V.com weekend vote: What is the first piece you would recommend to a Bach-curious friend?

December 17, 2022, 7:16 PM · Recently one of my friends - a classical music muggle - expressed an interest in listening to the music of J.S. Bach.

"But there is so much, I don't know where to start!"

Bach with headphones

I certainly can't blame anyone for being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of music by Bach - he was a prolific composer who wrote more than 1,000 pieces of music, and one can't even begin to count the recordings made of those works.

Of course, I volunteered to help. But then I faced the question myself: where do you begin, when introducing a friend to the music of Bach? Do you go with the very obvious choices, like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," or "Air on the G String"? Or with something like the Bach Double? If you were to start with a movement from the Sonatas and Partitas or Cello Suites, which would it be? Or how about with a mass or cantata? Or the Goldberg Variations?

See what I mean?

I made my friend a little playlist, and I just started with a personal favorite, the Adagio from the solo Sonata in C major. I also included the rest of the movements, and the Bach Double, Bach Violin Concerto in A minor, and a few Goldberg Variations.

If you were introducing someone to the world of Bach, which piece would you start with? And then which pieces would you follow up with? Please participate in the vote, and then share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

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Replies

December 18, 2022 at 02:54 AM · I think I'd start with the Brandenburg Concertos, which provide an entry into Bach's polyphony while still being accessible to first-time listeners.

After that, I'd try to be both accessible and representative in an introductory Bach playlist. It might also include: the Double Concerto, one of the orchestral suites, some unaccompanied Bach violin and/or cello music, some of the Inventions and Sinfonias for keyboard, and one of the better known cantatas.

December 18, 2022 at 03:14 AM · I chose the Brandenburg, as it turns out with the majority. I'd add the violin and harpsichord concertos and even the orchestral suites as equally viable, probably beginning with the more joyful, energetic pieces such as the E-Major violin concerto or the first Brandenburg

It depends though on whom you give advice to. A religious person might be impressed with a cantata or the Christmas Oratorio. But for atheists these are not good entries (the texts are almost uniformly awful).

Secondly, solo repertoire is an acquired taste and needs to be introduced with caution. The Chaconne will likely just bore a first time listener. Better introduce first the equally magnificent sonatas with obbligato "clavier".

December 18, 2022 at 04:42 AM · I think I'd recommend something from the E major partita

December 18, 2022 at 11:35 AM · From what I've seen, solo violin music is a bit of an acquired taste. So is anything too polyphonic or harmonically complex. Anything long would also be problematic.

For first timers, something short and simple would be best, like the Prelude in C from WTK Book 1.

December 18, 2022 at 11:56 AM · I also chose the Brandenburgs because they are probably the most accessible to first-time listeners. Some of the Cello Suites would probably work well also as would the sonatas for violin and continuo and for viola da gamba and continuo. Generally, I think his instrumental music is more accessible than the choral music.

@Albrecht - I see your point about the cantatas and atheists, but I am not sure I completely agree. I love the cantatas, and I am Jewish. I do not pay much attention to the lyrics, just the music. Also, for the coffee lovers, there is always the Coffee Cantata, which is a wonderful, totally secular piece. However, I think the cantatas are more of an acquired taste. I would still go with the Brandenburgs.

December 18, 2022 at 01:54 PM · Really fun question to contemplate! I'd start with Brandenburgs #2 and #5, but I think the best way to capture a new listener (if a live performance is not an option) would be with Abbado's live performances on YouTube. It's a chance to see the polyphony in action. Moving over to vocal, I'd recommend "Erbarme dich" from St. Matthew and "Es ist vollbracht" from St. John. In those two arias, you also get the advantage of solo violin and solo cello (or da gamba). And the words are simply gorgeous.

December 18, 2022 at 03:58 PM · At a very early age, I was hooked on Bach after listening to a recording of Zuzana Ruzickova performing Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052 with the Prague Chamber Soloists with Vaclav Neuman conducting (Supraphon). It still thrills me.

December 18, 2022 at 04:28 PM · Introducing new and unfamiliar listeners to Bach means selecting quite short movements and offering helpful context and background. There are lots of good suggestions here. Further ideas: ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’ from Cantata 140, the opening and closing choruses of both the Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions, and yes, the opening of the first cantata of the Christmas Oratorio - surely only the sternest of hearts could resist those trumpets and acclamations?

December 18, 2022 at 04:31 PM · What we like about Bach might be too overwhelming for true muggles, so I'd suggest Yo Yo Ma playing the first movement of the first cello suite. It's accessible and popular, even included as a score in the iGigBook app for jazz musicians.

December 18, 2022 at 06:45 PM · Kennedy Becky hit the nail on the head: The C-Major prelude it is. I remember lying in bed as a kid when when I was already supposed to sleep. I was lying there and my father would play on his little harpsichord, the sound filtering softly across the closed doors. Sometimes he played the C-Major prelude and i was fascinated. It was the first time I became aware of harmony, the way the chords morphed into each other. Obviously I had no words to describe the experience but it "opened my ears" to the phenomenon all the same.

I change my vote to the C-Major prelude.

December 18, 2022 at 06:57 PM · BTW, Tom, I don't mean you have to be Christian to appreciate the cantatas. You have to know, or at least remember from some time in your life the feeling of religious devotion. You could be a Buddhist for all I know.

December 18, 2022 at 07:11 PM · Perhaps it’s a sense of the spiritual. Bach’s choral and vocal writing seems to draw together the human and the spiritual in a sublime synthesis.

I liked your C major prelude story, Albrecht: a real coming of light. How’s that for an appropriately seasonal tale?

December 18, 2022 at 07:58 PM · I'm a bit confused as to why atheists would be unable to appreciate the cantatas.

The cantatas are pieces of music, before anything else. The fact that the text is religious is just an added feature, isn't it?

Should it matter that the listener does not believe in the God that Bach did?

Bonus Question: Am I opening a can of worms?

December 18, 2022 at 09:21 PM · @Kennedy Becky @ Albrecht - I think you can love the cantatas simply for the beauty of the music itself without even listening to the words and without any personal feeling or background of religious devotion. However, as a form, cantatas tend to be a bit more difficult to appreciate than other forms of the classical music unless you have some previous exposure. I don't think this is a can of worms particularly.

I agree with others that the C-major Prelude is a also good choice.

December 19, 2022 at 12:42 AM · "Es ist Vollbracht" from the St John Passion, obligato played with my interpretation by a better violist than myself (or equivalent 'cellist), in English translation giving the 15 diferent meanings of (the Greek) tetelestai, rather than just repeating all the time "It is finished" or "All is Fulfilled" - Include "Paid In Full" at the very least.

December 19, 2022 at 06:44 AM · I went for the Goldberg Variations, because of their relaxing quality that, judging by YouTube comments, seems to appeal to non-classical music listeners. If I were to recommend Bach to a newcomer, it would be very difficult to overcome my natural bias towards the more complex, yet monumental pieces. However, who knows how a newcomer may react? Under videos of the Kyrie from Bach's Mass in B Minor, total newcomers say they were brought there by something called BTS. Anyway, I would recommend based on my childhood. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Bourree in E Minor (yes, THAT one), Passepied, the end of the St Matthew Passion, the C Major Prelude of WTC Book 1, Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, Wachet Auf, Prelude from Cello Suite 1, Ouverture from Suite in B... Already my mind is rebelling, because I can think of "better" works. But this is the problem with Bach. On a separate, but entirely related note, I have Christoph Wolff's new book, "Bach's Musical Universe". Anybody read it yet?

December 19, 2022 at 09:05 AM · Can you tell us a bit more about the Christoph Wolff book, Deborah? I have John Eliot Gardiner's "Music in the Castle of Heaven" and James Gaines "Evening in the Palace of Reason". Sir John needs no introduction: James Gaines is a journalist and 'Evening...' focuses on Bach's meeting with Fredrick the Great and the composition of the Musical Offering.

December 19, 2022 at 02:16 PM · Really nice list of recommendations.This is from my experience with my family and friends. Depending on the individual's knowledge of classical music, and how much they listen to classical music, I like starting with the Brandenburg Concertos. Just about everyone that I know has heard at least one or more. When they accompany me to a live performance they generally don't feel awkward being among the many that are into classical music. Make it a learning experience that is fun. If they have a good time, and have fun they begin to add classical music to their personal play lists, attend live performances more readily and often begin acquiring a taste for classical music.

December 19, 2022 at 04:29 PM · I'm looking at that picture of Bach wearing headphones. I'm wondering what he's listening to. From the look on his face, my guess is he's listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

December 19, 2022 at 07:39 PM · None of my friends are Bach curious. Knowing bach is a condition of friendship.

To those who are not familiar with his music I would consider recommending bwv 996, which is commonly performed on the lute. Sounding similar to a guitar, I think that it would be familiar in timber to an average listener and thus easier to swallow.

December 19, 2022 at 08:59 PM · Bach is great for the contemplative.

Quality is an issue. There are Bach recordings that are so-so. Best to introduce Bach with performances that have the best energy. Something like Pinnock's https://youtu.be/Kpqm1hxgH-w?list=PLF81B6EFFAE902A3B

I'd pass on the Mass in B-minor. It's pushed as a "supreme achievement" but hardly a charmer for newbies.

Most are introduced by something instrumental and will miss out on the choral. I'd pick something like Koopman's combination of organ and choir with the Schübler chorales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFpNLnzHsuE

Can't go wrong with Gould's Goldman Variations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4yAB37wG5s

I was introduced to the Matthew Passion with the Gönnenwein tempo in the opening of Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice": https://youtu.be/UBupZ3EBIAE (unforgettable).

December 19, 2022 at 09:43 PM · This question was asked and answered long ago. Which solo piece was chosen for the Golden Record, to introduce this great master's work to aliens?

Answer: Grumiaux's E Major Gavotte en Rondeau

It's a little hard to believe that the Concerto for Two Violins was not on the list as I believe it is a particularly accessible piece for the listener. The themes are obvious and there is not all that much going on beyond the two voices.

When "introducing" someone to new music, it's important that the piece not be too long. You do not introduce Liszt with the B Minor Sonata. At the same time, if you don't like the Third Piano Concerto then you don't like Rachmaninoff, it's that simple.

Cantatas? How about "Wachet Auf" (BWV 140). And I don't think enjoyment of the cantatas requires any type of religious conviction. I enjoy them well enough, and I have never believed in any sort of god.

If your friend is a coffee lover you could suggest the Coffee Cantata.

Edit to say that I agree with suggestions of short pieces played on guitar or lute. I have really enjoyed the playing of Evangelina Mascardi.

December 20, 2022 at 01:15 AM · It seems the choice would depend on the person to whom we are making the recommendation. Presumably he is not already a listener of classical music...because Bach is pretty hard to avoid if one spends any time in the repertoire. Also it would depend on whether he is a contemplative or more restless personality. I'd go with the St. Matthew Passion or a Cello Suite for the former, maybe some violin sonatas and partitas or, yes, the Brandenburgs for the latter. Etc...

December 20, 2022 at 09:37 AM · The first Bach piece I really listened to, was Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring on a record called Roadside Rag by master pedal steel guitarist Doug Jernigan, played on a Dobro (Hawaiian acoustic lap steel guitar). So I voted for it. If it worked for me, it'll work for others. The other piece I could've put was the Bouree from one of the Lute Suites:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSJ2zpAQ3jk

by Buddy Emmons on pedal steel and Lenny Breau on classical guitar. It's a big favourite of guitarists the world over.

December 25, 2022 at 12:02 AM · I lean toward the Bach Double, then the A Minor and E Major concertos. To me, it’s really a tie between these and the Brandenburgs. These pieces are not over-long or over-dense. They have memorable tunes that the listener can absorb quite easily.

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