Open Space Music

Open Space: Bach was Handsome Once 2

November 15, 2020 8:00PM EST

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Presented in partnership with Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music

Miles Hoffman takes a New Look at the Man and his Music – and performs the Suite in C Major for solo viola

When people discuss the music of Bach, words like “God” and “transcendence” tend to figure in the discussion.  And it’s certainly true for Bach, as literary critic Harold Bloom has said it is for Shakespeare, that the only legitimate approach is to “begin by standing in awe. ...Wonder, gratitude, shock, amazement are the accurate responses.” 

The only problem with this approach is that we tend to forget that Bach was a human being.  And the key to understanding the greatness of Bach is to recognize that what propels his music, what infuses every note, is his very human passion.   To many people, though, it never occurs that Bach was a passionate man.  And why not?  Because of one portrait.  The only authenticated portrait of Bach shows him as an old man – serious, solemn, even severe;  the “old master” who played the organ and taught counterpoint to generations of children at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.  Looking at this portrait, it’s not hard to imagine that Bach was great, but it is hard to imagine that he was ever young.  Or slim.  Or good-looking.  But he was all those things.  And more.  Many of the works we know and love, including most of his great instrumental works, Bach wrote in his twenties and thirties.  Bach in his twenties?  It seems hard to imagine.  And yet we have another portrait, much less well known and, alas, not authenticated.  But it will do.  Staring out from this portrait is a young Bach, a handsome Bach, a dashing, intense man.  And it can serve as a key, a starting point for understanding both the man and the music.