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A look ahead to the 2024 Bath Bachfest festival

Tenebrae opens Bachfest with a performance at St Mary's Bathwick Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Tenebrae opens Bachfest with a performance at St Mary's Bathwick Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

It’s been said that he was more talented than Beethoven and Mozart so it’s no wonder that he’s honoured with his own festival in Bath. I give you the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

The year of Bach’s birth was a classic as far as music was concerned for Handel was born in the same year in the same country, Germany. It was just like a vintage year for wine. Bach came of a musical dynasty across several generations and did his best to continue that. He had 20 children, of whom nine lived into adulthood with four of these also becoming composers. He was a nifty organist but modest with it: ‘There’s really nothing remarkable about it. All you have to do is hit the right key at the right time and the instrument plays itself’. It almost sounds a bit Morecambe & Wise.

A deeply religious bod, there’s a strong spirituality to his music that one can only respect. Yet, life’s vicissitudes must have challenged that faith; he lost both his parents by the time he was ten and was packed off to his older brother, another organist like their dad. Bach’s dedication to his music was legendary. When he was just 19 he embarked on a 450-mile round trip to experience a concert by his then hero, the organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He walked all the way!

I love Bach, not only because of his drive but also his irascibility. He was a man who didn’t like anyone else telling him what to do. In 1708 he became a Duke’s organist but then fell out with said Duke and was banged up in prison for a month while his temper cooled. In a previous role he’d also managed to annoy the Church authorities. He got his wish in the end though and became the then equivalent of Director of Music to a Prince which is when his most productive period of composition ensued. More tragedy stalked Bach, his first wife dying in 1720, but the headstrong genius didn’t hang about, marrying again the following year.

Bach was appointed to his final job in 1723, teaching in Leipzig, but also organist and choirmaster at the local church. This is where he’d live out his last 27 years which gave him plenty of time to fall out with the authorities which of course he duly did. As well as religion, maths was also a passion for Bach who sneakily represented numbers in his music. He reckoned 14 to be his own personal number, based on adding up the alphabetic positions of his name’s component letters: B = 2, A = 1, C = 3, and H = 8.

If Beethoven went a tad ‘mutton jeff’, then it was Bach’s fate to have troublesome eyesight. He suffered with cataracts, had an op botched by an English surgeon who did the same to Handel, was left almost blind, but then miraculously had his sight restore itself shortly before he died. Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the greatest of the great, died on 28th July 1750 aged 65. His output had been such that it would take 46 years to collect together and publish all of his works. He has a trio that regularly feature among our most popular: Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor; the Brandenburg Concerto; Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. His music also graces the big screen on occasion. Check out ’20,000 Leagues under the Sea’, ‘The English Patient’, ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’, ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’. This year’s Bath Bachfest will take place from 15th-17th February 2024.

Great British Life: The interior of the Guildhall which hosts Bachfest concerts on February 15 and 16 2024 Photo: Visit BathThe interior of the Guildhall which hosts Bachfest concerts on February 15 and 16 2024 Photo: Visit Bath

FROM THE PAST TO THE PRESENT

Bach would have been tickled that his music regularly graces the big screen and that there’s a Bach festival held annually in Bath. This year’s festival, which takes place between Thursday 15th and Saturday 17th February, will be the 13th, which means next year’s will have a special meaning and resonance for the great composer as 14 was very much his special number. ‘Bachfest’ is a welcome respite from the rigours of Winter, all those dark, chilly nights et al. It’s entirely apt that Bach should be celebrated amongst Bath’s Georgian architecture for he lived most of his life in that era. The 2023 venues included the magnificent Bath Abbey, the Guildhall and St Mary Bathwick.



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