Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Getting to know him

Here’s a strange thing about Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here’s a strange thing about Johann Sebastian Bach.

Here’s a strange thing about Johann Sebastian Bach. You can be devoted to his work, love it more intensely than any other music, yet never get round to hearing some of his most awe-inspiring compositions, or even know what you’re missing. There are dozens — literally dozens — of pieces of 24-carat Bach whose names are known only to professional musicians and scholars and are barely represented in the recording catalogue: you might find two good digital performances of them, maybe three.

Bach wrote at least 400 Church cantatas, of which half are missing. But, so far as the average music lover is concerned, most of those that did survive might as well have been used to line a Victorian dresser, or have been incinerated in a bombing raid. Only one movement from one work is seriously famous — ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, from Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben — and then as a piano arrangement rather than as a sturdy chorale pushing its way through lilting strings. A couple of solo cantatas are moderately celebrated showpieces. Around 20 of the other cantatas are judged to be musically on a par with the Passions and the B Minor Mass, so they cling on to the edges of the repertoire and have been recorded a respectable number of times; but, actually, many of the rarely performed cantatas display an equally jaw-dropping mastery.

Why the neglect? The Lutheran cantata isn’t a sexy genre. We think of po-faced burghers of Leipzig, scowling in the pews — and with good reason: the texts chosen by Bach dwell obsessively on the terrors of mortality. That’s all very well once in a while, but if you’re going to unearth all the treasures of the cantatas you’re going to have to get used to living on death row.

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