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Happy Backs Birthday
On March 21! In honour of the event we would like to give our subscribers a free download of Bach's music. There are several pieces or suites available; a duo which we transcribed from Trio Sonata # 5, Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for baroque lute, and French Suite #5 for harpsichord. Just e-mail us with your choice and we'll send you the link. This offer is open until April 15, 2005. If you are not familiar with downloading, there are detailed instructions in 'Help'.
Happy Bach's Birthday! To celebrate, we have a few personal memories and a free download offer. Enjoying his music is much easier that playing it in a concert, as you'll certainly appreciate after reading this:
In Franz Kafka's "The Castle", a person whose name we never learn seeks entry to a local landmark, high on a hill overlooking the town. He is endlessly thwarted by bureaucrats. Kafka never finished the book.
It was our habit to present annual concerts of Bach's music on or about his birthay, March 21, the first day of spring. We continued this tradition for many years. On one occasion in Calgary, I was asked to appear on a local television show to talk about the lute, play a piece and promote the concert. It tells you something about the times that I was asked to play the lute on television to publicize a concert. The station was high on "Broadcast Hill", above the prairie city, with a tower to beam the powerful radio and TV signal to most of the southern area of the province. (Rabbit ears ears came before cable.) This station was reached by a winding road that began at the bottom of a steep hill.
In March the winds blow cold in Alberta, and finger storms come out of the mountains onto the plains, depositing large amounts of snow in whirling blizzards one day, followed by brilliant sunshine and rapid melting the next. On the day that I was to play on television, such a storm blanketed the city in at least 30 cm. of snow in a few hours. Underneath the snow, melting produced such slippery conditions that it became impossible to drive up this hill. So everyone who wanted to get to the station had to walk. I left my car at the bottom, collected my baroque lute from the hatch, and began a hike up the hill. The badly-balanced lute case banged relentlessly against my knee. By the time I reached the station, I was cold, soaked with sweat, wet-footed and exhausted. I was cordially greeted by the staff, and shown into the green room of the studio.
Anyone looking on the calendar will notice, as I had on previous occasions, that a festival of another kind is also celebrated at about this time--St. Patrick's day. St. Patrick brought the church to the tribes of Ireland, and was supposed to have driven out the snakes, though of course we now know that no snakes inhabited Ireland in the early middle ages. But the strong influence of the Irish in North America is felt every year by the celebration of this day, on which green beer is drunk, and everybody is Irish, even in Calgary. The local television program was hosted by a charming and voluble woman named Marie Hohtanz, of German origin, a dialect version of "Hoftanz", manor-house dance . The titles flashed on the screen--Marie O' Hohtanz. Everyone and everything was treated to this amusing corruption. And that, needless to say, included me and the name of the composer: Johann Sebastian O' Bach. I played the piece, the C minor Lute prelude, did my spiel, and ceded the floor to the Irish. Oh well, we commiserated later, Bach probably wanted to be Irish. That is when he wasn't wanting to be French as Jean Sebastien Bach, or Italian as Giovanni Baptista Bach.
That was not the only time that I realized that St. Patrick's Day coincided with Bach's birthday. Invited to publicize another Bach's Birthday in Vancouver, I was asked by Co-op radio to come to the studio, play a piece and talk about my work. As befits the humble status of Co-op radio, which is staffed mostly by volunteers, the station operated out of a mildewed old warren near Pigeon Park at the edge of Vancouver's notorious downtown East side. This is a strip famous for destitute indigents, alcoholism, drug dealing and prostitution. They really needed Bach. Through the condom and syringe-littered park, big enough for one tree and one bench, I wended my way, lute case still banging against my knee, up to the fourth floor of the dingy building. Having whipped through the Sarabande and Bourée of the E minor suite BWV 996, I gave an interview, and was greeted by the next radio guests, a group of Dublin emigré poets, swilling Jameson's Irish whisky, my dear old dad's favorite, from coffee mugs. Would I like to join in. Yes. Yes, I answered Yes. Yes.
The very first Bach's Birthday concert was a chance to try some of the tricks that have sustained every musician who has ever mounted concerts: putting up posters. I am a person who cannot find simple answers to problems. I must always do things the hardest way I can think of. First I had to learn how write in Gothic Blackletter in order to design a poster. I used pages of the autograph of the Well-Tempered Clavier as a background. I had the posters expensively printed on card stock, 150 of them. Those posters were works of art; some of them were "collected", I later learned.
Not just anyone was going to have one, only the really special people on my well-established route, through all the stereo and music stores, book stores and the odd florist. These people were by now well known to me, the people who can appreciate what it means to be part of community and to support the arts. Just try putting a poster up in a shopping mall. "We have a no-poster policy", they sneer. Franchisees, it appears, are actively discouraged from having anything to do with the community or support of the arts. Hockey OK, Bach, no.
To the dedicated self-presenter, it's not good enought to stick the poster at the back, on a bulletin board. It has to be in the window or on the door. One guy, the terse proprietor of a TV and stereo (do they still have those?) repair shop always used to ask, "Does it have anything to do with politics, sex or religion?". A yes would disqualify. Around I went with the posters, making absolutely sure that each and every one counted. My bag of posters, stapler, two kinds of tape and some coffee money dwindled to nothing. In the ensuing days, I watched every poster like a hawk to be sure they were still there.
This was to be our last concert before returning to Switzerland for another year of monk-like seclusion and study of our trade, the dark art of early music. Our audience of hometown fans was large by then, the theatre full. It seems a small thing now, but after I finished playing the tortuous and difficult fugue which is the centrepiece of the BWV 997 Suite, the audience interrupted the quiet with an outburst of enthusiastic applause such as I have never experienced again. It was one of the most satisfying concerts I ever gave. Days later, even the young man who packed my groceries recognized me from the concert. I guess the posters worked.
Many of the Bach tablatures on our website came about as a result of these challenging concerts. When it comes to Bach, just like Kafka's supplicant I am unlikely to gain access to the castle, I will never finish the book.
And a vignette from Bach's early days:
It is well-known that the Bach family were beer lovers. Recent musicology has shown that one of Bach's sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, died of his need for alcohol. Perhaps it was the difficulty of mastering the Two Part Inventions and Three Part Sinfonias that his father wrote expressly for him that drove him to drink. Anyway, one day J. S. (known to his drinking buddies as "Jay") was in the bar (coffee-houses came later) and his ol' pal Fritz Lauterbach was baiting him. A traditional Thuringian bar game was the subject of the argument. How many beers can you slide to very end of the bar without spilling any? The more you spill, the more you have to pay for the other guy's swilling. Fritz was in a testy mood. "You're too drunk to do this," he taunted. Insulted and angry, Bach vaulted onto the bar, and kicked a couple of steins full of beer, almost to the end, without spilling a drop. "Do that again, I dare you," said Fritz. Bach did, this time with three of the heavy clay pots. His eyes twinkled as he sneered down at his tormentor: "I'll show you who's best when it comes to two and three pint counter punt!"
From Susan's studio:
As a young piano student I played the usual favourites from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach but when I discovered the first Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavichord, as it was called in a five-flavours book of Great Piano Solos, I realized that this music was really fascinating. At that point I had some dim idea of a clavichord as a keyboard instrument, and I had no notion of what 'well-tempered' meant except that the instrument in question possibly had a nice personality. But it didn't really matter. This was unlike anything I had played before. There was no obvious melody, just a moving texture of wonderful harmonies which changed slowly. I loved to bling through the piece over and over, with Lots of Pedal. I was hooked.
Bach's work has been part of my life since that time. Piano studies led to the harpsichord, opening up new (old) possibilities of colour and texture to bring out the strong architecture and inventiveness of the music. It's not always rosy; staring down the barrel of an all-Bach recital at ten minutes to eight can lead one to comtemplate deep analysis. But I can rely on the brilliant composition to sustain the listener's concentration, in spite of the usual distractions which occur in concerts. Among these we have had; a mouse running under my bench, two seven-year-old boys conducting a mini-war in the front row, a loudspeaker announcing that someone had left their car lights on, and a giant potato bug creaking inexorably across the stage.
Playing a complex piece of Bach is about the most fat-free fun you can have. I'm still hooked. To quote an old friend, "Bach's music goes on and on, but it is never boring."
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