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Johann Sebastian Bach: an Outstanding Personality

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John Sebastian Bach was born during the year of 1685 and died during the year of 1750. He was a German organist and the most modern composer of the first half of the eighteenth century. Bach composed his music during Baroque period of European classical music and this period is said to end with his death (1600-1750). Throughout his life Bach wrote more than 1,000 pieces of work, all having a different style and each being individually unique, having some commonalities. BWV 140 and Coffee Cantata are two extraordinary pieces of Bach’s work in which are comparatively different.

“Wachet auf ruft die stimme dies” or in English “Wake up, the voice calls us” is a sacred compositional piece of Bach. It was specifically written for the church and is considered a secular work. The piece is also “cantus firmus” also known as fixed melody. It was first performed at St. Thomas Shule Church. The continuo, or repeated background instrument is the bass continuo. The narrator in this piece sings in tenor mode and an also part exists. The last movement, the chorale, is congregational. It allows for the audience listening to join in. BWV 140 (BWV is short for Bach Works Catalogue which is a collection of all of his work in one place) also starts complex in the beginning of the song and moves to a more simplistic ending that allows it to be easier for an audience to sing along.

Since Bach’s Cantata BWV 140, can be described as a church cantata, this leads it to have “a hymn with its appropriate tune forms the nucleus, but the hymn text is not made use of for air or recitatives, nor, on the other hand, is the hymn tune sacrificed to fanciful embellishments. The chorale preserves its unapproachable and unalterable nature, though it still pervades the whole as a unifying power, even where neither the original words not the original music are to be heard” (Spitta 459). The language is expressive through feeling of the church by bringing about a congregational feel. This model is ultimately carried over into the composition already named above as BWV 140, “Wake up, the voice calls us”.

This composition was prepared for the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity of 1731, November 25. This is a very well known date that rarely happens in the ecclesiastical year, which makes this song that much more special. The three-verse hymn (movement 1, 4, and 7) is borrowed from the great Philip Nicolai as a basis for Bach’s work. This story has a connection with the Gospel story about the ten virgins and heads up to the Song of Solomon and the Revelation of St. John.

Bach had written over 300 works mostly dealing with sacred cantatas, passions and motets. He may have felt the need to stir things up and add some change into his work or just may have needed a new challenge. This led Bach to, in March of 1729, become the director of the Collegium Musicum (founded by Teleman). Bach along with the Collegium presented public readings weekly indoors at Zimmermann’s Coffee House. Bach came out with a new style of compositions producing secular cantatas, instrumental works, and keyboard pieces while still producing at a tremendous pace providing the Collegium with many pieces of music. He rearranged Cothen pieces using different forces as well as wrote new works altogether. “Most striking is his flirtation with opera composition” (Stauffer 27). ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht ‘or the Coffee Cantata displays conventions of ‘opera buffa’ (Stauffer 26).

In contrast to BWV 140, Bach writes a secular not sacred piece. This opera like song acts out a story in which makes the audience feel “in media res”, in the middle of the story. Since in this work a father and daughter are having an argument over whether she should be allowed to drink coffee or not, we are put into the middle of their situation. The audience therefore, is forced to just listen in and does not have an opportunity to join in like in BWV 140. It was the only piece of Bach to be played outside his homeland of city of Lepzig in which he performed the infamous coffee Cantata at Frankfurt. However, it was originally performed (around 1734-1735) at Zimmerman’s coffeehouse by the Collegium Musicum.

Nothing about Cantata 211 was ‘borrowed’. Bach originally composed all of this piece. The continuo in it being the harpsichord, in 140 it is an organ most likely because the song is perfomed in a church and 211 is not. This piece has many more recitatives than Cantata 140 and like mentioned earlier, the song is closely related to acting out an opera in which people can dress up and where costumes to perform. There are also no alto parts. Lastly, as opposed to 140 this work moves from the simplest form to most complex of forms.

Bach’s song Coffee Cantata, not only is the “most notable contribution to the music of coffee” (Ukers 595) but it represents what Germany at the time is going through in the song, being the religious hatred towards Protestants. It also penetrates the ideas of “fair sex against the libels of the enemies of the beverage, who at the time were actively urging Germany that it should forbidden women, because its use made for sterility” (Ukers 596). Soon after the government would put a ban on coffee.

For this cantata, Bach used his text from a poem written by a man Christian Frederic Heinrich, who goes by the nickname of Picander. It is written for soprano, tenor, bass solos, and orchestras. It is as talked about earlier sort of an opera like song, but one that has humor too it. None of Bach’s other works are humorous, nor is he looked as for being as the humorous type. Coffee cantata has a mocking nature too it as well, by talking about a mean parent who is trying to stop his daughter from her new coffee drinking habit.

Bach has been generally regarded by subsequent generations as one of the greatest of all composers. The legacy of John Bach will live on through his music that is widely studied and reviewed everyday. Bach’s thousands of pieces of work are not only important for the beauty of their song, but the background behind what inspired him to write them.

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