Granted a wish to travel back in time, many a Bach lover would leap to Thuringia, in a pre-unified Germany, circa the early 1700s, or to Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, the courts of Weimar and Köthen, or Leipzig. There, Bach composed his concertos, suites, fugues, preludes, canons, chorales, organ works, solo pieces, as well as unique works like the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier. He wrote principally for churches and sovereigns who had his music performed in what we now call its original settings.
Of course, we can’t hear Bach’s Baroque masterworks the way his contemporaries did, though we can try. But imagine standing in St. Paul’s Church, hearing the composer play his organ works himself in the early 1720s. (Built in 1231, the church survived WWII, only to be demolished for redevelopment under the East German regime in 1968.) Imagine hearing Bach’s chamber works played in the ornate chambers of the 18th century. It’s a nice dream, but I think we’re fortunate to live in his distant future, and to have experienced his music through three-hundred years of interpretations, new arrangements and instrumentation, and thousands of recordings.
Bach might barely recognize the way some of his works have been interpreted. He might object to beloved, yet unorthodox recordings by Glenn Gould and Wendy Carlos. He might abhor the notion of recording altogether. Who knows. But the music is no longer his. As Yo Yo Ma has tried to show in his life’s work, Bach belongs to everyone. The Netherlands Bach Society shares this belief, and has endeavored to upload live performances of “All of Bach” to their website and YouTube. The opportunity to see Bach’s works performed live in Amsterdam, viewable from anywhere at any time, would seem like devilry to those in Bach’s day.
“Since the start of this unique project,” writes the Society, “more than 350 of the total of 1080 works by Johann Sebastian Bach have been performed and recorded in special ways” in this attempt to “share Bach’s music with the whole world” through “excellent audio visual recordings of the highest quality.” These performances include settings very like the originals, if very far away in time: “Cantatas are filmed in a church, for instance, and chamber music at the musician’s homes.” They also include highlights such as the Six Cello Suites at the Rijksmuseum and Brandenburg Concert no. 4 at Felix Maritis.
See highlighted performances here and just above, watch newly-added (as of February) performances of The Well-Tempered Clavier, “48 keyboard pieces in all 24 keys,” the Netherlands Bach Society notes, “the sort of challenge Bach enjoyed.” This is the composer at his freest — “In contrast to the iron discipline Bach had to apply to his church compositions, here he could abandon himself to Intellectual Spielerei without worrying about deadlines.” Help the Netherlands Bach Society continue their ambitious project with a donation here.