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Culture

Long-Lost Bach Cantata Revived

A piece by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach lost for decades has come to life in Japan this week, shedding new light on the 18th-century Baroque master.

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Bach composed the cantata in 1728

The Wedding Cantata BWV216 resurfaced a year ago by chance in the papers of Chieko Hara, the Japanese pianist who died in December 2001 at the age 86 after a career spent largely in Europe.

Bach had composed the cantata in 1728 for the wedding of a customs official's daughter in Leipzig. The original score has never been recovered, but the version discovered in Japan was believed to have been copied by one of Bach's students under his stewardship.

The eight rediscovered pages consist almost uniquely of vocal pieces in German for soprano and alto, with the seven movements lasting for a total of between 20 and 25 minutes. The instrumental parts are entirely lost except for two recycled movements, a duet and an aria which had been used elsewhere in Bach's work. The text is an allegorical dialogue between two rivers in Saxony, the Pleisse and the Neisse, which represent the groom and the young bride.

Bach Autographen in Berlin

Thankfully still here

"This is my dinosaur"

American musicologist Joshua Rifkin, a conductor and composer who is one of the leading interpreters of Bach was asked to recreate the missing instrumental parts. He said he originally wanted to let the lost cantata rest.

"Maybe a fragment should stay a fragment," Rifkin told AFP. "Then I thought of palaeontologists, from one bone they figure the entire dinosaur. This is my dinosaur."

At first, Rifkin thought the challenge would be too difficult. In the end, he decided to take up the project which he described as a "musical Rubik's cube".

"I could not reconstruct what Bach wrote but I could give the people of today an idea of what his music was like," Rifkin said. "It sounds like Bach's music," he said. "But the listener should not know which part is Bach's, which part is mine."

Gerhard Schröder in Japan bei Koizumi

connection, in politics and in the arts

Lost for decades

The cantata, which despite being yellow with age remained in good state, was authenticated by a team of experts led by Bach specialist, Professor Tadashi Isoyama of the Kunitachi College of Music in suburban Tokyo.

The copy of the cantata passed from collector to collector and had vanished for 80 years. The only thing known for sure is that it belonged to a descendant of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn until the 1920s.

Experts believe Hara likely inherited the cantata -- but was oblivious to its existence -- from her husband, the late Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassado, who knew the Mendelssohn family.

Huge impact

For Isoyama, the music professor, the rediscovery of the cantata is "very important" to the understanding of Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750: "This finding has a huge impact in the music world," Isoyama said.

While there were attempts to recreate the cantata in the early 20th century, Isoyama said the difference this time was the involvement of Rifkin with his knowledge of Bach.

"He reconstructed the instrumental score. This is history making because (his) high-level score is reconstructed, truly reflecting Bach's style," Isoyama said.

Passionate musical audience

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Wedding Cantata had its debut Sunday in the Small Hall of Suntory Hall in Tokyo, one of the world's most prestigious venues for classical music, with two of Bach's profane cantatas BWV202 and BWV210.

"Japan is full of Bach lovers;" said Rifkin, who has been directing the Ensemble Bach Concertino Osaka in western Japan for five years. "He is at home here."

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