Documentary captures the unifying power of Bach's music


It's said that music transcends time, and few things illustrate this more than the timeless music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Though he was born over 300 years ago, to this day, Bach is considered one of the greatest composers of all time and every year in June, the city of Leipzig, Germany – where Bach served as the Thomaskantor, or director of church music in Leipzig, until his death in 1750 – welcomes Bach enthusiasts from all over the world to perform his music at the Bach Festival.

Upon learning about the Bach Festival, German filmmaker Anna Schmidt says she was “hooked” and was inspired to get to the bottom of this enthusiasm for Bach and discover what still connects people with Bach today, which resulted in the documentary Living Bach.

“I didn’t realise that there were so many Bach choirs and ensembles and that people on every continent sing or play Bach with great dedication. So in 2022, I travelled to Paraguay, Switzerland, South Africa, United States, Japan, Australia, Malaysia and of course, the Bach Festival in Leipzig, spending a lot of time with my protagonists, the choir or ensemble members, and immersing myself in the culture of the respective countries,” said Schmidt in an email interview.

“During the course of filming the documentary, I was surprised to see that many young people sing, play and listen to Bach, fascinated by how alive this old German composer is for them and amazed to hear how different the meaning of his music is for each individual,” she added.

The Living Bach documentary is set to make its Malaysian premiere at Pentas 2, KLPac on May 30.

For Schmidt, the experience of touring with the documentary and connecting with new audiences is incredibly exhilarating.

Director Schmidt (left), speaking with one of the participants featured in the Living Bach documentary. Photo: Quirin Thalhammer Director Schmidt (left), speaking with one of the participants featured in the Living Bach documentary. Photo: Quirin Thalhammer

She also mentioned that witnessing the first meeting of the documentary’s protagonists at the 2022 Bach Festival was a moving experience, as it commemorated the 300-year anniversary of Bach moving to Leipzig after being appointed as its cantor.

“From the very first note, they all had a special connection to each other and a common language, which was Bach.

“My film is an emotional film; not a film that educates or informs. I wanted it to be a film that gives hope, because it shows that many people in the world have something in common: their love of music, which unites them. And we all need hope in these times,” said Schmidt.

‘An experience of a lifetime’

One of the eight main protagonists featured in Living Bach is Malaysian violinist Lee Hai Lin.

For Lee, 42, it was “an experience of a lifetime” – the film company flew her whole family to Leipzig for the 2022 Bach Festival, where she got to perform with the Leipzig Baroque Orchestra under the direction of renowned conductor Ton Koopman.

The documentary team then travelled to Kuala Lumpur to film Lee’s life here as a musician.

“Aside from trying to decipher the connections of Bach’s music here in Malaysia, Anna was particularly interested capturing the challenges faced by musicians here in playing this music and how we had to literally create a foundation for ourselves for the music to be heard, be it from having to build our own harpsichord to funding our own concerts,” said Lee, the founder of Wicked Music People, a local platform for late Renaissance and Baroque music.

Lee (in green) and a group of international classical musicians, featured in the Living Bach documentary, posing in front of a statue of German composer Bach in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Lee Hai Lin Lee (in green) and a group of international classical musicians, featured in the Living Bach documentary, posing in front of a statue of German composer Bach in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Lee Hai Lin

“I remember being a young girl, completely drawn to the music of a famous advertisement on TV. It wasn’t until I was quite a lot older that I identified it to be Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No.3!” she added.

“And of course when we go to weddings, we almost always hear Air On G String being played. But it wasn’t until I was quite a lot older that I think I really appreciated and understood his music to be much more than just tricky notes on a piece of paper.”

Lee identifies her participation in the 2017 Bachfest Malaysia as the pivotal moment when she truly immersed herself in the world of Bach.

“I was invited by David Chin to be a part of Bachfest Malaysia as they premiered Bach’s Mass In B Minor. Since then I have discovered, and still continue to discover, so many brilliant and fascinating facets to Bach that I never knew existed before,” she said.

Chin, who is the the founder and artistic director of Bachfest Malaysia, was also featured in the documentary, where he played the harpsichord at the 2022 Bach Festival.

Violinist Lee (left) and Bachfest Malaysia founder Chin during a rehearsal at the 2022 Bach Festival in Leipzip, Germany. Photo: Lee Hai LinViolinist Lee (left) and Bachfest Malaysia founder Chin during a rehearsal at the 2022 Bach Festival in Leipzip, Germany. Photo: Lee Hai Lin

“It was quite intimidating to play in the orchestra of all professional early musicians under Ton Koopman, as I was never a trained harpsichord player – I taught myself by conducting various Bach works from the harpsichord.” said Chin, who currently works as a professor of music at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the US.

“But it was moving to see so many people from different backgrounds making their ‘Bach pilgrimage’ to Leipzig, singing and playing together,” he added.

Recognition for Malaysians

The impact and relevance of Bach in modern times was further proven by Living Bach’s recent win at the 2024 Madrid Film Awards, where it was awarded “Best Feature Film Documentary”.

Lee says that the win was well deserved.

“I witnessed first hand how much devotion, blood, sweat and tears was put into this documentary.

"The attention of detail, the storytelling, camera work and commitment to excellence throughout the whole process was truly inspiring. I am so glad it is all being recognised and appreciated, and feel immensely proud to be a part of this film.”

For Lee, the film is also an important contribution to the Malaysian music scene.

“It has allowed independent music makers such as Wicked Music People and Bachfest Malaysia to be represented in an internationally acclaimed documentary, highlighting our struggles, passions and dedication to the music here in this country,” she concluded.

The Living Bach documentary screening at Pentas 2, KLPac on May 30 will be be preceded by a live recital by Wicked Music People and Bachfest Malaysia, including Lee and Chin. Proceeds from the ticket sales will be donated to Bachfest Malaysia for its 2024 Bach Festival tour in Germany.

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