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Category: Johann Sebastian Bach

on art, its purpose


                                Poet With Flower (2008)

                                          Stefan Caltia


wherefore art, I’ve long and often wondered,
with only a wink to Juliet’s Romeo, for my
question dug deeper, why, indeed, itself art

we build our souls on the stories we’ve 
heard, the impressions we’ve received
from voices that spoke directly to our 
senses, painters with paint, musicians
with music, writers with words, poets 
with poems

it started with fairy tales, which told of
right and wrong, good and bad, courage,
kindness, responsibility, and dire 
consequences for discord

Biblical stories also took up a lot of my own
childhood, Jesus, Adam and Eve, Moses
and the Ten Commandments, this last 
reinforced by Cecil B. DeMille’s epic

but soon enough it was Oliver TwistLittle
Nell, and by an inescapable authorial leap, 
since these were all by an irresistible 
Charles Dickens for a guy my age, Sydney
Carton, who valiantly stands in for his
friend, Charles Darnay, at the guillotine, a 
quantum, even existential, leap from 
Peter Pan and Mary Poppins 

though I had the good fortune to learn to 
read and write music as a boy, play music, 
learn about Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, 
it didn’t take anyone else much more than
their enthusiasm to see what the Beatles
were similarly doing, the Rolling Stones, 
the Supremes, they were not only singing, 
but making history, shaping it, and us, we 
followed the questions they rose, their 
responses, the effects upon ourselves
for nothing is considered until it’s 
mentioned, spoken, made clear, and they
were those prophets

the same goes for art, we see as we see
cause Monet, Picasso, Warhol showed 
us how to see, what to look at

and of course poets, Shakespeare, 
RostandDanteGoethe, to inform, each,
their individual language, and culture

I have been Philip CareyScarlett O’Hara, 
Blanche DuboisGary Cooper in High
Noon“, both Martha and George in 
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf“, lately 
I’ve been even Hank Williams

as Babette would say, a French doll who 
gets abducted in Raggedy Ann and Andy:
A Musical Misadventure“, an animated 
movie from the Seventies, – oo aahrr yoo 


psst: all of them have been me too,

“Easter Oratorio”, BWV 249 – Johann Sebastian Bach‏


                                    El Greco
                        for Martha and Chris, who still go to Easter 
                        Mass, and whom Martha calls therefore  
                        and for Staf and Annemie, who live in 
                        presently beleaguered Belgium, and 
                        who must, at this time of distress, 
                        need our prayers
having long ago lost track of the Christian
calendar, I only this week found out 
Sunday ‘d be Easter, therefore Friday
Good Friday, not that this would much 
change my daily routine, but it set me 
perusing pertinent art, I knew I could 
count on Bach for an oratorio, and sure 
enough I found it
an oratorio, as I earlier explained, is an
opera without sets or costumes, usually
associated with religious services, but 
Bach had one for every Sunday and 
every Christian feast day
after an instrumental introduction, 
reminiscent of Handel, I thought, 
Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” slips into a
lovely adagio, notable for its exquisite
oboe obligato, where the innocence 
and purity of that wind defines the 
the ceremonial pomp of the earlier 
section then returns to include 
chorus expressing triumph, the 
realization that the Lamb of God 
has returned
but soon enough, Mary, the soprano 
of a quartet of singers, each of the 
four singing according to their own – 
alto, Mary Magdalene, tenor, Simon 
Peter, bass, John the Evangelist  
voices, and accompanied by an 
utterly transcendental transverse 
flute, sings 
      “My soul, the spice that embalms 
       you shall no longer be myrrh. Only
       a crown of laurels can soothe your 
       anxious longing.”  
and knocks your socks off 
this week at market, stuffing my 
organic red pepper and a bag of 
handcrafted chips, barbecued,
designer, into my bagat their 
express counter, collecting my 
coins, my receipt, my change 
purse, my wallet, and last but not 
least, of course, my self, I sensed 
something of mine drop, looked 
dutifully aroundcould find 
nothing, wondered, and made to 
excuse me, sir, I heard behind me, 
you dropped something
a little boy, an urchin, blond hair, 
blue eyes, right out of Charles 
Dickens, I thought, eight maybe,
nine, held out a quarter, apparently 
why thank you, I replied, enchanted
and you know what, I asked, I’m 
going to give this back to you, and 
put the quarter back into his hand
the last time I did something like 
that, I saw an angel, I remembered
but that’s another story
thank you, he said back, gleaming
with the maturity of his interaction, 
though I’m not sure he wasn’t 
himself in fact also a very angel
later I thought I should’ve sent him 
for a crème brûlée, a piece of carrot 
cake, a pastry, or something, and 
berated myself for the paucity of 
my recompense
but there is a link to Easter in my 
tale, the idea of hope, revival, 
regeneration, in the possibility of
goodness reentering the world, a
task inherited by the children, and 
whom we must not lead astray
apart from its more traditional 
associations, for perhaps the less 
observant, people of other creeds 
and faiths, if Easter means anything 
still, or has ever, it is about just that, 
hope, revival, regeneration, nor must 
we ourselves betray those ideals   
happy Easter 

“Christmas Oratorio” – Johann Sebastian Bach‏

"Nativity" - Piero della Francesca

Nativity (1470 – 1475)

Piero della Francesca


on the first day of Christmas, which
is to say December 25, 1734, the first
cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio“,
“The Birth”, was presented at the
Nikolaikirche, or the Church of St
, in Leipzig

it was followed by five other cantatas,
each corresponding to its own
elaboration of the holy event

the Annunciation to the Shepherds, December 26, 1734
the Adoration of the Shepherds, December 27, 1734
the Circumcision – if you can believe it – and Naming of Jesus, January 1, 1735
the Journey of the Magi, January 2, 1735
and the Adoration of the Magi, January 6, 1735

the cantatas are usually played in
groups of three, or in their entirety,
to more easily accommodate too
either long, or short, performances
– the cantatas last only about 25
minutes – though Leipzig, and other
neighbouring communities might
still adhere to their more reverent
original position

an oratorio, of course, is an opera
without sets or costumes, usually
associated with religious services,
and, quite specifically, mostly, with
Bach’s, of whose manifestly prolific
output an astonishing 209 still

a cantata is a work for voice and
instrumentation in several
movements, or contrasting musical
episodes, in Bach’s liturgical ones,
four voices, usually, cover the
ranges, soprano, alto, tenor and
bass, they tell the story, while the
choir stand in for the angels

this performance, conducted by the
eminent Nikolaus Harnoncourt, is
from the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig
itself, the Oratorio‘s very cradle,
its stunning altarpiece, flanked by
two mighty Christmas trees, is

incidentally the soprano and the
alto voices are taken over here by
cherubs, in the obvious guise of
prepubescents, you can tell by
their missing wings

their more stentorian counterparts,
tenor and bass, are aptly authoritative,
arresting, you’ll feel utterly blessed

here’s the text in English


psst: merry, incidentally, Christmas


String Quartet no 1, “From My Life” – Bedřich Smetana‏

"Coucher de soleil sur le lac Léman" - Gustave Courbet

Coucher de soleil sur le lac Léman (1874)

Gustave Courbet


paying attention to tenuti is not as
easy as all that, you’ll have found
probably that the music’s kept on
going and you’re not so sure if
what just went by indeed was a
tenuto, so brief, however stressed,
might’ve been the impression

rubati are easier, it’s hard to miss
them when they come round, for
being spread out through the
musical passage as a
consequence of being at the very
least three notes, usually
considerably more

tenuti happen on one note only,
one fleet fish in an ebullient river
rather than a more noticeable and
synchronous school

interestingly, not many of either,
rubati, tenuti, show up in music
history until the late Romantic
Era, the mid- to late 1800s, they’d
been only theoretically, and here
and there, part of the musical
vocabulary for having had no
purchase in music written for the
harpsichord, an instrument that
had allowed only minimal
resonance, though it laid the
foundations for composition,
and therefore dictated taste
into the very mid-nineteenth
century, a whole hundred years
after the invention of the piano,
by having entrenched the ideal
of strict tempo, the reflection,
note, of an ideal, and belief
then in a scientifically cogent

that was the Enlightenment

Romanticism came along to
express the ineffable reality of
the truths of the human heart,
in contrast to merely reason –
“Le coeur a ses raisons que la
raison ne connaît point”,
Pascal, “The heart has its own
logic which allows it to
understand what the rational
mind cannot”,
though he in a
somewhat other, much more
theological, context

but the shoe snugly fits, so I’ll
wear it, though with the same
consideration I’d render the
shoes, understand, of my

you can tell we’ve reached the
late 1800s when you start
hearing tenuti, ritardandi,
atonality, for that matter, and
also obscure and eccentric

this pattern is probably more
evidenced in pictorial art,
where precision gives way to
individualized expression,
and the blurred lines of Early
Impressionism, see above

at the same time, the German
grip on the history of Western
music which it had held for a
hundred and fifty years, from
Bach to Brahms, began to loosen,
along with the idea, incidentally,
of a rationally, even irrationally,
conceived world, you can hear
it in the evolution of the tenuti,
the rubati, like canaries sense
altered conditions in a coal

note however that music itself
is as indifferent to bald facts
as mathematics, it merely
describes, doesn’t comment

listen to Bedřich Smetana, a
Czech composer, his String
Quartet no 1, “From My Life”

follows in the footsteps of
the Germans, but with a
distinctively folkloric air,
there’s even a polka

tend the tenuti, relish the
rubati, if you can identify
them, they’re milestones
to the modern

but, more than anything,



at the XVth International Tchaikovsky Competition – Dmitry Masleev‏

"Portrait of the Composer Sergei Rachmaninov" -  Konstantin Somov

Portrait of the Composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1925)

Konstantin Somov


after two superb performances on
the last day, June 20, of the Round
1 competitions, I expected to close
up shop, not listen to another
deserving competitor, skipped a
trio of competent but otherwise
uninteresting contenders, and
readied to quickly go on to the
second round nominations

Dmitry Masleev, the very last
performer, wasn’t to go down,
however, without a fight, wowed
me, despite my initial sceptical air
he delivered from the beginning an
unimpeachable Bach, followed by
a “Farewell” Sonata to rival Shino
‘s, my queen, from there it
was nowhere but up, his final
Rachmaninov dotted the i’s,
crossed the t’s, of his brilliance,
a fitting hiatus to a powerful
and significant showdown



at the XVth International Tchaikovsky Competition – Bach‏

"J.S. Bach, Wohltemp. Klav. Bd. I, No. IV. (Extrait) / (Duo de Tristesse)" -  Robert Strûbin

“J.S. Bach, Wohltemp. Klav. Bd. I, No. IV. (Extrait) / (Duo de Tristesse)” (1957)

Robert Strûbin


if I’ve been getting on their backs
about their Bachs at the Tchaikovsky
, it’s that they’re playing
Bach as though he were mediocre
Beethoven, it’s like asking Duke
Ellington to be Pink Floyd, it’s just
a completely different generation,

Bach wrote for the harpsichord, a
precursor to the piano, it could not
control the volume, nor the length
of a note, the pianoforte came
along to resolve both issues

therefore before Beethoven, who
made full use of the new invention
and worked hard the pianissimos
and the fortissimos, to degrees that
often became either inappropriate
or too authoritative, indelicate or
obnoxious if you’re not in the mood
– I remember wanting to play his so
solemn 111 at my father’s funeral,
but realized late that the first
movement was not especially in
that situation warranted, nor even
parts of the transcendental, but not
always not obstreperous, adagio –
and thumbed thus his nose at the
aristocracy, who earlier, before
the citoyens had demanded their
rights and when the world had
been considered to be of a
rational, logical order, a clock,
and as regular, would never have
tolerated such impudence

Bach and Mozart do not sway
much from strict rhythm, neither
do they alter volume much at all

so that the constant display of
heartfelt Bach and passionate
Mozart becomes cloying, and
not at all what these Classical
and Baroque masters would
have approved of

nor Beethoven, nor Chopin, for
that matter, whose strict tempo
markings didn’t include much
rubato, ritardandos, which you
could think of as milking a note,
putting velvet on your canvas,
it doesn’t work, the composition
itself unaided by bathos, pathos,
delivers, check out, of course,
Glenn Gould

Andrei Korobeinikov sat me right
down the other night with his
arresting BWV868, thrilling,
followed by more dazzling
pyrotechnics, though he fizzled,
and fractured his Beethoven, the
very 111 I care so much for, I
couldn’t even finish, you don’t
need a velvet canvas behind the
111, neither cloying ritardandos,
just skill, nor tangles of notes,
for that matter


at the XVth International Tchaikovsky Competition – the program‏‏

"Beethoven, 1987" -  Andy Warhol

Beethoven, 1987 (1987)

Andy Warhol


you’ll probably have noted, if you’ve
been following the Tchaikovsky
, that, unlike the
Rubinstein, the selection of works
is much more constrained, though
the mighties nevertheless

after the third day and into the
fourth, only one contestant has
started with anything other than
Bach, a Tchaikovsky

but unfortunately none of them but
one had given us a Bach worthy of
his name, then followed through
with, not surprisingly, a quite
competent Mozart, the cultural
conditions being not yet all that
different, aristocrats were looking
for their own music instead of the
church’s, secular instead of
ecclesiastical, therefore a tune
rather than an oratorio, Beethoven
and the Revolution would change
all that

afterwards a sonata of Mozart,
Haydn or Beethoven, the Classical
triumvirate, after which Tchaikovsky,
appropriately at this competition,
then études, either “-tableaux”,
“transcendentales”, or plain and
simple, by Rachmaninov, Liszt, or
Chopin, that’s it, you get to hear
the “Appassionata” or the “Grandes
études de Paganini”
several times
that way, sharpening discernibly
your musical ear

one was riveting, Andrey Dubov‘s

another, Lukas Geniušas transfixed
me with his opus 2, no 3, of
Beethoven, a work I usually only
ever tolerate, sending it soaring
into the bard’s later mature, and
revelatory, period

others have been competent, even
admirable, several, however, not
ready for this trial, they’ve come
without adequate preparation for
the ball

though I’ve been watching it in
my pajamas, I should talk


at the XVth International Tchaikovsky Competition‏ – Jeung Beum Sohn‏

 Jeung Beum Sohn

Jeung Beum Sohn


in the second slot, on the second day,
Jeung Beum Sohn knocks the
competition to date right out of the
ballpark, his every interpretation is
not only flawless, but a revelation

his ostinatos, his agitatos, his
diminuendos, accelerandos, his
every stirring tremolando, are
precise, nuanced, utterly convincing,
his essential spirit more oracular than
merely ever only entertaining

can anyone win after such a

I am impetuous, in my enthusiasm
I’ve promoted it seems already
undeserving contestants, all of
which have nevertheless excited
my undiluted appreciation, though,
apparently, ultimately unwarranted

it appears this competition is
holding out for utter stars,
wondrous elucidators of our
still profoundly influential cultural
heritage, in a manner I deem, and I
use the words advisedly,
determinedly transcendental

check it out


the flow (with a representative performance of Bach)

"The Kitchen"  - Pablo Picasso

The Kitchen (1948)

Pablo Picasso


having forgotten that I’d left a candle
in the kitchen, I thought, is that what
you’re going to strike me with,

and then I thought, who’s you

certainly not some Creator with a
white beard and a vengeance, or
even, for that matter, without a
vengeance, even empathy, a
buddha, a guardian angel

no, “you” would be the order of
things, the flow

I spread my arms, and ceded to

to be one with the flow, I thought,
that’s the Force, there was no
getting around it

to be at one with the Force,

then I remembered the chicken
drumsticks in the ginger cherry
sauce I’d left in the oven

which turned out nevertheless



for perfect coconut rice,
1 cup of coconut milk,
available in most high-end
food stores, one of water,
one of rice, of course, your
pick, bring to a boil, lower
heat, simmer covered for
45 minutes, an hour, or as
soon as you remember
you left it on the stove,
turn off heat, add a
tablespoon of butter, lime

serve with chicken
drumsticks in ginger
cherry sauce

and, of course, wine

Glenn Gould‏

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould


if you think I can talk, listen to Glenn
tell in spades what I’ve only
ever been able to tell in clubs, or,
as we say in French, trèfles, clover,
a piece of music can say more than
just hello, great ones are oracular,
even transcendent

if ever they made a movie of my life
I want Glenn Gould to play me, even
the wonderful Colm Feore, I think,
couldn’t as effectively manage it


psst: here’s more, incandescent, Bach,
Glenn Gould playing his signature
, just click