March is the month of marathons. For sports fans, it’s all about college basketball. For musicians, it’s about bingeing on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
There is some dispute over the actual date of Bach’s birthday. Some scholars hold fast to March 21, 1685 while others argue for March 31, with the discrepancy explained by the shift from the Julian to the currently-used Gregorian calendar. Either way, music organizations all over the world regard March as an appropriate time to celebrate the eminent Baroque composer.
In Baltimore, the tradition has been taken up by Music at St. David’s, the music series of St. David’s Episcopal Church and Day School in Roland Park that is free and open to the public. This Sunday, March 17, they hold the 43rd iteration of their annual Baltimore Bach Marathon.
Dr. Douglas A. Buchanan, St. David’s Director of Music Ministries, traces the origins of the marathon back to the parish’s 1966 acquisition of an organ made by the esteemed Canadian company Casavant Frères. Shortly thereafter, they founded the Baltimore Bach Marathon both as a way to celebrate Bach and to do so “on an instrument that was particularly well suited” for it.
Bach himself was an organist and wrote much of his music for the churches that employed him, such as the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, where he served as music director for nearly three decades.
But the composer’s oeuvre also contains a wealth of instrumental and secular music, which Dr. Buchanan thought important to include in the marathons when he took over as music director five years ago. Recent programs have welcomed string quartets, lute players, and choirs to the stage.
This year signals a renewed focus on keyboard music. Some of the area’s leading Baroque musicians, such as rising organ star Jordan Prescott and Grammy-nominated* pianist Lura Johnson will be performing; Johnson’s performance is part of a four-concert cycle through the entirety of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier paired with the complete preludes and fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich.
What is it about Bach that motivates musicians to return to his music again and again? By now, Bach is such an established figure in the Western canon that it seems impossible to imagine a time when that wasn’t so. However, much of Bach’s music fell out of fashion until German composers Felix Mendelssohn and Louis Spohr rediscovered his works in the 19th century and championed them to wider audiences.
Since then, worldwide fervor for Bach has only grown. For musicians like Buchanan, Bach’s music represents a balance between a “highly intellectual clockwork” and a “visceral, kinesthetic aspect.”
“You have to be prepared to be muscular with it. That’s not to say that you’re always playing loud or forceful. But there’s this sense that you’re always trying to hone your control over this intense flow of intellectual and emotional and musical information. It’s all coming at you at once.”
In works like the two motets that will close the marathon — “Komm, Jesu, komm” and “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” — the effect is one of “concentrated crystals of musical goodness. At the center of both of these pieces, there are moments where you feel like Bach is trying to touch eternity” says Buchanan.
Other musicians don’t always immediately take to Bach. Lavena Johanson will perform Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 at this year’s marathon — it’s part of a larger project to perform all six of Bach’s cello suites in six years — but as a music student, Johanson regarded Bach simply as one of the composers she had to play.
It wasn’t until she approached his music voluntarily that she began to feel its connection with other music she loved. This year, while practicing both the Bach Cello Suite No. 3 and the solo cello piece “in manus tuas” by recent Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, she “realized how many similarities there were between the two pieces.”
Describing the prelude in the Bach suite, Johanson notes that “there’s a section with repeated open Gs on every beat. It becomes driving, almost overwhelming. But it gives [the piece] so much tension. I feel the Shaw is similar. You get more choice about how many repetitions you have, but there’s always that bottom note that stays the same.”
Occasionally, Bach’s music welcomes a musician’s choices, too. Buchanan notes that the Contrapunctus XIV of “The Art of the Fugue” — which he will be performing at the marathon — was left unfinished. “There are a lot of [musicians] that have done different completions, so I’m attempting my own this year,” he says.
For Johanson, the atmosphere of community is the marathon’s real draw. “Anyone can hear Bach any time, so you’re not going to the event to hear stuff you can’t hear anywhere else. But because Baltimore is a lot smaller and more tight-knit, it feels very special — this confluence of great artists playing great music. It wouldn't mean as much to me to do this in New York or even Seattle, where I’m from.”
Performances at the Bach marathon run continuously, with audiences welcome to come and go as they please during the five-hour event. Says Buchanan, “We welcome anyone who wants to come. There are people that get their seat ready at 12:45 and don’t move until 6 p.m. Others just drop by for a performer that they’ve picked out.” There is a suggested donation of $5 per hour attended, but Buchanan stresses that “we want to make sure that people have access to music and art and beauty if they want to find it.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.
*A previous version of this article mischaracterized the credentials of pianist Lura Johnson. Johnson was nominated for a Grammy award. The Sun regrets the error.