Notes on Bach

Monthly conversations with scholars about the life, times, legacy, and music of J.S. Bach. Sponsored by Bach Society Houston.
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Notes on Bach



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Apr 18, 2018

Join us this month as we hear from Robert and Traute Marshall, co-authors of a new book about Bach Country called Exploring the World of J.S. Bach: A Traveler's Guide. Whether you're planning a trip to Germany or just dreaming about one, you'll enjoy hearing about the Marshalls' many trips to Germany, Bach's relationships with cities such as Leipzig and Dresden, and--as always--the ever-evolving nature of Bach studies. Robert Marshall, a prominent Bach scholar, is Sachar Professor Emeritus of Music at Brandeis University, and Traute Marshall is a translator and author of a guidebook to New England art museums. Exploring the World of J.S. Bach: A Traveler's Guide is available as a paperback, hardcover, or e-book from the University of Illinois Press or Amazon. Listeners, please let Notes on Bach how we're doing by taking our brief survey, and make sure to tune back in this fall for Season 3 of Notes on Bach

Mar 9, 2018

The annual approach to Passion season and Holy Week affords a timely opportunity to consider how the theological context of 18th-century Lutheranism informs Bach's music. This month, we hear from one of the world's foremost Bach scholars who works on this topic: Dr. Michael Marissen, Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music at Swarthmore College. Michael is a popular public speaker and author of numerous scholarly books and articles along with pieces for the New York Times (click here for a more recent Times article on Bach's Calov Bible) and Huffington Post. Our wide-ranging conversation covers his recent book, Bach and God (published in 2016 by Oxford University Press), the evolving nature of Bach studies, the relationship between early Lutheranism and Judaism, and the tricky (but intellectually necessary) process of attempting to interpret Bach's music relative to the Lutheran theological tradition that he inherited and in which he composed. 

Jan 22, 2018

In this month's episode, we hear from Dr. Matthew Dirst, Professor of Music at the University of Houston's Moores School of Music and founder and Artistic Director of Ars Lyrica Houston, a Grammy-nominated early music ensemble. Matthew gives us a crash course in 18th-century keyboard culture and some insight into his recent role as editor of Bach and the Organ, a collection of essays published by the University of Illinois Press. You'll also hear about Matthew's latest research project, a reconstruction of BWV 1052 and 1053--which most listeners think of as harpsichord concertos--for organ. Look for Matthew's album of these reconstructed organ concertos to come out on Loft Recordings later in 2018.

Dec 11, 2017

In this month's episode, we hear from Dr. John Butt, Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow and Director of Edinburgh's Dunedin Consort, about his recorded reconstruction of the 1723 Christmas Day Vespers Service in J.S. Bach's Leipzig. Join us to learn more about the Lutheran Vespers tradition, how Lutherans observed the Advent season and Christmas feast days in 18th-century Germany, and the process of researching and reconstructing an entire church service from several hundred years ago. The album is available from Linn Records in both MP3 and compact disc formats; note that the Linn Records website also includes some free downloadable tracks *not* included on the compact disc. 

Nov 8, 2017

This month, “Notes on Bach” detours off the straight-and-narrow path of music scholarship for a fascinating conversation with New York Times bestselling author Lauren Belfer. Join us to hear Belfer discuss her recent thriller, And After the Fire, about a fictional missing Bach cantata with a very troubling libretto. In the episode, you’ll hear about Belfer’s intensive research process, her evolving relationship with the music of Bach, and her thoughts about some of the novel’s major historical and cultural themes. And After the Fire won a 2016 National Jewish Book Award; Belfer’s other books have received positive reviews in media outlets such as the New Yorker and NPR’s Fresh Air.

 For more information about the historical people, places, and events in And After the Fire, including the author’s Spotify playlist of music mentioned in the book, visit






Mar 29, 2017

This month, Dr. Richard Viladesau, Professor of Theology at Fordham University, helps us understand Baroque Lutheran Passion settings in a broader artistic and cultural context. In this episode, Dr. Viladesau discusses his book book The Pathos of the Cross, which examines how the Passion story was represented in Baroque theology, art, and music, in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. Fans of Bach’s Passions will enjoy hearing about the much larger historical and theological traditions in which these and similar pieces were composed and heard.

Mar 10, 2017

In J.S. Bach's time, Lutherans marked Good Friday--which falls in mid-April this year--with musical settings of the Passion, the story of Jesus's trial and crucifixion drawn from the New Testament gospels. Musical retellings of the Passion are still common in much of the world during Holy Week; as part of this tradition, Bach Society Houston will perform Bach's St. John Passion in April 2017. On this month's episode, Dr. Daniel R. Melamed (click name for bio), Professor of Musicology at Indiana University, joins us to discuss his book Hearing Bach’s Passions (click title to order), focusing especially on St. John. Melamed's book aims to help non-academics better understand the many complicated historical and musical dimensions surrounding the performance and reception of Bach’s Passions. It was recently released by Oxford University Press in an updated paperback edition. 

Jan 28, 2017

Guest: Dr. Ruth Tatlow, Independent Scholar (Sweden): co-founder of Bach Network UK, designer and founder of the open-access journal Understanding Bach, and frequent visiting researcher at the Leipzig Bach Archive.  

 Every year in January, many people attribute deep importance to the notion of a fresh start, triggered by the first day of the first month of a new year—an example of how some cultures still impute psychological significance to numbers. It’s a good time to think about the role that numbers can play in human society, a topic that certainly occupied the scientific, artistic, and theological minds of J.S. Bach’s time. Hear Dr. Tatlow discuss these themes in her book, Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance, recently released in paperback. In January 2017, the book was given a prestigious CHOICE award by the American Libraries Association.

 To order the book, visit

Dec 12, 2016

Guest: Dr. Markus Rathey, Assoc. Prof. of Music, Yale University


 This month's "Notes on Bach" episode features Dr. Rathey discussing Bach’s Advent music in its liturgical and historical context, focusing on Advent pieces mentioned in his latest book. Aimed at general audiences, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, and Liturgy provides musical interpretation drawn from historical and liturgical contexts of some of Bach’s most well-known works. To order go to We also briefly mention his newer book on the Christmas Oratorio, available from Oxford University Press at

Special note to listeners: Markus and I agreed prior to recording that I would use the Anglicized/Americanized pronunciation of his surname, instead of the German pronunciation, to help listeners who might search online for more information on his books to be able to spell his name accurately. 

Nov 9, 2016

November: “Death and J.S. Bach”

As we pass Halloween and All Saints Day and move into the waning of the church year and the calendar year, we’ll hear from Dr. Stephen Crist, Associate Professor of Music at Emory University and Immediate Past President of the American Bach Society, about the many ways that experiences with death saturated the personal life and shaped the professional endeavors of J.S. Bach, perhaps even impacting how we interpret some of his music. View Dr. Crist's bio at

Oct 14, 2016

This October marks the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a historical event so broad and sweeping in its implications that when assessing it in hindsight, we often find it hard to discern historical fact from popular fiction. Listen as Dr. Joseph Herl, Professor of Music at Concordia University, discusses the sometimes-surprising history of Lutheran worship in the two centuries following the Reformation. In the pilot episode of Notes on Bach, he discusses popular misconceptions addressed in his book Worship Wars: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict