Rachael Beesley is an internationally renowned Australian violinist, director and concertmaster. In March she curates and directs a two-concert exploration of reflective and celebratory works by German composer and Baroque music visionary, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Here Rachael delves into the profound connection and admiration she holds for Bach’s music, and how it has inspired her upcoming project, JS Bach – Music for Reflection & Celebration.
During my 15 years based in The Netherlands, I recorded the complete Cantatas of JS Bach and performed the Matthäus and Johannes Passions every year (up to 12 times per season). In Melbourne, I have curated and directed programs including The Genius of JS Bach and The Passion of the Soul concerts for Melbourne Recital Centre and recorded many works by JS Bach for ABC Classics.
This year is a unique opportunity to curate, direct and perform programs dedicated to JS Bach, to take a moment to reflect on the challenges that life has shown us recently and to celebrate with the wondrous sensation of renewal and lightness that comes from playing music together with colleagues, and for live audiences once again.
While on the jury for Melbourne Recital Centre’s Bach Competition, I was thrilled to observe the passionate interest in JS Bach’s works by these young musicians - many influenced by the findings and practices of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement. Through teaching and examining students performing works by Bach at the Melbourne and Sydney Conservatorium’s of Music as well as the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for more than 20 years, I am curious about the divergent ways of approaching JS Bach and how this prompts us to continue to ask questions.
(To learn more about what Historically Informed Performance, see here)
I’m fascinated by the first known performances and the first recordings of JS Bach’s works. We have the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the works of JS Bach by looking back to Bach through the study of historical recordings and historical context around the centuries during and after Bach’s life with many of these resources only recently becoming accessible. As performing musicians, we are informed by historic styles of performance and asked to reflect on our perspectives towards repertoire from the Baroque period which in turn invites us to reassess readings from primary and secondary written source material as well as contemporary commentary from Bach’s time.
Violinist John Holloway noted that Bach’s music ‘is becoming more and more a foreign language to all of us. Therefore, we need to understand that language, learn its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, and see what kinds of things can be expressed with it. What you can put behind a performance of Bach is an understanding of how he reduces complex counterpoints to skeletons, and how brilliantly he translates those into challenges for the musician’.
These challenges are food for the soul as having the time to explore the historical performance styles of these works enables one to bring renewed energy and life to these works.
Rachael has curated a playlist featuring the music from the JS Bach two-concert series to accompany your reading.
Recently we have lost many great pioneers in the field of Early Music from Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Bruggen, Nickolas Harnoncourt, Alan Curtis, Anna Bylsma, Bruce Haynes, and Christopher Hogwood. I am eternally grateful for the wonderful direction and support I was given by my teachers in Europe, Sigiswald Kuijken, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Vera Beths and to be able to work closely with Richard Egarr, Alan Curtis, and William Christie, who formed the extraordinary musical path I continue to follow to this day. As a teacher myself, I see what an amazing difference Historically Informed Performance (HIP) has on young musicians and the broader musical path they can follow because of these pioneers.
As a performing musician, I am constantly studying and researching composers and the performance practices of the times, as well as discovering and rediscovering repertoire on period instruments. By learning and absorbing about the history of the music, I enjoy the challenges this creates and the versatility this gives to me as a performer and ultimately the effect on audiences. Greater awareness and appreciation of the repertoire, performance practices and sound worlds created on period instruments has enabled all Classical musicians to make informed choices which has enabled Classical music to continue to flourish and enlighten audiences.
I have a passion and hunger for exploring, digesting, absorbing, and inhabiting music from all different periods of music and communicating this enthusiasm to interested audiences. I am fortunate to work with colleagues who expand my horizons and expectations of what is possible. Our chamber music and our orchestral colleagues, our teachers and our students feed our curiosity, push our limits, refine our techniques, and expand our worlds to open up to the joys of music.
In this series, I am thrilled to be performing peaceful and soulful solo works by JS Bach echoed in solo and ensemble works by contemporary Australian, Swedish and Estonian composers in the sublime acoustics and visually inspiring space of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall together with cellist Josephine Vains and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s percussionist Robert Cossom for the specially curated program, Music for Reflection. To celebrate as live music returns to the arts precinct and especially on Bach’s birthday, Music for Celebration brings together Australia’s most engaging and creative Baroque musicians exploring the joyous repertoire for strings by JS Bach combined with imaginative and engaging works by Baroque composers Romanus Weichlein, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Georg Muffat.
There is a quote by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, who is known for his rich symbolism and spiritually motivated journeys, which reflects the inspiration behind Music for Reflection: ‘The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden; and like a mirror, they also reflect the person looking into them.’
Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin alone are a true exploration of what possibilities are available for this instrument and when performed on instruments of our age, the range of textures and timbres are expanded and enhanced. Presented as individual pieces, a contemplative and reflective space is found amid these grand designs as they bring our consciousness and breathing into the present moment. The violoncello breathes as a singer in Bach’s Cello Suites, finding resonance and range in ways unsurpassed before or after his lifetime. When I asked cellist Josephine Vains who joins me in performing these concerts about her connection to the music of Bach she revealed ‘in this program are three solo cello works which I've mulled over for many years. Bach - the first real music a young cellist plays made an indelible impression on me as a child musician. I grew up with Yo Yo Ma and Anner Bylsma's LPs of the Six Suites, played on repeat in our house. Bach grows with you as a musician, providing varying doses of emotional succour, playfulness, and endless room for thought. If there was one music that I have with me always, in my head, it's Bach. One never gets bored! Whilst the analytical side of me enjoys playing Bach, and with it the flex of interpretational muscle, the heart always wins. I love being drawn into his world of harmony and voices, rhetoric, and dance.’
This time, Music for Celebration is enhanced by another quote by Paulo Coelho: ‘Our time on this earth is sacred, and we should celebrate every moment.’ Composed in the French Ouverture style, JS Bach’s early version of the Suite No.3 in D major for strings and continuo welcomes us back into familiar territory, with a grand opening followed by a quick sprightly section, bringing the solo concertante violin to the fore before returning to the slow gestures of the beginning. Bach’s buoyant Concerto for Two Violins in D minor and outrageously zealous Concerto for Three Violins in D major allows the solo violinists to shine and swagger in the spotlight, with conversations a plenty and fugal passages sending the listener into a spin. The composer’s singing style is exploited in the cantabile writing of the slow movements whilst flamboyant virtuosity is on display in the concluding movements. Exploring the rich sonorities and varied instrumental music from the Baroque period, Biber’s sacred and secular Sonatae tam aris quam aulis servientes (Sonatas as much for the altar as for the table) served dual purposes. Serving the Archbishop of Salzburg as Biber had done, Muffat effortlessly brought together the compositional styles of the European continent. His magnificent Passacaglia in G major from his Armonico Tributo (Harmonious Tribute) contains 25 variations on a ground bass, also used by JS Bach in his Goldberg Variations.
“It is the special province of music to move the heart.” – JS Bach
Rachael Beesley graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne - Bachelor of Arts in Music (1989), Graduate Diploma of Arts in Music (1991) studying with Spiros Rantos and from The Royal Conservatoire, The Hague, The Netherlands - Master of Music (1999) studying with Sigiswald Kuijken, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Vera Beths.
She is a talented and versatile violinist and musician who has devoted her life to performing, teaching, and researching and has become one of the world leaders in the field of historically informed performance (HIP). She is well known throughout the world, a regular member of some of Europe's finest ensembles, including as guest concertmaster with Anima Eterna Brugge, Les Muffatti, La Petite Bande, Il Complesso Barocco, Bach Concentus, Restoration Company and the New Dutch Academy as well as performing regularly with Les Arts Florissants, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Combattimento Consort. For more information on Rachael and her projects, visit her website here.