JS Bach’s forebears – Day 2, rehearsal (22 September)

A misunderstanding between the organ and the harpsichord tuners means that today’s rehearsal (2.30pm at the Warehouse) nearly opens with a discord a hundred times worse than anything that Baroque tuning could have come up with – a short postponement is necessary to restore instruments to well-temperament, and Richard to well-temper. While we wait, how about a refresher course on these Bachs that we’re singing? Heinrich Bach was J S’s great uncle. Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were Heinrich’s sons. To tie everything back in neatly, Johann Michael’s daughter Maria Barbara was J. S.’s first wife. This woman would spend half of her remaining years pregnant with the composer’s offspring, bearing him seven children, four of which survived to adulthood. Her successor in the matrimonial bed, Anna Magdalena, outdid even this impressive feat, giving birth 13 times in 19 years! Of the two women, it seems that Maria Barbara’s genetic stock was musically superior: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel were her boys, whilst Anna Magdalena could only boast the lesser scions, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, the “London” Bach. Oh, and another passing item of trivia: the Germans never “call” the Bachs as we do by their initials – nor indeed anyone. I learnt this in Germany about ten years ago when, a wet-eared modern languages undergraduate, I was charged with introducing a change to the programme in a concert being given by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. I solemnly attributed the substitution to “Yot Ess Bach” and was made instantly aware, by the medium of a hundred schmirks and schnorts, that I had made a J. S. Boob.

Well, the arrival of the players is just the treat we were expecting. The sonorities of Ich danke dir, Gott are doubled – and that chaconne in Meine Freundin, du bist schön is a blinder! Pavlo Beznosiuk (violin) is all over it, though he modestly pretends that he finds it difficult. What we didn’t necessarily expect was that the instruments would be helping us with the characterisation of the words. But an on-the-spur-of-the-moment decision whilst rehearsing Liebster Jesu, hör mein Flehen, for example, brings splendid results. This piece is a “Dialogue cantata”, imaginatively dramatising Jesus’ miraculous cure of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, recounted in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels. Anyone coming to the concerts in Cambridge or London will hear how Philippa Hyde, singing the Canaanite woman, has been allocated an accompaniment of violas and theorbo; Richard Latham, singing Jesus, a backing band of organ, cello and violins. It’s more than a nice touch. Just as a good wardrobe both enhances audiences’ appreciation of characters and boosts actors’ confidence in their projection of characters, so these very different continuo halos are helping Philippa and Richard inhabit and inflect their lines – and, come tomorrow and Friday, they’ll be helping to enhance our audiences’ understanding and appreciation of the drama. It’s like H.D. Bach, sorry, like Bach in H.D. There was no H.D. Bach. Or was there?

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