The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: What’s new with J.S. Bach? Bach Society conference and concert this weekend to explore his context and contemporaries

May 6, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

You might think that after 300 years, there can’t be much new to say about Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Think again.

“Bach discussions can be exciting – or at least heated,” says University of Wisconsin musicologist Jeanne Swack (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), who specializes in early music, specifically the music of Georg Philipp Telemann, a contemporary and rival of Bach.

And discussing Bach is exactly what about 100 scholars from around the country will do from this Friday through Sunday as the biennial conference of the American Bach Society takes place, for the first time ever, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Swack, who also plays the recorder and the baroque flute, will host the conference, which features a concert, open to the public, by the Chicago-based period instrument group The Baroque Band (below) on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.

Tickets are $15, available only at the door.

The program includes: Biber’s “Mensa Sonora Pars I”; Telemann’s Overture in D Major; Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 4, in A Minor; Biber’s “Mensa Sonora Pars V”; and Bach’s popular Concerto for Harpsichord in D minor.

Performers are: Violinists Garry Clarke, Jeri-Lou Zike, Martin Davids, Matthew Cataldi, Dan Golleher and Isabelle Rozendaalp; vioists Liz Hagen and Susan Rozendaal; cellists Craig Trompeter and Anna Steinhoff; bassist Jerry Fuller; and harpsichordist David Schrader.

For more information about the conference and the discussion sessions, visit the American Bach Society via this link:

Swack recently spoke to The Ear about what’s new in Bach studies:

What is the theme of the conference?

What’s exciting about the conference is that while it is a Bach conference, we’re going to talk about all sorts of German composers around Bach and help put Bach in a better context.

For example, some of the earlier cantatas of Telemann have some counterpart in what Bach does. Sometimes they even use the same text.

What is the state of early music performance and research today and of Bach in particular?

I hope the issue of the chorus and using one singer per part has been settled. At least I think it has been for most Bach scholars. It is clearly right for Bach, and for Telemann too. It’s a practice that is mainstream today for most period performers.

Also, performing early music on period instruments is now the norm. At the UW, we don’t have a major in early music. We’ve had inquiries, but don’t offer it. But we have students playing period instruments – especially harpsichord and baroque flute – on a very professional level.

Is there new and major information about Bach (below) the general public should know about?

Occasionally a new small piece turns up, usually by accident or from a source we didn’t know about. Music that had been lost in World War II, for example, turns out to have been taken from Berlin and then stored in Kiev. But it has been returned to Berlin, and that has added a lot. Some interesting discoveries have been made since that music resurfaced in the late 1990s.

The story has element of a John Le Carre novel. The librarian at Kiev knew about it all along, but wasn’t allowed to say anything. It was a very big surprise.

What should the public know about Bach’s contemporaries? Was he that different from them? Or was he typical of them?

His contemporaries thought of him as a brilliant improviser, and some people who were interested in contrapuntal music thought highly of Bach. But he wasn’t a big guy at the time. He was the third choice for the position at Leipzig – Telemann came in first – but Bach was offered, and accepted, the post after the top two choices refused it.

Bach’s music in a lot of ways is very old-fashioned for the period. It was contrapuntal, which was going out of style. His music is composed in difficult manner. With a new emphasis on naturalness in the 18th century, it didn’t fit in well. Contrapuntal music wasn’t considered natural.

What are the hot areas of Bach research?

There are so many angles being taken. There is a strand of theological research in Germany about how Bach’s music fits into the Lutheran theology at the time. They’re also making an attempt to have more context – and not just focus on Bach himself. Without that, it’s hard to understand how he fits into the picture.

That’s one reason we would like people to come to the concert.  It’s going to be Bach and his contemporaries including Telemann, Biber and Handel.  It will be a compare-and-contrast kind of concert.

The group (below) hasn’t been around long, but they have a very good reputation.  It has fine players who play in other early music ensembles. And it has played here before for the Madison Early Music Festival.

Readers: If you go to the Bach conference or the concert, let us know what you thought.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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