Bach and Bach at the Bachfest | Music | DW | 15.06.2014
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Bach and Bach at the Bachfest

Johann Sebastian and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel occupied center stage at the Bachfest Leipzig 2014. In various concerts and genres, it was all about "The True Art."

Can there be a "true art" of making music? In his widely recognized treatise "On the true art of playing the keyboard," Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach sought to establish technical and aesthetic standards, to bring order to the chaos of a rapidly changing music world. Similar handbooks were authored in the decades following the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, including a standard-setting violin school by Leopold Mozart, father of the great Wolfgang Amadeus.

Using the title of that instructional treatise by Bach's second-oldest son, born three hundred years ago, the current Bachfest Leipzig has the motto "The True Art." At the opening in St. Thomas‘ Church, many listeners may have thought they were experiencing this "true art" of music when organist Ullrich Böhme started off with a fugue J.S. Bach on "The Magnificat." That was followed by two further settings of the Biblical text, performed by the St. Thomas Choir, soloists and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra: one by J.S., the other by C.P.E. The direct comparison between father and son demonstrated the evolution of music from baroque-structured style to Empfindsamkeit (style of sensibility) then embraced by the younger generation. It was with that Magnificat that the younger Bach unsuccessfully applied for his deceased father's position. A later attempt also failed.

Better late than never

Music should go to the heart, a quote from CPE Bach, in an inscription at an exhibition at the Bach Museum in Leipzig

"Music should go to the heart," a quote from CPE Bach, from a current exhibition at the Bach Museum in Leipzig

Carl Philipp Emanuel later found employment at the Prussian court and turned his back on the city.

The Bachs never had an easy time of it in Leipzig. As though to make amends, a few years after German reunification Leipzig founded a Bachfest with a notable flair of authenticity and funded the endeavor generously, currently contributing about half of the annual budget of around two million euros.

Johann Sebastian Bach spent 27 years of his extremely productive life in Leipzig. Many of his former haunts are still preserved.

Emotional pilgrimage

Words of greeting by Sir John Elliot Gardiner preceded the opening performance in St. Thomas' Church. Since early 2014, Gardiner has been president of the local Bach Archive, which organizes the festival. The British conductor told DW, "It’s a very emotional moment for me and a privilege. I've been coming here for many years, even before German reunification. And I always find it very inspiring to visit the historical buildings here and to feel the atmosphere of the city, the way it was when Bach moved here in 1723. And to see how his children grew up here."

John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner: "It's a very emotional moment."

This year’s Bachfest not only honors the great Cantor of St. Thomas. As festival director Dettlof Schwerdtfeger said, "Whenever we refer to Bach in the coming few days, this time we mean Carl Philipp Emanuel, not Johann Sebastian. The Leipzigers will just have to get used to it." Many of the seldom-heard sacred and secular cantatas by Bach the younger, whose fame outshone that of his father during his lifetime, are on the playbill in over 100 festival events. Chamber music and solo recitals are generously peppered with works by CPE, and there are lectures on that musician who played such an important role in the turbulent "Sturm und Drang" period between the baroque and classical eras.

Bach fans from around the world

As in past years, about half of the visitors come to Leipzig from abroad. About one-fourth are local citizens, another fourth from other parts of Germany. The famous Choir of St. Thomas' is a festival mainstay. In ten days and over 100 events, the focus is otherwise on leading early music artists ensembles, including conductors Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki, soloists Midori Seiler and Malcolm Bilson and ensembles like the Academy of Ancient Music and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir.

Beyond filling the city's churches and halls and giving faithful renditions of the repertory, the festival occupies public squares in the city with children's programs and open air events with jazz and pop - in the spirit of Bach, of course. Among this year's attractions are open-air and indoor performances by the "German-Polish Music Academy" comprised of school-aged musicians from the two countries. If for financial reasons, fewer events are being transmitted to the public square this year on big screen, a festival feeling is definitely in the air, with Bach posters and flags adorning every corner and all kinds of music sounding out in the streets and from inside buildings, street musicians competing with the professionals.

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