On the surface of it, the Netherlands Bach Society (NBS) has a simple goal: to perform the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and to share it with as many people as possible. Since forming in 1921 the society has lived up to that mission, with the ensemble of musicians and singers playing 60 to 70 concerts per year. The majority of these dates are in the Netherlands, though a recent tour took the group to Germany.
But in 2011, NBS artistic director Jos van Veldhoven had an idea – what if they performed every single piece of music Bach had ever composed? Simple, until you realise that according to Bach Works Catalogue (BWV), the man composed 1,128 separate pieces of music. No one has ever tried to do anything quite like this before.
‘It is ambitious, but also a very interesting idea in an artistic way, because we realised most of the Bach concerts cover about 10 per cent of his output,’ says NBS director Jan Van den Bossche. ‘There are so many hidden treasures that don’t get performed – and performing them is just our cup of tea.’
Bossche and his team then had to decide how to organise such an ambitious project: ‘The question became, ‘How are we going to share this with the rest of the world?’ We didn’t want to make a CD, as perhaps CDs will be extinct by the time we are done.’
Instead, NBS decided to future-proof the project by putting everything online. It came up with the title All of Bach, created a sharp looking website, and since May 2014 it has posted over 50 live recordings. ‘Of course, concerts are still at the centre of what we do with live performances, which is why we use live recordings – so people can listen and get the feel of being there,’ explains Bossche.
Each posting, listed with its BWV number, includes additional material such as interviews with the musicians that help put the music in context. ‘We try to make it as accessible as possible by avoiding specialist terms and musicological discussions,’ says Bossche. ‘We try to explain and talk about the music on a level that everyone can understand. It is all online, all for free.’
The content is getting a great response, with over 250,000 people visiting allofbach.com. ‘The average person stays about six minutes to enjoy at least one cantata or cello suite,’ says Bossche, ‘The reaction on Facebook and Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive too, so we’re very happy with that.’
Bach is currently undergoing a resurgence, explains Bossche, with more people than ever before interested in his music, even though much of the repertoire is over 300 years old. ‘There is a huge Bach vibe in the air right now. Perhaps people go back to the old ways and the old music during hard times – that is one explanation I have heard.’
Whatever the reason for Bach’s increasing popularity, the qualities that attract people remain the same: ‘There is a power in Bach that is only comparable to artists like Shakespeare and Van Gogh. People who have no knowledge of Christianity, Martin Luther or theology in the 17th and 18th centuries are still immensely attracted by it – so it must have some universal power.’
That power also attracts funding, with All of Bach supported entirely by private donations and sponsors. NBS as a whole relies on government funding for just 20 per cent of its budget, something that has allowed it to survive the recession of the last five years. ‘The funding picture hasn’t changed that much for us in the last 10 to 15 years, because we have never completely relied on government funding,’ confirms Bossche.
Alongside All Of Bach, NBS keeps up with a busy concert schedule. They just completed 12 concerts of the St Matthew Passion, which Bossche says were extremely well received. ‘There is a big craze around the Passion here in Holland.’ Next on the agenda is a series of cantatas in May, and in 2016 NBS will take on the choral works of Schubert and Brahms.
I can’t help but ask – isn’t it hard to stay motivated on such a long-term project like this? ‘The motivation is not difficult to find, because we are all very passionate about Bach, but we will need a lot of stamina to go through this and to reach the end,’ replies Bossche. ‘We’re really looking forward to all the pieces we have still to do, but you could say that All of Bach takes up all of our time.’