Johann Sebastian Bach cast a giant shadow over every musical genre he touched.
His masses and cantatas still define for us the essence of sacred song. Pianists and harpsichordists denied access to his inventions, partitas and toccatas would think life not worth living, while Bach's orchestral suites and instrumental concertos bristle with the energy of the baroque style.
But the most monumental Bach compositions of all might be the ones the master crafted for his own use.
Bach was one of the greatest organists of his day, and the preludes, fugues, concertos, chorale preludes and trio sonatas he wrote for "The King of Instruments" became jewels in the organ repertory crown even as his ink was drying on the page.
"To musicians in general, the organ works are the defining core of Bach's music," said Larry Molinaro, organist at historic St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Annapolis since May of last year. "A work like the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor expresses his genius at its highest form."
Molinaro is thinking big and thinking Bach these days, for he is about to begin a yearlong series of concerts at St. Anne's that will present each of the 200 or so works that make up the complete Bach canon for organ.
The first recital will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday when Molinaro puts the church's Freiburger organ through its paces in the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, the 1st Trio Sonata, a set of variations on the chorale, "Oh God, Thou Faithful God," an arrangement of a string concerto composed by one of Johann Sebastian's students, Johann Ernst, and the Fantasy and Fugue in G minor.
To complete the cycle, Molinaro envisions a few noonday recitals plus 10 formal concerts, the last of which is scheduled for All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 5, 2000. Fittingly, the final work played will be that signature C minor Passacaglia.
"Three things started me thinking about doing this," said Molinaro, who learned his craft at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and at Yale. "The first was the coming of the new millennium, which seemed to demand something special. The second is that the year 2000 will be the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. And, last, this is the 25th anniversary of the installation of the St. Anne's organ, which is absolutely perfect for Bach's music."
Molinaro said that earlier in the century, organ builders aspired to create instruments that would imitate orchestral sounds. But baroque organs, which the St. Anne's instrument approximates, allow more natural layers of sound to emerge in a manner befitting the idiomatic assurance Bach lavished on the oeuvre.
"There really is a sense of history playing Bach on this instrument in a setting like this," Molinaro said. "Remember that St. Anne's parish was founded in 1692 when Bach was only 7 years old."
But a master organist about to embark on such a voyage of musical discovery can't dwell on the past.
"Yes, this is a marathon of sorts," Molinaro said. "But as I go, I will take time to study each work closely. That final concert next November won't be an ending at all. I'm looking at all this as a starting point; as a chance to build my knowledge of these works so I can revisit them for the rest of my life."