Richard Nisley

As Contemporary as the Cell Phone
Music - Classical Released - Jan 06, 2013

Johann Sebastien Bach was fooling around on the organ in the Leipzig Cathedral when he composed the most hair-raising sounds ever to emanate from a church: the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Two-hundred years later (in 1929) conductor Leopold Stokowski created a similar sensation when he transcribed Bach’s Toccata and Fugue into orchestral music, recorded it for release on 78-RPM record, and scored a world-wide hit record. The music critics roundly condemned him for heresy while conveniently forgetting that Bach himself transcribed dozens of pieces by other composers as a matter of course.

In 1940, Walt Disney asked Stokowski to conduct the orchestra for the animated motion picture “Fantasia” and include Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as the opening number.

If you enjoy the Toccata and Fugue, try Bach’s “Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues for Organ.” If you’re not crazy about organ, you can find many of these pieces on CD performed by orchestra. Transcribed for 100-piece orchestra, Bach’s music sounds as contemporary as the cell phone.

A number of Bach’s pieces for solo instrument are as much student exercises as music that tests a musician’s abilities. For example:

“The Well-Tempered Clavier” -- Originally composed for harpsichord, these pieces work equally well on today’s modern piano, a series of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in the study,” says Bach. Twenty years later, he wrote another 24 that are more difficult to play. They make for agreeable listening experiences -- an antidote for our age of anxiety.

“The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello” -- The Russian cellist Rostropovich once played nothing but Bach’s Cello Suites for a friend in the hospital who was dying. The friend recovered and lived another 10 years. The Suites are meditative in quality and reward repeated listening.

“The Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin” -- Three sonatas and three partitas that have been challenging violin virtuosos since Millard Fillmore lived in the White House. The D minor partita culminate in a slow dance built on a repeated bass line that to master is tantamount to climbing Mr. Everest. These are not for everyone’s taste and take time to fully appreciate.

Music for the Lute. No one plays the lute anymore, but classical guitarists have made their reputation performing these pieces in recitals world-wide. In the hands of Andre Segovia and John Williams, they make lovely companion pieces to the guitar music of Rodrigo, Albeniz, Granados, and the like.

It seems there is no instrument that Bach didn’t ennoble.
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