A Pre-Holiday Lift from Bach
When I think of the Christmas Holiday season, the composer that most often comes to mind for me is Johann Sebastian Bach.
Handel’s Messiah is wonderful, and I love it, and other Baroque composers such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Locatelli wrote beautiful pieces that fit the season, but Bach takes the cake. Maybe I heard some of the gorgeous melodies before I can remember: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Air on the G String,” “Sleepers Awake,” and numerous others.
But I was already an adult when when I first began to really listen to classical music with an intense interest, and the first music of Bach that actually motivated me enough to go out and buy a recording was the Solo Cello Suites.
The Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas followed (but that’s another story), and of course The Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, and Goldberg Variations (had to get Glenn Gould in there). The great choral works came later.
The Universal Appeal of Bach’s Music
As anyone who loves Bach’s music knows, the moods and emotions expressed range from the heights of joy to the depth of sorrow, from extroverted exuberance to profound introspection. And although he was a devout Lutheran and dedicated all his works to God, there is something so universal in his music that it has always appealed to people of any religion or no religion.
It appeals to the humanity in all of us, what we all share more than what separates us. For me, this seems especially true for the music Bach wrote for solo instruments.
The Cello Suites immediately capture us with the deep richness of the sound and then draw us in to ourselves in a solitary reverie as we listen to a great artist. And there in that solitude, paradoxically, we can realize we are not alone.
We are sharing something that came from the mind and spirit of the composer through the performer to us, and if at a live concert, with the rest of the audience. This is the real power and magic of great music: it can sometimes connect us to our common humanity beyond thoughts and words, if we are in the right frame of mind.
In addition to the more familiar and extroverted pieces from Bach, we might think of this time of year, there’s much to be said for experiencing his more inward music in a calm state of mind.
So, before all the activity and rushing around for the season gets you exhausted, or it already has and you need a break, here’s a great two minutes of up-lifting solitude with Bach and a great artist, French cellist Paul Tortelier, performing the Prelude to the first Cello Suite:
And if you want something with even greater depth and are in a reflective mood, here he is with the Sarabande from Suite No. 4: