Who was Johann Sebastian Bach? What inspired him and who were his role models? The French conductor Raphaël Pichon has been researching the old master’s legacy for many years. So it’s no surprise that one critic recently called him the »best Bach conductor in the contemporary scene«. Together with his Pygmalion Ensemble, the young star conductor now presents his extensive project »Routes to Bach«. Over several concerts, the musicians explore Bach’s role models, his inspiration and his musical environment.
What are you trying to achieve with the »Routes to Bach« project?
Raphaël Pichon: The »Routes to Bach« project documents the discoveries that emerged over 15 years as we kept experiencing and exploring Bach’s work from new perspectives. The project aims to celebrate his music and show the context in which this ingenious composer worked. But it’s not about presenting the artistic richness of the Bach dynasty but rather to see that within the framework of the period – the mixed influences of Italian and German music history, and Bach’s teachers and role models.
What did the research involve?
The research work took many years! I undertook numerous journeys with the Pygmalion Ensemble – mainly to Germany and to places Bach himself performed. These were often very special experiences. We played in Leipzig, of course, and visited Köthen and Eisenach.
Did you make any surprising discoveries?
The 17th century was a real golden age in music history. Since many of the composers from that time aren’t particularly popular these days, you can still make some remarkable discoveries. You have some very important and fascinating works buried away in this repertoire. Names such as Michael Praetorius and Georg Böhm should really feature in our present-day concert programmes far more frequently!
How much of his forefathers and his environment is there in what we know of Johann Sebastian Bach?
Bach had a very strong sense of tradition. He endeavoured his whole life to ensure that works were passed down and – unlike his colleague Handel – he was initially far less focused on his own career. He owned an extensive collection of sheet music. The scores in that collection were often altered. So you can really see that Bach spent a lot of time engaging with the music of those who came before him. He also owned works by his uncle Johann Christoph, whom he admired greatly and called his »beloved uncle«. Centuries later, Bach’s extraordinary collection would be the subject of another incredible story: for many years, it was believed to have been destroyed by fire during the Second World War. But in the mid-1980s, the collection suddenly surfaced in Kyiv, having apparently been taken there by the Soviets.
What’s special about Bach’s music?
Bach’s music demonstrates a unique balance between intellect and heart. On the one hand, the music is intellectually extremely complex, but on the other hand it also has something very direct and moving. Even those who have never encountered this music before can quickly establish an intimate relationship with it and be deeply moved by it. That is what’s so extraordinary: the music speaks to us as to a friend. There is nothing simple about it, but it still has something intimate and familiar. That is the mark of his genius.
Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion in J.S. Bach: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden BWV 230
How do you imagine Bach as a person?
I imagine someone who had a difficult childhood because he lost his parents at a young age. I see him as a person who expected very high standards of himself and others professionally and morally. On the one hand I think he was very strict, but he was also incredibly sociable and funny. He must have been a fascinating and multi-faceted character.
Interview: Julika von Werder, last updated: 05.12.2022
Translation: Seiriol Dafydd