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Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) — If Bach had Raised Bees (Philharmonia Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, cond.) Chandos 9134

Composer's Datebook - October 7, 2021


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October 07, 2021


From 1976 to 1984, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt kept revising and adjusting a chamber piece he had composed, a piece he had titled: “If Bach had kept bees…”

On today’s date in 1983 one version of this piece – for harpsichord, electric bass guitar, tape and small chamber ensemble—received its premiere performance at a new music festival in Graz, Austria.

Pärt’s work opens like a minimalist piece, with repeated notes perhaps imitating the buzzing of the bees mentioned in the title. What Part meant by “If Bach had kept bees…” is open to various interpretations, but technically speaking, the piece is a slow transformation of an instrumental humming in the key of B-flat into a Bach-like cadence in the key of B-minor. Was the deeply religious-minded Estonian composer suggesting that bees somehow symbolized a harmonious community of God’s creatures? Or was the title, in English at least, a pun on the shifting key of “BEE-flat” to “BEE-minor?”

In any case, this piece was one of several Bach-inspired works, “Bach collages,” as Pärt called them, each he said “an attempt to replant a flower in alien surroundings … If they grow together into one, then the transplantation was the right move.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) — If Bach had Raised Bees (Philharmonia Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, cond.) Chandos 9134

On This Day


  • 1746 - American composer of hymns, anthems, and "fuging tunes," William Billings, in Boston;


  • 1918 - English composer Sir Hubert Parry, age 70, at Knight's Croft, Rustington (Sussex);


  • 1893 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta "Utopia Unlimited," at the Savoy Theatre in London;

  • 1905 - Victor Herbert: operetta "Mlle. Modiste," in Trenton, N.J.;

  • 1909 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "The Golden Cockerel," posthumously, in Moscow at the Solodovnikov Theater, Emil Cooper conducting (Julian date: Sept. 24);

  • 1951 - Lukas Foss: Piano Concerto No. 2, in Venice, with the composer as soloist;

  • 1955 - Milhaud: Symphony No. 6, by the Boston Symphony with the composer conducting;

  • 1956 - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 6, in Leningrad, by the Beethoven Quartet;

  • 1961 - Henry Cowell: Symphony No. 15 ("Thesis"), in Murray, Ky., by the Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney conducting;

  • 1963 - José Serebrier: "Poema Elegiaco," by the American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting;

  • 1976 - Del Tredici: "Final Alice," in Chicago, with soprano Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti;

  • 1983 - Arvo Pärt: "If Bach Had Raised Bees" for harpsichord, electric bass guitar, tape and ensemble, in Graz, Austria;

  • 1994 - Daniel Asia: "Gateways" for orchestra, by the Cincinnati Symphony, Herrman Michael conducting;

  • 2000 - Jake Heggie: opera "Dead Man Walking," at the San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers conducting.