we don’t have any choice if we live in a place like South Florida; we have to pay for power, which for most of human history we provided ourselves; we’re forced to subsidize the private insurance industry on pain of breaking the law; if we’re ordinary people the only access to credit we have is at absurdly usurious rates.

It’s a giant, bruising, endless ripoff, and sometimes it takes looking at the economic arrangements of people a few centuries ago to see how out of whack things have become. Sure, not having money in the old days was just as bad as it is now, but nowadays, because we are forced to support so many enormous business operations, the fall is much sharper and steeper, and far more painful. And if you’re in the United States, the social services system is almost nonexistent, pace the selfless volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Bach had it pretty good in most places he worked, even though the folks in Leipzig made him tear off his peruke from time to time and curse in a manner most unbecoming a Lutheran church official. And I think we should recognize that and insist our employers help us meet cost of living right off the bat.

Beer vouchers for everyone!

Music to work by

art-of-painting-trumpet.JPGI”ve found that I can work much better at repetitive or research-intensive tasks that require a lot of sitting here and staring if I have good brain music to work by.

When I last was a member of Cubicle Nation (and I was a member of 25 years’ standing, too), one of the pieces that helped me enormously in concentrating and getting down to business with a particularly recalcitrant office duty was the The Art of Fugue, J.S. Bach’s very last composition, and one that’s famously unfinished. The recording I listened to was that of the Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva, and I must have favored it for brain work for somewhere in the neighborhood of two years running.

Although The Art of Fugue has the usual Baroque downside of being mostly in the same key throughout (D minor), this is an astonishing piece of music, and remarkable for study purposes. Bach is able to take the unlikeliest permutations of his theme, a melodic fragment of very humble promise, and make spellbinding music out of it. A good case in point is the 13th fugue, a 3-voice construct that begins with some closely argued triplets that soon share pride of place with a jaunty dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth pattern. These combine to exhilarating effect; I know from my days as a modal counterpoint student that dealing with any fugue subject more complicated than five or six notes, half of them long and slow, would be a daunting task indeed, and here’s Bach with a blizzard of triplets and then a march version of that same rhythm for his subject, and it’s brilliant.

I greatly enjoyed the Nikolayeva recording, but I didn’t take it with me when I left work for the last time, and so last week I borrowed the Pierre-Laurent Aimard recording from the library. This was also extremely fine playing — I admire his discs of the Messiaen Vingt Regards, as I’ve mentioned — but there’s something kind of detached about it. I wasn’t as involved in it as I was the older Russian recording, which, stereotypically enough, was more soulful, mysterious and emotional.

But the Aimard was excellent music to work by, and I’ve found Bach in general good for cerebellum exercises. I have a fine recording of Richard Goode playing three of the Bach partitas, and his recording of two of the Mozart piano concerti (Nos. 23 and 24) also works beautifully for letting the mind work for sustained stretches.

This raises an interesting question, and that of course is whether the music is best-suited for background music. Certainly composers of an earlier day wrote with the expectation that much of their music was supplying ambient sound of a general kind. And while Bach and Mozart are revered, as they should be, how many minds wander far afield while their pieces are played in today’s concert halls?

Once I heard the Russian pianist Kosntantin Lifschitz play the first 12 preludes and fugues from both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it was an absorbing experience. I had studied the pieces for years, and I brought my study scores with me to check for interpretive niceties, but it was still incredible to hear these pieces come alive as they did at the hands of a gifted player.

But that was a special kind of listening, and I was prepared for it by years of study and playing the preludes and fugues through on my own battered upright. I recognized several other people in the audience as well-known area musicians and pedagogues, so they were a special audience, too.

What I’m wondering is whether when I listen to it with half my brain while the rest is working on something else, am I paying it the ultimate sign of disrespect?

Or is the music protean enough to work fine as mental wallpaper but also be available to reveal the highest artistic achievement when you’ve got time to listen to it?

I think it’s the latter; it’s surely true that truly bad music that works fine as wallpaper won’t stand up under scrutiny, so it’s logical to think that great stuff is ready to show its greatness when you can give it the attention it deserves.

In the meantime, I’m grateful for the malleability of Bach, and he’s helped me get through a lot of computer work I would gladly have bypassed had I that option. If anyone else has a list of good music to work by, please post it and share your ideas.

Dinnerstein disc a winner, and so is Lasser piece


The New York-born pianist Simone Dinnerstein has been getting a lot of good press lately, and there are ample reasons for it.

Her Berlin concert album, released earlier this year, features the pianist in music by Bach and Beethoven,  as well as a new American piece, by Philip Lasser, based on a Bach chorale.

This, to my ears, is beautiful Bach playing of a very high order, limpid, energetic and deeply soulful. Her ornamentation is crisp and precise, and her counterpoint sounds natural rather than fussy.  She has a way of making a page of modest-looking Bach text, such as the French Suite No. 5 (BWV 816) she plays here,  come alive and fill the hall.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Bach performances, that of Tatiana Nikolayeva playing the Art of Fugue, in its inhabiting of the Bach sound world yet making it come across as intensely personal (the Sarabande of  the suite is a fine case in point).  I don’t find it surprising that Dinnerstein’s favorite composer is Bach, and it’s a pleasure to hear these works more frequently on piano programs. There’s no other single composer who can teach the interested musician so much about music, primarily because the lesson of Bach is the lesson of the importance of every single note.

The Beethoven is the final piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, and Dinnerstein brings to this task the same linear clarity as she does to the Bach. Beethoven became more interested in older counterpoint as he aged, and that focus is clear in her playing of the second movement arietta and variations. But the first movement is every bit as good, with a kind of springy power that works ideally for this bold, fascinating work from the composer’s last days.

But it’s the other piece on the program (there’s an encore of the 13th variation from Bach’s Goldberg set) that holds extra interest for me. It’s a set of a dozen variations on Nimm von uns, Herr, du Treuer Gott, from Bach’s Cantata 101, where it closes the work. Philip Lasser is a 45-year-old American composer who teaches at Juiilliard, and here he has written a first-class piece of contemporary music that respects its source in such a way that the variations grow organically from the chorale and create their own narrative structure.

lasserThis might sound like nothing particularly to get excited about, but it makes the difference between an interesting piece of music and a truly good piece of music. Any number of composers can go through the Riemenschneider collection of Bach chorales (this one is No. 292) and devise any number of creative things to do to it. But Lasser’s approach is to develop the variations naturally, so that they have their own dramatic arc.

Lasser’s voice is perhaps more noticeable in the approach than in any specific variation; the sixth variation, for instance, is a marvelous finger exercise that owes a debt to Rakhmaninov, as does the acrobatic 10th variation, with its aggressive chordal figures and extensive use of the piano’s registers. There’s something of the Mendelssohn Variations Serieuses behind the whole work, too, perhaps not directly, but by key and the overall integrity of both composer’s approach.

Maybe the most personal of the variations is the ninth, which uses the first few notes of the chorale as a murmuring mood setter that gets interrupted, or cleansed, by a short melodic statement that serves as a lovely response to the murk of the opening. Lasser’s language, again, is quite conservative and indebted to late Romantic models, but this is a beautiful piece and holds its own admirably in titanic company.

The other interesting thing about the Lasser piece is that this composer is published by a company called Editions Rassel, a house with three composers on its roster and a mission statement that says it is devoting its energies to publishing composers who write in a tonal tradition. I like that idea, not because I’m opposed to atonality, but because it directs performers to a body of music that stands to reach contemporary audiences more immediately than more experimental pieces, and that could be a good way of stretching the boundaries of the repertory (the Rassel Website has plenty of MP3s on the site for interested listener).

Whether this or any other contemporary music lasts, of course, will be a judgment of history. But at least it can be said that Philip Lasser has added a fine new piece of piano music to the repetory, and he has in Simone Dinnerstein a most persuasive advocate.

Here’s a nice film excerpt of Dinnerstein playing Bach on YouTube:


When comfort and chamber music meet

A brief entry today to second the words of Amanda Ameer, whose Life’s a Pitch blog can be found on ArtsJournal.com, which I now realize I have neglected to add to my blogroll until now.

In this piece, Ameer cheers a New York Times effort to review two perfomances by the Emerson String Quartet, one at Avery Fisher Hall and the other at Joe’s Pub.

The NYT‘s Vivien Schweitzer is right on the money when she points out that chamber music’s origins are as humble and matter-of-fact as they can be, and that many of the great 19th-century works were literally Hausmusik, designed to be played in everyday homes. It’s harder to imagine now because we’re so used to radio and television obliterating home music-making, but it used to be a normal middle-class thing to do.

I think, too, that much chamber music would be better off heard in a less formal setting . How many string quartet recitals have I heard in which a large stage in a big hall has to be fitted with baffles to that the compression of the sound can actually be brought across to the audience, and indeed, so the players on stage can actually hear each other?

It’s not the right format for chamber music, and I would welcome a series hereabouts in which chamber players gathered at some decent informal place to offer up some music. There are plenty of attendant problems: the Delray String Quartet always plays at the Colony Hotel in downtown Delray, but the noise from the street is often overpowering. And anyone who’s ever played while people are eating or drinking knows that playing is only half the battle; it’s being heard above the clank and clatter of cutlery and glasses that can really get in the way.

But surely something with some common-sense rules would do the trick. A quartet appears at a restaurant in a side room; if you want to hear it, have your brunch, then go into the side room, but only coffee and other drinks in paper cups allowed, or something. It might at once pay respect to the idea of informality and respect for the players and the music at once.

I’m reminded of the photos of the room at the club in Busseto where Verdi’s first pieces were heard, or of the drawings of Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig (at left), where new music by J.S. Bach could be heard as town worthies talked politics and sipped hot Turkish brew. It all seems quite cozy, and I would like to see some more of it.

Maybe I’ll have to fund a series myself and see whether I can get it to work.