A Bach Family Christmas: Program Note from Mark Shapiro & Jonathan Breit

Program Note from Mark Shapiro

Talk about good genes! While it’s not exactly news that the Bachs were an exceptionally talented musical dynasty, many of us know this more as a matter of historical anecdote than of direct experience. Those of us who may have encountered “other” Bachs within the extended Bach clan have most probably come across his sons Carl Philip Emmanuel and Wilhelm Friedmann, strikingly inventive composers both.

Few listeners are likely to know the relatives whose music we’re presenting this evening – in addition to the magister JS – namely Johann Ernst and Johann Christoph Friedrich. Both wrote music that is abundantly communicative, consummately pleasing, and skillfully made. 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Son: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

The Son: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

The Cousin: Johann Ernst Bach

The Cousin: Johann Ernst Bach

JS Bach’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich must have been a singularly happy character, one of those baffling individuals who are not ever in a bad mood, whom you simply cannot imagine walking through the door and manifesting grouchiness or impatience with the dog. His advent cantata Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme treats an iconic sixteenth-century hymn (by Philipp Nicolai) that was also set by his father, whose glorious chorale harmonization JCF quotes in admiring, uncomplicated tribute. JCF’s setting emphasizes the buoyantly anticipatory mood of the pre-Christmas season with nary a tincture of the mysticism, awe and even foreboding that can characterize this repertoire. 

The work opens with a unison fanfare, and immediately takes off in a galloping stampede of anapests. Notable moments in the first movement include the spooky treatment of “Mitternacht” (“midnight”) and the upwardly surging lines (“Ihr musset ihn entgegen gehn”) that herald the return of the opening music. The middle movement is pure serenade, among whose highlights are a lyrical chain of suspensions on “singen”, a percolating sequence of melismas on “Freuden” (“joys”), and another rising stretto (closely timed imitation) on “Wir mussen ihm entgegen gehn.” The third and final movement opens with a chorale-like setting, segueing to the quotation from JS; a striking, luminous finale offers imitation on a neon-lit chromatic motif: “O When the Saints” with the third note sharped. 

Johann Ernst was a cousin of JS, who was also one of his godparents. JE was an organist and church musician who left to posterity just twenty or so cantatas. His music is characterized by contrapuntal deftness, harmonic edginess, and a theatrical handling of text and narrative. In his dark and soulful response to the German-language Magnificat – which is, like Wachet auf, an advent text – the Italianate, operatic inflections of the counter-baroque are everywhere in evidence, the searching for maximal dramatic impact unmistakable. Lines writhe chromatically up and down; rhythms syncopate. The string writing, borrowing from Vivaldi, is extravagant, colorful, virtuosic, impassioned; its gestures include fast repeated notes, spiky rhythms, and flashy arpeggios. The cantata’s many highlights include the tender solo quartet “Die Hungrigen” that follows the jagged aggressions of the fugal “Er ubet Gewalt.” JE did not get the happy gene: his joy is, decidedly, in a minor key. 

JS Bach’s Magnificat must be one of the most beloved works in the repertoire, and deservedly so. As we return to it this season, we are struck anew by the inexhaustible genius of its invention. There is so much variety. No movement resembles another. Solo voices are characterized with lavish imagination; the orchestral palette is multi-hued, the textures richly layered. Among the many attributes of this music that overwhelm us: the feeling it imparts of noble designs unfurling majestically in the forwardly striding medium that is musical time, like a fast-action film of a cathedral being built. Its grandeur and radiance remind us all of that is best in the human imagination.


Jonathan Breit has written his own program note for Der Zippelfagottist. What a pleasure to collaborate again with this talented musical humorist.

© Mark Shapiro 2016

Program Note from Jonathan Breit

Der Zippelfagottist is a 20-minute mini-opera that tells the true story of how the young Johann Sebastian Bach got into a public brawl with one of his music students.

The word Zippelfagottist is the untranslatable insult that J.S. Bach called this student, thereby provoking the brawl. Or I should say allegedly called, and allegedly provoked, for there are as many different accounts of what exactly happened as there were persons present at the scene.

The scene is set in 1705. Bach is 20 years old, and has been hired to his first real job as a professional musician, as organist at the Neue Kirche in the town of Arnstadt, Germany. He got the job two years ago, in 1703, and the church liked him so much that they agreed to pay him twice the going rate.

He was hired as the church organist, and only the organist, as we can clearly read in his contract with the Consistory, which survives in a library in Germany. And yet he finds to his dismay that he is also expected to serve as a Director musices, which means conducting the choir.

Now this choir is made up of students drawn from the local Gymnasium. Here is a contemporary description of these students: “They have no respect for their teachers.… They wear a rapier not only on the street, but also in the school…. They even frequent unseemly locales. They spend their free time playing dice and drinking and doing other wicked things which one shrinks from naming. All night long they make a racket with shouting and music-making.…” (Complaint to the Consistory by the Town Council of Arnstadt, 1706.)

It is one of these students that Bach allegedly offends with the word Zippelfagottist. Some kind of a brawl later takes place in a public square. The very next day, Bach comes before the Consistory, bringing a formal complaint with his version of the events. It is here that our play begins.

The text has been drawn from the real eighteenth-century church records of the dispute, which are preserved in a library in Germany. It is printed in your programs together with an English translation, in case your eighteenth-century German happens to be a bit rusty.

But first, there is one other character in the drama who needs introduction. This is Bach’s cousin, Barbara Catharina Bachin, who, according to the church records, witnesses the brawl. Confusingly, Bach has two cousins named Barbara Catharina Bachins living in Arnstadt at this time. One of them is the sister of Johann Ernst Bach, who will later take over for J.S. as the organist at the Neue Kirche when he gets a job elsewhere. (Unfortunately, this is not the same Johann Ernst Bach who wrote the other piece on tonight’s program: that Johann Ernst was a more distant cousin.) The other Barbara Catharina Bachin is the sister of Maria Barbara Bach, whom Bach will marry in 1707. No one knows for sure which Barbara Catharina is meant.

Before I let you go, I should at least attempt to offer a translation for the untranslatable insult of the title. Fagottist is clear enough: it means “bassoonist”. But what is a Zippel? Here the dictionaries are of little help. Grimm’s offers Zippeler “a student”, Zimpel “a simpleton”, and, most intriguingly, Zippel “a small onion”.

The lesson, at any rate, is clear: If your choral conductor dares to call you a “scallion bassoonist”, do not punch him in the face (not even allegedly). For if you do, some scallion composer may cast you, without your consent, as a character in a play, three hundred years in the future.