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The BBC's Rosie Millard
"Bach is being celebrated as never before"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 16:15 GMT
Bach 'would be tickled' about celebrations
Johann Sebastian Bach: More popular than ever
Johann Sebastian Bach: More popular than ever
For many people, the person of the millennium is not William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or even Nelson Mandela.

It is a man who fathered 20 children and was the choirmaster in an ordinary provincial town in Germany.

The give-away clue is that he is also said to have fathered the entire canon of Western music, from Mozart to jazz.

He is, of course, the musical genius, Johann Sebastian Bach and this year is the 250th anniversary of his death.

Festivities


It would have tickled Bach, who was mad about numerology, and who some people think based his compositions on numbers

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Consequently, Bach festivities have been planned throughout the country; but none is more ambitious or wide-ranging than the Bach Cantata pilgrimage which takes in 100,000 miles, 60 concerts and 200 separate works by JS Bach.

It is the brainchild of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who is the conductor of the Monteverdi Choir and is passionate about baroque music. Mr Gardiner has devoted the entire year to unveiling the mysteries of the Bach ecclesiastical canons.

He was inspired to undertake the Herculean task of performing the extant catalogue of 300 canons - a third of which have been lost - in recognition of the millennium.

"It would have tickled Bach, who was mad about numerology, and who some people think based his compositions on numbers," he says.

"But of course, he composed these cantatas just as part of the weekly service. He never thought to keep them for posterity."


I think too many people think Bach is rather dry and dull and full of Germanic religiosity. Of course, he is none of these things

David Wilkin, Monti8verde principal cellist
Indeed, Bach's workload makes the Cantata pilgrimage seem like chicken-feed.

Every week for five years as choirmaster at the Nikolaikirche, Bach would compose a separate cantata or hymn on the theme of the week's sermon. The piece would be sung by the church choir.

Baritone Julian Clarkson, of the Monteverdi Choir which is performing the pilgrimage, says that Bach used a reasonably ordinary collection of singers.

"You would like to think he had an exceptional choir." he says.

"But I somehow sense that it was just a straightforward one, possibly with one or two billion soloists."

Extensive work

The Monteverdis have been divided into three groups, so no-one has to devote all year to the worship of the canon and excessive travel. Not that anyone is complaining.

"It's so marvellous to play the rest of the iceberg, as it were," says the principal cellist David Wilkin.

"Of course, we all play the tip of the iceberg, with the pieces which everyone knows. The cantatas are all masterpieces, but because most of them are unknown, you do not have to pretend to come to them fresh."

Perhaps the unknown quantity of the cantatas has proved a frustration to John Eliot Gardiner.

He found it impossible to raise the 5m needed to produce the pilgrimage from public money.

"The Millennium Commission turned us down, which amazed me since I thought this project hit all the rights buttons," he says.

"So I have had to raise the whole lot privately. I think too many people think Bach is rather dry and dull and full of Germanic religiosity. Of course, he is none of these things."
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