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Bach's Musical Offering, BWV 1079, has long fascinated musicians. Bach did not specify instruments for much of this compendium of musical puzzles presented to Frederick the Great in 1747, and the contrapuntal games, all based on the same theme, have attracted many arrangers. Anton Webern (1883-1945) completed a pointillistic arrangement of the six-part ricerare (another type of fugal or imitative music) in 1935. Bach and Webern have both inspired German composer Frank Michael Beyer (b. 1928), who has arranged more pieces from Bach's Musical Offering.
Subtitled "a requiem," Paul Taylor's 16-part Musical Offering was first danced in 1986.
Notes on the Dance
Although Johann Sebastian Bach had no occasion to compose an actual ballet, dance is one of the wellsprings of his music. Even in seemingly abstract pieces, there is kinetic physicality and motor energy, and those wonderfully braided lines that seem to cry for spatial as well as aural definition. The list of 20th-century and contemporary choreographers who have created dances on the music of Bach is endless: George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Doris Humphrey, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Roland Petit, Bella Lewitzky, John Neumeier, Helgi Thomasson, Peter Martins...
And Paul Taylor. The American modern dance master has created at least seven major works with music by Bach. The Paul Taylor Dance Company brings two of them, Musical Offering and Promethean Fire, for its Hollywood Bowl debut, August 25, with Leonard Slatkin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"I have always felt like Bach is an old friend. I do not read music, so it is not some kind of complicated thing, I just like the music when I listen to it," says Taylor. "I choose music that I will not mind listening to hundreds or thousands of times. You see, once I have chosen a piece of music for a dance, I know I am going to have to listen to it for the rest of my life. You have to choose music that you like, or it will drive you crazy."
Born in Pennsylvania in 1930, Taylor grew up near Washington, D.C., and attended Syracuse University as an athlete and art student, before he found his calling in dance. He studied dance at Juilliard, forming his own company in 1954. He danced with Merce Cunningham, was a soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company for seven seasons, and was a guest soloist with New York City Ballet in the premiere production of Balanchine's Episodes in 1959. Taylor retired as a performer in 1975, concentrating on creating at least two new works for his company every season; his work list now numbers 122 dances.
More than 75 ballet and modern dance companies around the world have presented Taylor's choreography. His own company, now completing its 50th anniversary season, has performed in more than 60 countries since its first international tour in 1960.
"I am really proud that my company has been able to survive for 50 years, although I never really thought about it in terms of the company having this long history," Taylor says. "I just keep making the best dances I can, and leave al the historical stuff to the critics and dance scholars."
Musical Offering and Promethean Fire are choreographed to orchestral transcriptions and arrangements of Bach's music. In addition to collaborating with the dancers, Slatkin and the Philharmonic will also frame the dances with other Bach transcriptions.
For Musical Offering, Taylor began with Anton Webern's colorful, pointillistic orchestration of the six-part ricercar from the collection of contrapuntal puzzles Bach composed as a gift to the music-loving king of Prussia, Frederick the Great. He added further items from Bach's collection in the orchestrations by German composer Frank Michael Beyer. Subtitled "A Requiem," Taylor's Musical Offering was first performed in 1986.
"I tried to make my dance reflect the music of Musical Offering," Taylor says. "The dance is like a conversation with the music. Sometimes the dance listens while the music talks, other times the music listens while the dance talks, sometimes both talk, sometimes both are silent."
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.