Best of the B-sides: Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is considered one of classical music's greatest composers. We asked professional Bach lovers and musicians for their favourite "B-side."
Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Eisenach, 1685 - Leipzig, 1750), German composer and organist, oil. (DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI)

Early Music Vancouver kicks off its inaugural Vancouver Bach Festival this weekend (Aug. 2-12 at the Christ Church Cathedral), bringing a veritable "Best of Bach" collection with it. From chamber music classics to massive orchestral performances, the festival connects music enthusiasts with a sprawling array of works by one of the greatest composers of all time. Purists will also get a thrill out of the period instruments, so start thinking up your best baroque jokes now.

To say that Bach is a big deal is an understatement. His pieces are among the most popular, pervasive and mainstream. Even non-classical people can name a Bach composition. But for true Bach enthusiasts who are intimately acquainted with the cream of his canon, there are lesser known works that deserve some love and attention, too.

CBC Music invited EMV and the festival's special guests to tell us about their favourite Bach B-side, which all ended up being cantatas or cantata excerpts. Clutch those pearls, it's about to get wild.

Matthew White, Early Music Vancouver executive and artistic director

"The extravagant wealth of material included in the more than 200 Church cantatas makes it virtually impossible for me to choose a favourite 'B-side' work by J.S Bach. As a student at McGill, nothing made me happier than going to the music library in between classes and listening to randomly chosen works from the old Harnoncourt 'Complete Cantatas' LP audio recordings. They came with the full scores as well as all of the complete texts and translations, plus program notes. I remember feeling surprised, inspired and revitalized every time. I would argue that there is no better cure for depression or indifference....

"If you threatened to push me over a cliff for not making a choice, I wouldn't feel too bad about choosing the alto aria from Cantata 42 ("Wo zwei und zwei versammlet sind"). The instrumental introduction makes me tear up every time I hear it with both a feeling of longing and being embraced at the same time — it is the most affirming and positive music I know. I will never forget hearing it for the first time with those headphones on, sitting in a ratty listening booth and just feeling so lucky."

Beiliang Zhu, cellist

"It is quite difficult for me to try to define a work of Bach's as 'B-side' because so many works of his are loved. Perhaps by comparison, the Cantata 106 'Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' could fall into this category. Death is a perplexing subject. It brings many complex feelings. I find comfort in this funeral cantata, not necessarily for its religious context but Bach's creation of peacefulness. This feeling is created with just a few lines of religious text projected through his masterful musical elements, from the instrumentation, to the choice of keys, and to the word 'painting.' In the arioso before the last chorus, Bach uses the text 'Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein,' which translates in English to 'Today you will be with me in paradise.' Do I believe in paradise? Does it matter? Bach's music is heaven."

Monica Huggett, violinist

"Cantata BWV 170 'Vergnugte ruh' is a small-scale masterpiece. It is scored for alto voice, strings, oboe d'amore and obbligato organ. The first aria has a beautiful, gentle, lilting melody signifying peace and harmony with God. The second aria is an extraordinary composition. The wrongness of the 'wayward spirits' is expressed by an upside down mode of composition. The bass line is given to the violins, and there is a sinister, highly chromatic organ obbligato. The vocal line is also chromatic, with tortuous intervals. The overall effect is akin to listening to 12-tone music from the second Viennese school; there is an atmosphere of dread and hopelessness. The final aria declares, 'I am sick of living, so take me, Jesus, hence.' It is superficially happy, with brilliant virtuoso figuration by the obligation organ but the first two notes of the melody make an augmented fourth, with the seventh of the chord in the bass. We are to understand that the present may be uncomfortable, but virtue and faith will triumph in death."

Yulia Van Doren, soprano

"I have a soft spot for arias from Bach's solo cantatas which aren't the title aria, my favourite probably being 'Tief gebückt und voller Reue' from BWV 199. I find this aria, especially as recorded by the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, endlessly elegant and comforting — so much so that it was my soundtrack of choice while I had my wisdom teeth out a few years ago, playing on a nonstop loop. The lilting melody never fails to bring me a sense of calm and peace, it's a beautiful gem of an aria."

Dan Tepfer, pianist

"It's hard for me to think about anything Bach wrote as a 'B-side,' because he was basically incapable of writing anything short of a masterpiece. So I have to go with something that he didn't even intend to have performed: his Fourteen Canons on the first eight notes of the bass line from the Goldberg Variations, which he wrote after finishing the Goldberg Variations and were only rediscovered in 1974. Bach has an uncanny ability to always find the perfect balance between theory and emotion in his works. In the Fourteen Canons, however, he's entirely in theory mode, exploring more and more complex canonic possibilities in the Goldberg Variations' bass line, presented as puzzles to be solved. In them, we see how he turned increasingly towards the mathematical side of music towards the end of his life. They're also a testament to the vast intellectual machinery that lies beneath the surface of his works and gives them their strong structure. If Bach hadn't been so obsessed with theory, I don't think we'd still be listening to him today.

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.