GREAT BARRINGTON — And you thought Bach lived the quiet life of a composer, organist and kapellmeister.
In 1717, he was scheduled to have a musical duel with Louis Marchand, a famous harpsichordist from Paris. The French king offered a monetary prize.
"Marchand proved a no-show on the day of the duel, the king's servants filched the prize money, and Bach had to content himself with a pro bono performance for the assembled dignitaries who otherwise expected the event of a lifetime."
That tidbit is one of many in the highly readable biography in the Berkshire Bach Society's current program book. More to the point, the society presented organist Renee Anne Louprette and lecturer George B. Stauffer in an engaging lecture-concert Saturday afternoon in the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Housatonic.
The small, attractive church is off the beaten path musically. For music lovers (this music lover anyhow), its organ is a discovery. The instrument is an old-fashioned tracker from 1893 - meaning an organ played without pneumatic-electric assistance. Out come gentle, even purring sounds of unusual clarity.
Bach doesn't roar as he can on a larger organ. He becomes more intimate, his contrapuntal lines distinct. Yet the force is ample for the space.
The program felt like a Bach tutorial. Before an audience that overflowed the pews, Stauffer, professor of music history and dean emeritus of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, introduced five lesser-known works by Bach. Louprette, his wife and colleague as coordinator of the organ studio at Rutgers, played each work after the introduction. Her touch was secure, her choice of tone colors imaginative, lending each piece a distinctive flavor.
As a speaker, Stauffer wore his learning lightly. He gave just enough detail as he traced the development of Bach's style from age 15 to death (though the presentation was not chronological). But if you came to the table expecting a feast of Bach's music — well, you got a tasting menu.
In short: The Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 549a, from the hand of a 15-year-old, was a clumsy foreshadowing of "The Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes," BWV 651-668, and Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, from Bach's mature and final years. A happy acquaintance was "Pastorella," BWV 590 - four dances, Stauffer explained, meant to depict shepherds dancing for the birth of Christ. These were from a gentle Bach, well removed from the stark fugues and the Bach who, as recounted in the program book, was jailed by the duke for breaking his contract to remain as kapellmeister in Weimar.
Apart from showing Vivaldi's influence, the finale, Bach's transcription of the allegro finale of Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in C Major ("Il grosso mogul"), wore a smiley face as both composers poked holes in the pomposity of the emperor of India. A crazed cadenza that came out of nowhere showed Louprette in a virtuoso light.