The Largest Bach Website in the World, Coming to You From Israel

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Aryeh Oron, the founder and webmaster of the Bach Cantatas Website.
Aryeh Oron, the founder and webmaster of the Bach Cantatas Website.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel
Amir Mandel

“I would be doing this even if I wasn’t getting any feedback,” says Aryeh Oron, the founder and webmaster of the Bach Cantatas Website. But there has been plenty of feedback, significant feedback, including from leading musicians. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the founder and musical director of the Monveverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, and one of the most prominent interpreters of Bach, raised the obvious question when they first met. “How can it be,” Gardiner wondered, “that the most comprehensive website on Bach is being managed in Israel?”

Masaaki Suzuki, the conductor of magnificent recordings of all of Bach’s cantatas and passions, was impressed when he met Oron. “We make use of your website often,” he said.

Japanese organist and conductor Masaaki Suzuki.Credit: HUGO BORGES / NOTIMEX via AFP

The two conductors are not alone. There are between 15,000 to 20,000 hits on the website every day. Musicians, researchers, students and music lovers who are trying to deepen their knowledge of the unparalleled composer. They look for performances to listen to, discuss the various recordings, and learn about the performers. There are also lots of posts to the site, some from performers announcing a new recording but also many others who are part of the group effort to constantly increase the knowledge of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

The jazz distraction

The website’s launch was preceded by Oron’s lengthy relationship with music, which began when he was a teenager and his parents bought him a record player and his first records, among them Mozart’s Piano Concerto. “Before that I didn’t know anything about music,” he says. “But I liked it, and later I bought my first Bach records: ‘Goldberg Variations’ with Glenn Gould and ‘Switched on Bach,’ adaptations for the synthesizer by Walter Carlos [later Wendy Carlos]. I learned the basics of music from the books of [Peter] Gradenwitz, and I bought records, parallel to my studies in electronic engineering and computer science. “I got to Bach’s cantatas through Cantata No. 4, performed by [William] Ehmann. Afterward I discovered the series by [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt and [Gustav] Leonhardt, which gradually gave me more depth from a ‘historical’ perspective; my ear became more sensitive and my perception sharper.”

A portrait of Johan Sebastian Bach. Posts range from performers announcing a new recording to people trying constantly to increase the knowledge of Bach

After becoming familiar with classical music, he discovered jazz. “Art Blakey, Thelonious Munk, Dizzy Gillespie – a lot of iconic figures from the world of jazz grabbed my attention and I started to listen primarily to jazz,” he says. “I abandoned classical music for a while. At that stage I was really into it; I wrote about jazz and was a guest on radio programs. I thought about writing a book, but working with the publisher was frustrating and I dropped it.”

His interest in Bach was soon rekindled. “In 1999 I took my wife [Etti] on an ‘in the footsteps of Bach’ tour. When we came back, I began listening to Bach more intensely and I joined an online discussion group about him. I had no interest in going back to jazz.

Yet in that discussion group, he felt as if there was serious material missing. “I took an aria for the soprano from Cantata No. 32 and did a comparison of performances. The members of the group enjoyed the discussion and asked me to write more. I continued to post performance comparisons every week, and after a while there was quite a bit of material that I’d written online and people started to talk to me about a website. At first I collected material and was hosted by someone else’s website. On December 20, 2000, I launched Bach Cantatas Website.”

Twenty years later, the website includes variety of other Bach topics aside from the cantatas, but since the site’s name had become well-known, Oron is keeping it. “The content constantly expands,” he says. “Every year there’s at least one project, usually more.”

Updating the Goldberg variations

The variety of projects reflects a lively multidimensional curiosity. Regarding their content: “I try to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. That’s my personality. I apparently inherited it from my father.”

His father, Yitzhak Oron, was an expert on the Middle East; he was one of the founders of the Shiloah Institute, its first director, and head of the research department at the Mossad intelligence agency. “He was very thorough,” says Oron, with a smile. “He published a series of volumes, ‘Middle East Record,’ that included, with regard to every event, all the Israeli and especially Arabic newspaper clippings, which he analyzed and compared. After the books came out, it turned out that there was a clipping missing regarding one event. It ate him up. I’m like that, too, but the advantage of the internet is that you can fill in what’s missing.

“This year we did a project that surveyed Bach’s students,” he continues. “Researchers from the Bach Institute in Leipzig were helpful and I augmented with other sources. It turns out that Bach had 450 students. Not all of them were private students; not all of them were musicians. There were also diplomats and people with other interesting careers, who came to study music with him. There were enough people who disseminated Bach’s music and preserved it, so it didn’t totally disappear even when his reputation waned, until [Felix] Mendelssohn rediscovered him.

“There’s a student who claimed that he wrote the texts for some of the later cantatas,” he says – and it’s quite possible, since unlike other cantatas, the writer of the texts of those few is not known. Another student also claimed that in the composer’s last years, Bach stopped conducting the performances of the liturgical works in the church and the church school, and left it to him. He says that Bach was more involved in the Collegium Musicum and in creating works outside the church.”

Another project in 2020 was to update the discography of the ‘Goldberg Variations.’ “I tried to cover all the recordings there are. We found 1,200. That’s an incredible number,” Oron says. “Of all the performances of the ‘Goldberg Variations,’ I particularly like three. One is by Charles Rosen. It’s a performance that liberated me from the control of Glenn Gould, from the inability to even listen to anything else. Today I rarely listen to Gould, but I can go back to Rosen many times. Another amazing execution is by Alexis Weissenberg. The third is Grigory Sokolov.”

The Bach Cantatas Website. Masaaki Suzuki is a fan.

Oron himself has no musical background, yet managed to play the aria, the musical foundation from which the “Goldberg Variations” branch out. At a certain point this lacking background began to bother him.” I felt it was missing. I took private lessons in theory and learned to play the piano at age 65, which isn’t easy, even in terms of physical learning ability.”

He also studied German, to feel more comfortable with the texts on which Bach’s vocal music is based.

The website also hosts a translation project to which people from many countries can contribute.

“There are translations of the texts of Bach’s vocal works. This is one of the important projects. Sometimes performers who have recorded a work ask us for permission to use the translation of its text. I refer them to the translators, and they’re the ones who give permission. Sometimes they get a disk in exchange. Sometimes I do, too,” Oron says.

The first edition of Magnificat by Bach.Credit: באדיבות מוזיאון ב

Oron had worked in computers until age 58, and describes himself as having been very thorough in his work. “But during the last years it was clear that most of my energy and interest was in the website. My wife and I had been financially responsible enough to allow me to retire and devote myself just to this,” he says.

Since then the website has been constantly expanding. One of the first things he did was to guide a “Bach tour” for music lovers who want to experience places connected to Bach, who spent his whole life in Germany. “There are around 50 places connected to Bach that are interesting to tour. Some are less routine and aren’t found in tourist guides or the usual literature on Bach.”

Another project includes uploading all the chorale melodies and texts that Bach used in his vocal works. None of them is a chorale that Bach wrote. Sometimes he would take the text from one chorale and match it up with a melody from a different chorale.

Another interesting project is the Lutheran calendar which divides the year according to the map of Protestant holidays and religious events. Many performing bodies use this, because in their original religious context, the cantatas are performed based on events and notable dates on the Lutheran calendar. Oron’s efforts clarify which holiday, or specific Sunday, of the Lutheran year occurs on which date in a specific year.

“The website isn’t just informative,” Oron stresses. “It’s also a site of appreciation and critique. After all, it began with the performance comparisons I edited in the Bach discussion group. The discussion group has since been assimilated into the website and there are exchanges of opinion, discussions, evaluations and opinions on performances. Whoever wants to choose a performance of a Bach cantata as well as his other works, will be impressed by the discussions, comments and opinions on the site.”

The website doesn’t have a business model and is not a for-profit enterprise. Oron confirms that it does manage to cover its operating expenses, but he isn’t in it for the profit.” At the end of his life, my father asked me what led me to leave my work and other activities and focus on this. His question made me think about it,” he says. “I worked for many years in software houses,” he says. “I was involved in computerization projects. The life span of such a project is a few years. I once encountered a computerization project that I set up that had survived 15 years, and just then they were planning to replace it. That’s a very rare length of time. Here, what I put on the website has a continuous existence, and it makes a lasting contribution to people.”

Oron. He studied German, to feel more comfortable with the texts on which Bach’s vocal music is based.Credit: Moti Milrod

“In the discussion group I felt as if there was serious material missing. I took an aria for the soprano from Cantata No. 32 and did a comparison of performances. The members of the group enjoyed the discussion and asked me to write more. I continued to post performance comparisons every week, and after a while there was quite a bit of material that I’d written online and people started to talk to me about a website. At first I collected material and was hosted by someone else’s website. On December 20, 2000, I launched Bach Cantatas Website.”

Twenty years later, the website includes a wide variety of other Bach topics aside from the cantatas. But the name of the website was already well-known so Oron is keeping it. “The content expands all the time,” he says. “Every year there’s at least one project, usually more.” The variety of projects reflect a multidimensional and lively curiosity. As to their content, “I try to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. That’s my personality. I apparently inherited it from my father.”

His father, Yitzhak Oron, was an expert on the Middle East; he was one of the founders of the Shiloah Institute, its first director, and head of the center’s research department. “He was very thorough,” says Oron, with a smile. “He published a series of volumes, ‘Middle East Record,’ that included, with regard to every event, all the Israeli and especially Arabic newspaper clippings, which he analyzed and compared. After the books came out, it turned out that there was a clipping missing regarding one event. It ate him up. I’m like that, too, but the advantage of the internet is that you can fill in what’s missing.

“This year we did a project that surveyed Bach’s students,” he continues. “Researchers from the Bach Institute in Leipzig were help helpful and I augmented with other sources. It turns out that Bach had 450 students. Not all of them were private students; not all of them were musicians. There were also diplomats and people with other interesting careers, who came to study music with him. There were enough people who disseminated Bach’s music and preserved it, so it didn’t totally disappear even when his reputation waned, until [Felix] Mendelssohn rediscovered him.

“There’s a student who claimed that he wrote the texts for some of the later cantatas, whose textual source is unknown. He also claimed that in [Bach’s] last years it was he, and not Bach, who conducted the performances of the liturgical works in the church and the church school. He says that Bach was more involved in the Collegium Musicum and in creating works outside the church.”

Aryeh Oron at home. Another project in 2020 was to update the discography of the ‘Goldberg Variations.’ Credit: Moti Milrod

He adds: “Another project we did this year was updating the discography of the ‘Goldberg Variations.’ I tried to cover all the recordings there are. We found 1,200. That’s an incredible number. Of all the performances of the ‘Goldberg Variations,’ I particularly like three of them. One is by Charles Rosen. It’s a performance that liberated me from the control of Glenn Gould, from the inability to even listen to anything else. Today I rarely listen to Gould, but I can go back to Rosen many times. Another amazing execution is by Alexis Weissenberg. The third is Grigory Sokolov.”

Oron has himself managed to play the aria, the musical foundation from which the “Goldberg Variations” branch out. “I have no musical background,” he explains. “At a certain point it bothered me. I felt it was missing. I took private lessons in theory and I learned to play the piano at age 65, which isn’t easy, even in terms of physical learning ability.” He also studied German, so that he could feel more comfortable with the texts on which Bach’s vocal music is based.

The website also hosts a translation project to which people from many countries contribute. “There are translations of the texts of Bach’s vocal works. This is one of the important projects. Sometimes performers who have recorded a work ask us for permission to use the translation of its text. I refer them to the translators, and they’re the ones who give permission. Sometimes they get a disk in exchange. Sometimes I do, too.”

Not for profit

Oron worked in computers until age 58. “I was very thorough in my work, but during the last years it was clear that most of my energy and interest was in the website. My wife and I had been financially responsible enough to allow me to retire and devote myself just to this. Since then the website is expanding all the time.

“One of the first things that I did was to guide a Bach tour,” he says. “There are around 50 places connected to Bach that are interesting to tour. Some are not so routine and can’t be found in tourist guides or the usual literature on Bach. Another project includes all the chorale melodies and texts that Bach used in his vocal works. None of them is a chorale that Bach wrote. Sometimes he would take the text from one chorale and match it up with a melody from a different chorale. Another interesting project is the Lutheran calendar which divides the year according to the map of Protestant holidays and religious events. Many performing bodies use this, because in their original religious context, the cantatas are performed based on events and notable dates on the Lutheran calendar.

“The website isn’t just informative,” Oron stresses. “It’s also a site of appreciation and critique. After all, it began with the performance comparisons I edited in the Bach discussion group. The discussion group has since been assimilated into the website and there are exchanges of opinion, discussions, evaluations and opinions on performances. Whoever wants to choose a performance of a Bach cantata as well as his other works, will be impressed by the discussions, comments and opinions on the site.”

The website doesn’t have a business model and is not a for-profit enterprise. Oron confirms that the website, in various ways, manages to cover its operating expenses. “But profit is not part of my interest or motivation. At the end of his life, my father asked me what led me to leave my work and other activities and focus on this. His question made me think about it.

“I worked for many years in software houses,” he says. “I was involved in computerization projects. The life span of such a project is a few years. I once encountered a computerization project that I set up that had survived 15 years, and just then they were planning to replace it. That’s a very rare length of time. Here, what I put on the website has a continuous existence, and it makes a lasting contribution to someone.”

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