The Art of Parody in Johann Sebastian Bach | RCF Saint

The end of a happy period

In the service of Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, JS Bach will have known a very happy period. The prince is more than a protector, he is a true friend. But things changed at court from 1721: the prince remarried and his new wife was hardly attracted to the arts. The genius of the composer leaves her indifferent. In addition, Leopold had to reduce his lifestyle to participate more in the maintenance of his regiments, as a Prussian officer. Bach, who had already lost his wife in 1720, wanted a change of scene, leaving the principality and finding a job in a university town for his children.

Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen

In Leipzig, a considerable workload

Following the death of Johann Kuhnau, the post of thomas cantor de Leipzig was freed in 1722. It was a less prestigious title than that of Kapellmeister of the court of Köthen but no matter, Bach will be able to educate his children there and start a new life, far from the too painful memories of his dear deceased wife Maria-Barbara. By settling in Leipzig in May 1723, he probably did not measure the work that would be his. In addition to his duties as Cantor of St-Thomas, he must “supply” music to the four other churches in the city. During the first years in Leipzig he had to compose a new cantata every week! Added to this is teaching, at the school adjoining the St-Thomas church: catechism, Latin, supervision of the boarding school. It’s the job he likes the least.

St. Thomas

Finally, at the municipal level, it is Director music. The visit of an important person, the birth or the death of a notable of the city, the festivals, commemorations, tributes, are as many opportunities for the municipal council to ask him for new compositions, which he must direct after having the musicians and singers rehearse.

A true art of reuse

Bach is not the only one, the musicians of the baroque period, often in the service of a prince or a church, had to compose constantly at the request of their protector. Sometimes lacking in inspiration, they did not hesitate to borrow other music from composers of their time, or to reuse their own works, which they parodied by adapting them to present needs.

It is easy to understand that, faced with the solicitation that Bach was undergoing in Leipzig, he had recourse to the reuse of the works he considered the best. Reuse with other lyrics, for other circumstances, but always readjusted to fit perfectly with the new use he decided to make of it.

It is this art of parody, of “happy adaptation” in which Bach excelled, which is presented in this program. Raphaël Pichon, leader of the Pygmalion ensemble, evokes for example this aria “Erbarm dich mein Gott” (Have mercy O my God) of the Passion according to Saint Matthew, which Bach will use for the funeral ode he composed on the death of his friend Prince Leopold. The music remains the same, but the text becomes “Eralt mich mein Gott” (Preserve me, my God) and fits perfectly into this Trauermusik.

There are many examples of “happy” reuses of the most beautiful or moving pages of Bach and above all, this tells us about the airs he considered the most successful, worthy of being taken up in different works, his best of personal !

The Art of Parody in Johann Sebastian Bach | RCF Saint-Etienne