stephen greenblatt

Oregon summer Bach festivals: Bach in Black

Missing the mad man behind the music


My sister, an excellent flutist, asked me to accompany her at one of her student recitals years ago. Great! I proposed the first movement of the b-minor flute sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach — my favorite flute and keyboard chamber work. Not only do the other Bach flute sonatas wither next to this one, but so do the other movements in this sonata. It’s so chromatic (notes slithering onto notes right next door though they don’t necessarily belong in that neighborhood) you’d think aphrodisiac,  like the opening of Carmen’s ubersexy  “Habanera” with those slippery notes sliding into home plate.


But in fact, this sonata induces a desperate grieving in me whenever I play it with her… which is more often than she likes.

For me, Bach is always only a heartbeat away, though he’s especially prominent this summer. A new album features rock and other pop musicians playing music inspired by Bach. And summer in Oregon always means TWO Bach festivals — June 26-July 13 in Eugene and four other cities and July 23-25 in Mt. Angel at the Abbey.

What I’ll be hoping to hear at the Bach Festivals, although I rarely find it in Bach performances, is the unvarnished and often rough passion that I see in his scores and feel when I play so much of his music. Where does it come from? I thought that a new book by a scholar and conductor of Bach’s choral works, someone who, like Bach, is also a trail-blazing independent spirit, might help me in my sleuthing, just as another book I read recently helped me understand Shakespeare — who’s also all over Oregon stages this summer.