Raiders of the lost Bach
Chico State Bach Festival to present West Coast premiere of rediscovered C.P.E. Bach work
When the Allies began their bombing raids on Berlin in 1943, Nazi authorities had already been evacuating cultural treasures to secret salt mines to ensure their safety. Among the art treasures removed were invaluable manuscripts of the musical estate of Johann Sebastian Bach and one of his talented sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
The fate of these secured Bach works had previously been a mystery for the last 50 years. That is, until their surprise discovery in a Ukrainian library by renowned Bach scholar and researcher Christoph Wolff.
“I was very excited, of course,” remembers Wolff. “And immediately realized what a massive task would lie ahead of me, my colleagues, and—considering the size of the entire collection with well over half a million music pages—perhaps a whole generation of musicologists.”
A lifelong musicologist himself, Wolff had been investigating the missing collection for more than 20 years. His search began in the 1970s, when rumors began circulating that the works were located in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, after a reported performance of a missing score there. In 1999, Wolff and a team of scholars followed a lead and found the missing work, known as the Berlin Sing-Akademie collection, in a library in Kiev.
When Wolff comes to Chico State to take part in a Bach festival this Thursday through Saturday, one of the world’s leading Bach experts will share his captivating experiences searching for the lost Bach work as well as the challenging task of cataloging and editing the vast number of compositions included in the collection.
“Indeed, the cataloguing is going to be a major task and so is the editing, including prioritizing the material to be edited. As for the latter, we have decided to focus on the church music by C. P. E. Bach, which will close a gap in our knowledge of music history between J. S. Bach and Handel on the one hand, Haydn and Mozart on the other,” Wolff said.
The culmination of several weekend lectures from Wolff will be the Saturday night choir concert featuring the combined choirs of the university led by Dr. Jeff Gemmell as they perform the West Coast premiere of C. P. E. Bach’s last written work, St. Matthew’s Passion, from the rediscovered Berlin Sing-Akademie collection.
Born in Germany, Christoph Wolff studied organ and historical keyboard instruments, musicology and art history at the universities of Berlin, Erlangen and Freiburg, taking a performance diploma in 1963 and Ph.D. in 1966. He then taught at Erlangen, Toronto, Princeton and Columbia universities before joining the Harvard faculty in 1976, where he eventually served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Among his accolades: the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association of London, the Humboldt Research Prize, and several honorary degrees.
Currently Adams University Professor at Harvard, Wolff has written several books about Bach, the most recent of which, J. S. Bach: The Learned Musician, has become a new standard for Bach studies and is used by graduate students at Chico State. As reviewer David Hurwitz wrote about the book, “[Wolff] reminds us that Bach’s output stands as a central, perhaps the central, musical monument in Western civilization precisely because of its consistency and expressive universality, with every element subordinated to Bach’s overarching intent: to embody Nature (i.e. the human character) in pursuit of ‘the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.'”
David Rothe, Chico State University organist and coordinator of the Bach festival, calls Wolff “one of the greatest musical minds of the present day” and notes that the scholar is also an engaging speaker who can present his vast knowledge of music in accessible ways that will arouse the interest of general audiences.
“I first met him at the Oregon Bach Festival in 2001, when he was discussing the discovery of the Bach works, and it was an exciting lecture—there was a sense of adventure almost like a spy novel,” Rothe recalled.
Last summer, Rothe took a Wolff-led tour of famous Bach sites in Germany, and the fortunate group not only played several 200- to 300-year-old organs along the way, but Rothe also got to learn from Wolff’s musicology expertise close-up. The two have been planning a Bach festival in Chico for over a year and a half now.
“Most important [in remembering Bach] are exemplary and exciting modern performances,” Wolff explained, “framed by a discussion that sheds light on the historical conditions under which music of the past affected its original audience and may still speak to us today.”
There are four soloists for this weekend’s premiere: soprano Daun Hayes and her alto student Kelly Greenfield, from Chico, as well as a bass from the Bay Area and a tenor from Washington, D.C., who specializes in evangelist roles (performing as the narrator of the piece). Other vocalists have been called in from Redding and Sacramento—which, in addition to our hometown talent, should make for an outstanding finale to a weekend of heavy-duty Bach scholarship rarely seen in these parts.