The Majesty of Bach

On Bach's birthday, a virtuoso Baroque specialist remembers his personal journey with early music

Volume 113, No. 3March, 2013

John Thiessen
Johann Sebastian Bach

Portrait of Bach: Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1746) via Wikipedia

This month marks the 328th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach, so we asked John Thiessen to contribute a personal essay on his relationship to Bach. Described by the New York Times as “the gold standard of Baroque trumpet playing in this country,” John Thiessen, a member of Local 802 since 1997, appears as soloist and principal trumpet with Trinity Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, American Bach Soloists, Juilliard Baroque, Boston Early Music Festival, Early Music Vancouver, and the American Classical Orchestra. He has also performed with the English Baroque Soloists, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Taverner Players, and the Academy of Ancient Music. Mr. Thiessen serves on the faculties of the Juilliard School and the American Bach Soloists Academy, and has recorded extensively for Sony Classical Vivarte, Telarc, EMI, BMG, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, London Decca, Analekta, CBC, and Denon. He contracts instrumental ensembles for Trinity Church Wall Street.

My earliest recollections of J.S. Bach’s music are from the hymnbook at church. I remember having the sense that his chorales sounded better and smoother than anyone else’s. I also noticed that Bach’s music looked different. Instead of four parts moving at the same time, his was full of slurs between beats and over the bar-line. I didn’t know at the time that these were suspended harmonies or that this was what made the music flow, just that Bach’s music sounded better.

When I started out on the trumpet, I never played Bach’s trumpet music. I wouldn’t have known at the time that it wasn’t possible – the extreme virtuosity and high tessitura make it a specialized art. Later in high school, it was only through quintet arrangements of keyboard music that I performed Bach, and I knew his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor through the extraordinary direct -to-disc LP recording by the Canadian Brass before I knew it as an organ piece.

My first experience with actual trumpet music by Bach came at the end of high school when I heard my teacher, Erik Schultz, play the Brandenburg Concerto No 2. Erik was the only Canadian east of the Rockies who would touch the piece in those years – Martin Berinbaum in Vancouver also played it – and I watched and listened in awe as Erik performed this singularly difficult work on the piccolo trumpet. But he also owned a Baroque instrument, and I learned that Brandenburg 2 and indeed all of Bach’s trumpet music was originally played essentially on a long cylindrical wound tube ending with a bell, and no moveable parts. But advances in technology – the valve of course, and then miniature trumpets to play high notes – meant there was little point in going back to the original. Playing real Baroque trumpets was described to me as walking a greased tightrope without the pole. Dangerous, and definitely not worth the bother.

At age 18, I played Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor for the first time, and was astounded at how wonderful and complicated the piece was, and how difficult the music for trumpets, even my third part! I was hooked. By the time I entered undergraduate studies at the Eastman School, I knew Baroque music, and Bach in particular, far better than the standard 19th century orchestral repertoire. In my senior year, I toured the U.S. playing first trumpet for the B Minor, and performed Brandenburg Concerto No 2 on my senior recital, apparently the first Eastman undergrad to do so since Allen Vizzutti, over a decade earlier.

I was also then listening to recordings honoring the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth by European period ensembles, and for the first time heard my favorite music being played in tune, with exquisite taste, and in perfect acoustical blend and balance with other instrumentalists and singers, on true Baroque trumpets! This was my “a-ha!” moment.

I immediately made plans to move to London to study with the two players I considered the world’s best Baroque trumpet players – Michael Laird and Crispian Steele-Perkins – and begin a very long climb up a very high mountain.

Playing Bach on a valveless trumpet was for me then, and remains 25 years later, humbling. You are called upon to negotiate virtuosic passages, in the extreme high register of the natural harmonic series, effortlessly, without forcing, and often without finding obvious places to breathe. Trills are performed only using the embouchure, tongue and airstream. And due to the instrument’s comparatively longer tubing, one tires more quickly on a Baroque than a piccolo trumpet, making efficiency in practice sessions essential, and concerts sometimes nightmarish. Ah, but when it works, it’s magical! If harmonics are perfectly in tune with a section of three 8-foot Baroque trumpets, the resultant tones are otherworldly.

The notes however, and the difficulty in playing them, are only the beginning with Bach. His music stretches you to the limits of your technical abilities to be sure – the challenges are immense. But the real fun lies in peeling back the layers: what is the right tempo, and more importantly what is the right pulse? How do you articulate that first phrase, because getting that right has implications for the rest. And then there are the patterns. Bach writes long lines of sixteenth notes in sequences, either ascending or descending, and then all of a sudden he changes one note or interrupts the rhythm, sometimes at a cadence, sometimes not. What do you do at that moment? And why?

It is questions like these that make the issue of playing Bach on period vs. modern instruments almost beside the point. In my own case, using a Baroque trumpet does have distinct advantages for articulation, balance, flow, resonance and transparency. And the shape of 18th-century bows, the angle of the neck, and gut strings give string players an equally important head start. But in the end, it is knowledge of the style, intensive score study, listening, searching, and then making intelligent and heartfelt personal musical choices, which separates the virtuosic from the ordinary.

We are presently at a great moment in New York for hearing Bach’s music. There have always been organ recitals, annual performances of the St. Matthew and St. John Passion, and the Mass in B Minor. But now, in addition to the excellent Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Church, Julian Wachner leads Trinity Wall Street’s Choir and Baroque Orchestra in a weekly cantata series Mondays at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan, free to the public. The Juilliard School’s Historical Performance Department is in its fourth year, and is providing a steady stream of young virtuosic players who perform this repertoire locally or on tour throughout the U.S, Europe and Asia. And visiting ensembles such as the Bach Collegium Japan and Collegium Vocale Gent seem to be making more frequent visits to the city, giving us the composer’s best at the highest level of excellence.

I’ve always been intrigued by Bach’s name, which translates into English as “brook” or ‘stream.” As I noticed right away as a child, Bach’s music simply flows – and we are refreshed and energized by playing and listening to it.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see