I love learning new things about a person I’ve known for a long time. For example, I had no idea that William McDonald (Bill), this guest post’s writer (and my husband), considers himself a “completist.” I love the word he’s made up. I love the project idea. I love hearing Bach’s music floating in through our windows from the garage, where Bill has his “office-music listening studio.” I am going to think about whether I am a completist about anything. — PBB
All of the Bach in the World by William McDonald
I am listening to the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach as published by a label called “Brilliant Classics.” One of their hallmarks is that they publish complete works of composers. The Bach collection includes 155 CDs. I am currently 71 CDs into the collection.
What inspired me to do this was the realization that I am a “completist” (I like to have complete collections of things: book series, stamps, music, etc.). But I began to think that the act of collecting a composer’s music might not be “complete” without listening to each piece that makes up the complete works of the composer. I wanted to understand Bach’s music. And to accomplish that goal, I needed to dig deep and listen to every note he had composed. I hope it gives me insight not only into his work, but the production of all creative work.
How can anyone compose over 1100 pieces of music that end up surviving for over 250 years?
In Bach’s case, he had natural talent – clearly – but as a court composer and composer of sacred music he also had to show up and get to work each and every day. Much of his career as a church composer required him to produce new liturgical music – primarily cantatas (vocal works for soloists, choir, and small ensemble) – every week. Imagine: a new composition of musical complexity, composed, orchestrated, copied out in the various parts, rehearsed and performed in 6 days. Weekly for a number of years.
How do people who are good at what they do get so good at what they do? Is it by having a basic talent and then just doing, doing, doing over and over again?
I anticipated my “Bach Project” taking me around 12 months. I am now in month number seven. (I have to pick up the pace a bit.) I keep a journal and in it I note down every disc I have listened to including the date, the piece, its BWV number (the cataloging system used with Bach’s works) and the performers.
I am very much enjoying this project. The music is of course beautiful. It is interesting to hear how common it was for Bach to “steal” from himself. By “steal” I mean if he liked a theme, it would reemerge in another piece. It has struck me that some of the compositions are professionally composed and quite technically “right” but I can tell these are some of the ones he had to just get done (maybe for next mass). In other pieces, especially the cantatas, I can hear that inspiration came to him, allowing Bach to take the piece beyond the typical.
One of the many pleasures of this project is to hear the pieces Bach composed for keyboard played on the harpsichord, which is the instrument on which Bach’s compositions are intended to be performed. Over the years, I mostly have heard these pieces performed on the piano. But Brilliant Classics, as a label, tends towards recordings with period instruments (although they are not slavish to the idea). In this instance, in every composition that requires a keyboard, a harpsichord is used. Not a piano in the neighborhood! To my surprise – but I am not sure why I should be surprised – these compositions sound better played on the harpsichord. Perhaps it is a simple yet fundamental mechanical reality: the piano, which is a percussion instrument, now sounds too heavy. The piano STRIKES the strings. Bach wrote these compositions for the harpsichord which PLUCKS its strings. It is that lightness of touch that allows the music of the harpsichord to soar, especially when accompanied by other instruments.
Once I complete this listening project, I have my sights set on Beethoven. After all, he only composed around 650 pieces.