Bach's Forgotten Aria
The discovery astonished music scholars. On two nearly forgotten pages of a pile of birthday notes given to an 18th century duke, a young Johann Sebastian Bach wrote an aria in his own hand. Until now, nobody knew that this existed.
There was no previous record of the music, a two-page handwritten aria dated October 1713, when Bach was 28. But the archive has now verified the piece, which had been stashed in a box of birthday cards, as the work of Bach. According to the archive, the composer wrote the work for soprano, strings and basso continuo in honor of the 52nd birthday of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, whom Bach served as court organist. It is likely that he performed it, and that the duke was pleased: Soon after, Bach became Ernst's concertmaster, and received a raise.
Scholars say the score was something of a departure for Bach, a light strophic aria in which lyrics — in this case, a 12-stanza poem — are sung over fairly constant playing. It is the first vocal music by the Baroque master to be discovered in 70 years. And it missed being destroyed by only months. A fire ravaged the Anna Amalia Library, where Bach's music had been stored in a box along with other birthday wishes for the duke. While many artifacts and documents were lost in the fire, the box had been sent to Leipzig for restoration months earlier.
"After Michael and I had identified it as Bach's, we opened a very expensive bottle of champagne," Peter Wollny, the archive's head of research, told the Guardian on Monday. "Michael came back from Weimar two weeks ago and said he had found something interesting. We got the microfilm of the score last week. We compared it with Bach's known compositions -- and bingo.
"The last time anything by Bach was discovered was 80 years ago. So far we've only heard it on the computer. But it's a charming little work, written for one singer -- a soprano -- and a harpsichord. There's a little postlude at the end for a string ensemble -- two violins, a viola and a cello. It takes just four or five minutes to play."
The archive has asked British conductor John Eliot Gardiner to present the world premiere and record the aria. Gardiner said that he thought the aria likely came from a longer cantata.
"It is absolutely beautiful," Gardiner told the Guardian on Monday. "So many of Bach's cantatas went missing after he died. His son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was pretty profligate with his father's stuff. He sold manuscripts off, lost them, used them as firelighters. So when something like this turns up, it is wonderful."
Gardiner described it as "a reflective, meditative, soothing piece, as Bach's church music so often is. It's not going to set the world alight -- enough of Bach's music from this early-to-mid period has survived to give us a sense of his musical personality at that time -- but it's just great to have this, because every one of his cantatas and arias is on a completely different level from all of his contemporaries."
British music critic Tom Service, who has examined the score, wrote in yesterday's Guardian that it is "a charming tune in C major, full of a natural pastoral joy, an appropriate gift for the birthday of his patron in Weimar."
"There's none of the contrapuntal seriousness that you associate with Bach's most involved music," he added. "Instead, this piece reveals an intimate side to the composer."