As I observed in a post on Bach and the oboe,
Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.
All four orchestral suites are wonderful. In the 3rd suite—like Mahler’s Adagietto in the context of his 5th symphony—Bach’s Air deserves to be heard in context, after the exhilarating overture. For a change, here’s Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (including some stars of the London scene) in 1989:
The 4th suite is astounding too:
Bill Evans would have loved those harmonies over a pedal (from 1.48/3.20, and again from 8.12):
And everyone gets in on the act—brass, woodwinds, strings, even the bassoon with its funky break (from 9.45). It beats me how anyone can possibly be expected to sit still through pieces like these.
* * *
I only noticed recently that the overture of the 4th suite is a version of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which Bach unleashed on his Leipzig congregation on Christmas Day 1725, in both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche (cf. the Christmas Oratorio).
For musicians today, as John Eliot Gardiner comments (Music in the castle of heaven, p.445),
the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvellous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music. When they are suddenly doubled, as here, by voices singing of laughter, instrumentalists have to re-think familiar lines and phrasing. Reciprocally, the singers need to adjust to the instrumental conventions of a Fremch overture.
Unser Mund sei voll Lachens May our mouths be full of laughter
und unsre Zunge voll Rühmens. and our tongues full of praise.
Denn der Herr hat Großes an uns getan. For the Lord has done great things for us.
And there’s another amazing solo for oboe d’amore (from 10.41).
The cantatas are an inexhaustible treasury.
* * *
I don’t think the Leipzig congregation would have heard the orchestral suite—it’s not even clear if Bach had written it by then. Nor did they have the luxury of hearing it on CD or online: they were lucky to hear any of his works more than once.
Still, they were blessed beyond measure. And just imagine being in Bach’s Big Band, playing dazzling new music every week…
Sure—their ears, teeth, bodies, sanitary arrangements, and whole life experiences were entirely different to ours when we perform or listen to Bach’s music (see here, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”). They hadn’t heard Duke Ellington or the Rite of Spring; and rather than having to take taxis to Heathrow for an early start or hurriedly checking into a hotel before trying to find a quick pre-rehearsal snack— they were there all the time, in a provincial town still recovering from traumatic warfare. All of which makes the constant aural bombardment from their kappellmeister–bandleader even more remarkable.