Bach on Stage

Quick: name a script about a classical musician.

By Mary Ann Nichols

It’s been years since we’ve had a substantial play based on classical music — “Amadeus” was written more than 20 years ago. In my book, any play or movie that helps the cause of classical music is a good thing. Even better, Itamar Moses’s new comedy, “Bach at Leipzig,” is a stage worthy sidekick to “Amadeus.” It is a delightful read (available from Faber & Faber) and not just for those of us who know and/or like the music.

J. S. Bach is celebrated as a composer today, but during his lifetime he was best known as a formidable organist. And in 1722, Bach was only one of ten auditioning organist-composers vying for a plum job in Leipzig, Germany. He got the job, but only because two others turned it down. “Bach at Leipzig” explores – with off-the-wall imagination and witty wordplay — the machinations of the also-rans at the audition.

Bach himself never appears in the play – but that’s beside the point. Moses takes a rather dusty piece of classical music history as his jumping-off point and turns it into a delightful, sometimes evens Marx Brothers-ish romp (with a generous dollop of Tom Stoppard, who wrote a forward for the Faber edition of the play). Who knew that obscure Baroque composers — at least as Moses imagines them — could be the source of so much fun?

For example, here’s an interchange between two of the Leipzig wannabees, Georg Lenck and Johann Friedrich Fasch (all the auditionees are named either Georg or Johann, one of the running jokes in the play):

FASCH: I trust that the trip from Laucha was uneventful.
LENCK: I wish it had been. A crazed bandit accosted me on the road: dirty rags, a gleaming sword, a hood concealing his face. He tried to steal my luggage.
LENCK: Oh, yes.
FASCH: It must have been dreadful.
LENCK: No, it is very attractive, which is no doubt why he wished to steal it.

This early bit of silly dialogue kept me looking for (and giggling at) the play’s plentiful serving of gags, verbal and physical. Admittedly, reading any script is a far cry from seeing it on stage. There were times when I couldn’t “see” the Johanns and Georgs as clearly and distinctly as if they had been in the flesh.

Still, many scenes played out well in the “theatre of my mind.” One exception was the opening of Act Two, where Moses synchronizes a pantomimed recap of Act One with a letter home by composer Fasch. In the letter, Fasch, temporarily imprisoned due to sabotage by the competition, encourages his wife Anna to compose and instructs her how to write a fugue (a popular Baroque form where one main theme is soon joined by other similar ones). I couldn’t easily imagine this scene in my mind’s eye, but in the hands of a good director and actors it could work, educating the audience while entertaining it as well. My guess: it’s as close to Leonard Bernstein and his ground-breaking Young People’s Concerts of the 1960s as anyone has experienced in decades. (But don’t get me started on the collapse of music education in America…)

How accurate is the play’s actual depiction of history? Moses states in an epilogue that the organists really were invited by the Leipzig Council to audition for a post vacated by the late Johann Kuhnau (although the playwright leaves out two candidates because they weren’t named either Johann or Georg). Bach was the third choice — Georg Phillip Telemann came in first, but he used the offer to negotiate for better terms at his Hamburg post. Johann Graupner was the second choice, but he was unable to extricate himself from another job. So the great Bach got the job, which he kept from 1722 until his death in 1750. “Just about everything else is made up,” notes Moses. It is encouraging that the dramatist is still in his 20s, given his gift for structure, character, dialogue, and comedy.

“Bach at Leipzig” opened on Off Broadway in mid-November and closed on December 18th to mixed reviews. Critics found that Moses either lived up to, or fell short of, the Stoppard model for cerebral comedy. It might be hard for community theatres to pull a production off (it requires too many middle-aged male actors, for one thing — always in short supply), but the play would be a great vehicle for small to mid-sized venues, such as one of the Huntington Theatre Company’s stages or the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

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