Feature Story

Dorothy About Town: 5.2.18

I have a soft spot in my heart for the music of Bach: Watching your 8-year-old finally reach the level of Bach’s Violin Concerto in D major is a moment every Suzuki mom treasures.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get reacquainted with his music through a live performance by the Bach Society of Saint Louis. It is rather remarkable that our city has a choral group devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—and that it’s 77 years old. In fact, it’s St Louis’ oldest continuous chorus, and of course, it has an attendant orchestra. Both groups of musicians include not only professionals from the likes of the St. Louis Symphony, but also a fair number of volunteer members—accomplished musicians who are in it just for the fun of making music together.

Last month’s concert was part of a three-week series of performances held around town as part of the St. Louis Bach Festival, many of them free. Additionally, a pre-concert tutorial about the life and times of JSB was offered by Bach expert David Gordon. Although nothing can transport an audience back to the 17th century faster than the tinkling sound of a harpsichord—present onstage during the entire concert—the lecture added rich context to the featured music, three of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Who knew, for example, that these masterpieces were nearly lost to posterity? Bach was not recognized as a genius during his lifetime. In fact, he was primarily a community music director and teacher. Prior to being hired by the city of Leipzig, the city council apologized for not attracting “the best applicants” when explaining why it had to resort to second-stringers like Bach! And as for the concertos the audience heard, we have a rejection by the Margrave of Brandenburg to thank for saving them. Bach had mailed the music to him, but in some kind of snub, or fit of pique—one never knew with the nobility in those days—the nobleman tossed it aside, causing it to remain in the Brandenburg archives for more than a century. “Only because of these crazy things do we have the concertos today!” Gordon explained.

Bach, one of our most revered classical music icons, was a musician at the mercy of a nobleman, a town council or a church his entire life. He was required to provide music for church ceremonies like weddings and funerals and to teach young students not only music, but also Latin (much to his displeasure). If only he were around today to witness his dramatic change in status. Nearly 300 St. Louisans came out on a Sunday afternoon to hear his music performed live, and from the look of it, they enjoyed every minute.

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