In the summer of 1981 a group of Boulder music lovers decided they would celebrate the life and music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) by presenting three concerts during the weekend of his March birthdate. The Festival has expanded significantly, presenting concerts in a wide variety of venues in Boulder, Denver, Longmont, and surrounding communities. The Boulder Bach Festival runs September through June, offering concerts featuring renowned soloists in collaboration with the Bach Festival Orchestra and Chorus, in addition to an array of chamber music settings. BBF presents outreach offerings at various museums, senior centers, and in non-traditional venues throughout Boulder County. An expanded education program includes popular programs for all ages; this year Boulder Bach launches its Young Artist Competition (March 2016), open to Colorado residents who are musicians under the age of eighteen, and currently in elementary, middle or high school.
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Boulder Bach Festival performers include the Boulder Bach Chorus, Boulder Bach Orchestra, guest artists from the Front Range, throughout the State of Colorado, and from across the United States. The music of Bach and other great composers is performed on instruments from the period, instruments in today’s set-up, and even electric instruments. BBF artists participate in an ongoing dialogue as regards stylistic approach, and seek to explore/discover something new in every performance.
From the hopeful beginning of the March 1982 debut, the festival has grown into the highly acclaimed festival of today through the talents and determination of its founders, the consistent support of its audience, the vision and leadership of its Board of Directors, and the help of countless volunteers.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
At the time of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth in Eisenach, the region of Thuringia in central Germany was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose federation of cities and small states that encompassed Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, and parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Within this region, musicians found employment in many forms: Stadtpfeifers performed music for civic functions; organists provided accompaniment for church services, improvising preludes and other incidental music as necessary and testing new organs; Kapellmeisters oversaw the chapels in the princely courts, selecting and training performers and composing such music as the court demanded for both entertainment and worship; Kantors undertook responsibility for the musical education and often all other musical activities in a city.
Bach’s family included musicians employed in nearly all of these capacities. His older brother Johann Christoph, a church organist, gave Sebastian his first keyboard lessons after he took responsibility for the child following their father’s death in 1695. Sebastian spent the years 1700-02 in the north of Germany at the Michaelis School of Lüneburg, where he first learned the arts of musical composition and organ playing. After returning to the south, he received his first steady employment as an organist at the St. Blasius Church at Mühlhausen, during which time he composed his earliest cantatas.
From 1708-17, Bach was employed as a chamber musician, concertmaster, and organist at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who encouraged him to write organ music and cantatas. When the duke refused to consider Bach for the position of Kapellmeister in 1717, the composer secured a similar post in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. The young prince was a skilled player of the violin, the bass viol and harpsichord, and employed eighteen instrumentalists at his court. The situation was advantageous for the composition of secular entertainment. During the six years that he spent at Köthen, Bach produced large amounts of orchestral, chamber, and harpsichord music, including the Brandenburg Concerti, keyboard inventions, concerto transcriptions, suites, and the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Bach was one of many musicians who applied in 1723 for the post of Kantor at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, which included responsibility for both civic music and all of the music for the city’s four largest churches. When Georg Philipp Telemann, the best-known German musician at that time, declined the position, Bach was hired to the job he would hold until his death. Later, he accepted the post of director of the collegium musicum, an amateur society founded by Telemann in 1702 that presented public concerts of secular music. During his twenty-three years of service to the city of Leipzig, he wrote hundreds of cantatas, at least five passions, several masses, three oratorios, and a large amount of instrumental music, including most of his published didactic keyboard music.
After Bach’s death in 1750, his manuscripts, most of which were unpublished, passed into the hands of his sons and widow. Changes in musical taste toward the end of his life left his work unappreciated. As Johann Adolph Scheibe noted in 1737, “This man would be the admiration of whole nations if he…did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, if he did not darken their beauty with an excess of art.” Composers in Europe, if they knew of him at all, knew only his half dozen or so published keyboard works.
It was Baron von Swieten who introduced Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier to Viennese music circles in the second half of the eighteenth century, and both Mozart and Beethoven studied his fugal style. Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie in 1829 was the first of many nineteenth-century revivals of Bach’s choral works. Most nineteenth-century performances of Bach’s choral works emphasized large performing groups; Mendelssohn’s choir for the St. Matthew Passion was around 160, at least five times the total number of singers available to Bach at the Thomaskirche. The formation of the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) in 1850 eventually led to the publication of the first complete edition of Bach’s works and the first critical biography by Philipp Spitta in 1889. Since the 1950s, an increasing number of performing organizations, among them the Boulder Bach Festival, have concentrated on producing historically informed performances using period instruments when possible, appropriately sized forces, and conducted as Bach would have, either from the harpsichord or the violin.
—Larry Worster, Professor of Musicology, Metropolitan State College of Denver