Conveying the Horrors of Apartheid


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Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa

Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa

The earth did quake; the rocks rent, and the graves were opened. Then peace was made with God as Jesus’s body came to rest. That peace, and with it the ability to notice beauty in all things, is expressed in the last aria of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) which begins with the text, “Make thyself clean, my heart.”

This aria is among the most sublime gifts given in all of music, a vision far better suited for the soul than the stage. Yet Peter Brook tailors it meticulously to The Suit. The 89-year-old British director’s production of a short play based on a story by South African novelist Can Themba ends with this astonishing aria plucked out on dinky electric keyboard rather than sung as though musical lava profoundly pouring from a deep bass. Brook has no pretense to present Bach as a call to hope on a cosmic, landscape-altering scale. It is enough that we carefully sustain beauty in the atmosphere of tragedy.

The latest production from Brook’s French company, Thèâtre des Bouffes du Nord, has arrived in Los Angeles. Under the auspices of Center for Performance at UCLA, The Suit is currently finishing up a two-year international tour and will run through 19 April 2014 at Freud Playhouse. A simple show, it employs only three actors, three musicians and a few basic stage properties, such as chairs and clothes racks.

Philemon (Ivanno Jeremiah) discovers his wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in bed with another man. The lover flees, leaving his suit behind. The earth does not quake. There is no violence, no lack of civility. Philemon merely insists that the suit be treated as a guest of the house, a diplomatic reminder of his wife’s offense. Otherwise life goes on.

But life going on is no small thing. The setting for The Suit is the township of Sophiatown west of Johannesburg during apartheid. It wasn’t pretty and pink, Philemon’s friend, Maphikela (Jordan Barbour), tells us. But it was alive.

People lived ordinary lives, indulged in pleasures and tried not to think too hard about the oppression lurking around the corner, about the white police who took pleasure in cutting off the fingers, one by one, of a black guitarist before shooting him. They tried not to think about the fact that Sophiatown would soon be leveled and its residents relocated to a camp.

Brook lets the story tell itself. These are gracious characters, enormously appealing. But humiliation is discretely poisoning the atmosphere.

The play has the quality of a twentieth-century South African Othello. In Shakespeare, jealously is like an unsubtle Newtonian force, namely explosive. A Moor stands apart and is unable to control his emotions. There is clear-cut black and white. Iago, who taunts Othello, is all bad. In Sophiatown, white suppresses black. But Themba’s story – as adapted by Brook, Marie-Hèléne Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk – is of blacks. Maphikela is not Iago. He reluctantly tells Philemon of the adultery and encourages Philemon to forgive and forget. Philemon does not mean to kill Matilda, on whom he dotes. But humiliation has a terrible power, and every gracious gesture on stage is the unspoken (though not unsung) reminder that this township is victim of the terrible humiliation of apartheid.

What makes The Suit exceptional theater is the sheer graciousness of those gestures. Every actor moves like a dancer. Every actor speakers like singer. And song pervades all. Pianist and accordionist Mark Christine, trumpet player Mark Kavuma and guitarist Arthur Astier underscore the production with arrangements of Schubert songs, South African songs, African American blues, The Blue Danube and, of course, Bach.

The music mainly serenades. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden may not be a subtle indicator but, heard played by a wandering accordionist, it is easy to ignore its significance. And that is the brilliance of The Suit. Brook has long been streamlining theater and opera, breaking down the distinctions between the narrative and the lyric stage. Movement is, for Brook, a purifying process. Music and speech only have meaning if movement does.

Three years ago, also with the help of Estienne and Krawczyk, Brook reduced Mozart’s The Magic Flute down to its ritualistic essences, removing the magic and retaining the humanity. In The Suit, however, the horrors won’t go away. But by making theater, music and dance inseparably one, Brook’s art reaches that cleansing Bachian peak where beauty and humanity endure.

Mark SwedThe Los Angeles Times

Kennedy, the Potty-mouthed Virtuoso


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Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy

Nigel Kennedy, the enfant terrible of classical music, is always good for a quote. Try this from an interview last year with The Guardian newspaper after the interviewer pointed out that his concert will be conducted by a woman: “I really don’t see what’s so important about gender. I think conductors are completely over-rated anyway, because if you love music why not play it? . . . I don’t think the audience gives a shit about the conductor. Not unless they’ve been pumped full of propaganda from classical music writing or something . . . no one normal understands what the conductor does . . . they just wave their arms out of time.”

It’s a typical Kennedy rant – the sort of one-sided expletive-filled generalization we can perhaps dismiss as trash talk – or simply Kennedy being Kennedy. He might sometimes be wrong, or perverse, but he’s lovably wrong or irresponsible in the way of the naughty child.

And speaking of children, there is another great quote from comedian Bob Monkhouse who said: “Growing old is compulsory, growing up is optional.”

As Kennedy told an audience at a performance last year of music from his recent CD Recital, which blends Bach with Fats Waller and his own compositions: “All this repertoire is music which I have either grown up with, or feel I’ve grown up with, bearing in mind that growing up is something I haven’t been overly interested in so far.”

Perth fans of this violin virtuoso with the potty mouth, extreme opinions and arrested development will get the full flavor of his personality in an intimate recital on 29 April 2014. Kennedy will divide his concert into two distinct halves – the first half solo violin compositions by Bach. After interval he will introduce his four-piece combo of acoustic guitars, bass and drums playing his own compositions and jazz improvisations.

For some reason I’ve got it into my head that his Australian tour will feature music from Fats Waller, recorded on his CD Recital. “Nuh, man, Fats is not on the list, although Fats might find his way in there at the end,” he says on the phone from London.

Of the Bach violin compositions, Kennedy says: “I love the geezer, man. I’ll be playing his Chaconne in D minor (BWV 1004), a set of variations which are just phenomenal.” (It’s been praised as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written). And on his own music, Kennedy searches for a comparison: “It’s intimate stuff with acoustic guitars and the drummer just on the brushes, very quiet really: somewhere between the Modern Jazz Quartet and Fairport Convention.”

Kennedy is one of the few classically-trained musician who feels comfortable playing jazz, particularly that distinctive sense of freedom that comes from improvisation. In his youth he played on stage with the great jazz violinist and improviser Stéphane Grappelli and he has created music in homage to the equally celebrated rock guitar improviser Jimi Hendrix.

It’s rare to find someone who can move so easily between strict classical music and the spontaneity of jazz, I suggest. Why do so many classical musicians find it so difficult to play jazz or improvise? “I think it is because classical musicians are over-taught and over-trained,” he shoots back. Improvisation is a lost art in classical music. Bach used to do it a lot but somehow it got lost in the eighteenth century. “Classical musicians now just read the notes. But you can’t just play the notes: you’ve got to bring emotion to it. Jazz improvisation is like the real truth behind the music.”

He might buy an argument with classical musicians over that one, but Kennedy is never far from controversy over his views. Even his off-hand remarks are likely to get him into trouble.

Take the controversy that erupted at last year’s Proms concert, where Kennedy played with a group of Palestinian musicians. At the end of the performance, Kennedy told the Albert Hall audience: “We all know from experiencing this night of music that giving equality and getting rid of apartheid means there is a chance for amazing things to happen.” His apartheid comments were interpreted as an attack on Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and were edited out of the BBC’s television broadcast which went to air later. Kennedy furiously denounced the action as an attack on freedom of speech, a response lapped up by the British media.

In our phone interview Kennedy is more philosophical, saying he was only making a remark about how good it was to be able to play with Palestinians. “Then some baroness, who is not worthy of that name, got it into her head that my remark should be banned,” he says, clearly annoyed that the comment had gotten out of hand. (He is referring to a former governor of the BBC, Baroness Deech, who said Kennedy’s remarks were offensive and untrue and that there was no apartheid in Israel.)

But, really, should he have been surprised? Kennedy has spent a career developing a reputation for his “punk” attitudes to classical music, of debunking myths and being provocative about how he feels about music and life in general.

Ron Banks – The West Australian

Sven-David Sandström’s Choral Masterworks


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Sven-David Sandström

Sven-David Sandström

Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström enjoyed an international breakthrough in 1972 when his orchestral work Through and Through was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam two years after its premiere in the composer’s homeland. From that point, leading musical assemblages worldwide have performed his compositions, making him one of Sweden’s leading composers. Within contemporary choral music, Sandström’s music occupies a unique position that is both firmly rooted in the traditions established by predecessors like Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, yet also rigorously twenty-first century modern.

American Bach Soloists first performed one of Sandström’s works an all-choral program that presented different approaches to consonance and dissonance in works by William Byrd, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and others. On that occasion, Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Choir performed Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and it made a terrific impression on audiences and critics. San Francisco Classical Voice commented, “The final piece, Sven-David Sandström’s Agnus Dei, was the clearest example on the program of a contemporary composer’s upsetting the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance. Because the choir performed the piece with such virtuosity and ease, however, the difference in dissonance treatment in this piece seemed like just another change of color. The slow collapsing of the dissonant final chord into triadic consonance was exquisite.” Jeffrey Thomas adds, “I think that everyone who heard our performances of Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and certainly every singer who participated in those concerts, has never forgotten the experience.”

Sandström’s deep admiration, even love, for Bach’s music is undeniable as his output of vocal music includes a series of six motets composed after Bach’s originals. During upcoming concerts, Jeffrey Thomas will direct the American Bach Choir in Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm! (BWV 229) as well as Sandström’s 2005 setting.

American Bach Soloists

Modulating to Every Key


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Royaumont Abbey

Royaumont Abbey

The exploration of the mysteries of harmony that began in the sixteenth century has much in common with the exploration of the real world with the help of the natural sciences and critical thinking. Similarly, the journeys into the most remote key areas were only possible after composers had learned to look behind the rigid system of modes and hexachords and began to see the sheer unlimited possibilities of transposition and modulation. Since these harmonic experiments were long considered a secret art, it is no surprise that they were confined to solo keyboard instruments, where chords and their progressions could be handled by the ten fingers of the two hands and where the composer and the performer were often the same person. Yet at first the keyboard with its preset and fixed tuning allowed excursions into remote key areas only to a limited degree. As a consequence, adjustments to the old Pythagorean tuning were necessary, and this led to various forms of mean-tone and irregular temperament culminating in the establishment of equal temperament in the early nineteenth century.

J. S. Bach’s monumental double cycle of The Well-tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93) has always been regarded as a major landmark in the history of keyboard music and the utilization of the full spectrum of keys. The first part, containing preludes and fugues through all twenty-four major and minor keys, was completed in 1722; the second, of the same scope, followed around 1739/40. Although The Well-tempered Clavier is often associated with the use of equal temperament, we know from various documents that Bach – like most of his contemporaries – actually favored a pragmatic temperament that made playing in remote tonal areas possible but at the same time kept the variegation of the individual keys. The unique artistic value of Bach’s double cycle lies not merely in the comprehensive treatment of this key system, but rather in the idea of combining the richness of harmonies he explores with an equally comprehensive richness of musical styles and composing techniques.

Bach drew his inspiration from various models – some of which will be introduced 22-27 June 2014 during the keyboard program presented by Andreas Staier and Peter Wollny at the thirteenth-century Royaumont Abbey north of Paris. One of the earliest journeys through the key areas is taken in John Bull’s Fantasia Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, which leads a simple diatonic subject set in a strictly contrapuntal fashion by means of transposition through a labyrinth of harmony. Another way of exploring the spectrum of keys is the free improvisatory style called stylus phantasticus in the seventeenth century. A fine example of this type of composing is Georg Böhm’s Praeludium, Fuga et Postludium in G minor, a piece transmitted in a manuscript copy from Bach’s circle.

Bach and his German contemporaries devoted much of their compositional efforts to adapting and merging the French and Italian national styles. Thus Bach studied and held in high esteem the works of Antonio Vivaldi and François Couperin. The combination of German, Italian and French elements eventually yielded the highly expressive and galant mixed style that became the great composer’s legacy to his sons and students.

Peter Wollny La Fondation Royaumont

Joanna MacGregor Crosses Tonal Grounds


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Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor

Pianist Joanna MacGregor heads, Rapunzel-like, to the top of a tower and stares out across to where the pebbled lips of the coastline kiss the slate blue waters of the English Channel. Here she will stay for hours, because this is where she keeps her Steinway; safely out of earshot “which is really important for the neighbors.” You’d think in the seaside town of Brighton that the locals would be queuing up to hear her perform on a daily basis (without having to shell out), but clearly MacGregor is as anxious as the rest of us when it comes to maintaining diplomatic relations with the residents in her street.

She is busy preparing for her latest globetrotting tour, which will take in Portugal and New Zealand, before she arrives in Melbourne for the Metropolis New Music Festival. It might be a celebration of the contemporary, but of course MacGregor will be playing Bach – almost three hundred years dead but still sounding deliciously “modern.” The innovative pianist might be known for casting her net wide in search of distinctive collaborations, but Bach is never far behind. The ”new music” part comes from the presence of Shostakovich, Messiaen and English composer Harrison Birtwistle, whose pieces are interwoven throughout the program.

Like a giddy journey in a time-machine through collisions of era and continent, her concert program begins in Germany during the Baroque period before heading east to a chilly Soviet Union followed by a hook turn through France, then back to a thawed-out Russia via Britain. She finishes in Buenos Aires with Four, for Tango from the master of the bandoneon, Astor Piazzolla.”Yes, I suppose it is quite a journey,” she laughs. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

It all starts with a handful of Bach’s now-famous preludes and fugues – the Old Testament of keyboard repertoire – made up of forty-eight short pieces in every key imaginable, from which she segues into Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues. But don’t be deceived by the somewhat pedagogical title. Wrapped up in each of these little pieces, only a few minutes long, is an entire musical world in microcosm where fiery toccatas, ceremonial entrances, operatic arias meet comic moments and tragic dramas.

How Shostakovich, who found Bach “boring,” came to emulate his iconic keyboard work is, says MacGregor, a classic Cold War tale. Sent against his will as a cultural ambassador to Leipzig in 1950, the composer found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. But his ears pricked up when a Russian pianist sat down and played from The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-93), as the Bach collection is known. Impressed, he returned to Moscow and penned twenty-four of his own. “It’s interesting how the two hundred years between the composers completely dissolves when you play them,” says MacGregor. “I do a little trick at the end when I play two Shostakovich fugues, one after the other, and then finish with Bach. By then the audience shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Maybe, but when it comes to the crunch, which does she prefer? “Bach,” she says without missing a beat. “He’s the main man. With a lot of Western music it all goes back to Bach. All the harmonic progressions and techniques are absolutely watertight. You can’t get away from him. He’s like a godfather in a mafia way. He’s just there and present in everything.”

In keeping with this year’s festival theme, the natural world, she has selected a number of works that revolve around birds. Hot on the heels of the winged medley comes works by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, innocently entitled Musical Toys, which, she says, like the best fairy tales, are a perfect mix of enchantment and fear.

MacGregor has spent her life nudging classical music into new territories and has collaborated with the likes of jazz musician and composer Django Bates, Talvin Singh, the father of modern Asian electronic music, and the French pianist, composer and writer, Pierre Boulez. In line with her determination to dismantle musical barriers, she also runs her own record label, SoundCircus.

Her drive towards the eclectic and intuitive modus operandi comes, perhaps, from not having been hot-housed as a child. Despite being the daughter of a piano teacher, MacGregor says she never felt pressure to practice; there were no Tiger Mother schedules to uphold. “Playing for me is as natural as breathing. To be a musician, you have to have a desire to listen and explore music. If you are one of those kids who are forced to practice you end up utterly miserable.” At the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she is head of piano, there are only a handful of students who have been hot-housed. “What you are looking for in young people . . . is this absolute natural response and enthusiasm and ebullience when they hear music, rather than cracking the whip.”

It is time for MacGregor to head back up the tower to revisit those tonal universes of the preludes and fugues or to recapture the trills and ornamental chirrups of Couperin’s birds. She does so with a cheerful heart. “It’s all so enjoyable, I can’t think of anything better.”

Kathy Evans – The Sydney Morning Herald

Viola for Sale


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MacdonaldviolacropIt may well prove to be the most expensive musical instrument in the world – a Stradivari viola, whose asking price will start at $45 million when it is offered for sale this spring – but, just for a moment, it was held up with no hands.The viola was tucked firmly under the chin of the violist David Aaron Carpenter, who briefly needed both hands to adjust his bow, which had frayed a little during a virtuosic run-through of Albéniz’s Asturias at a demonstration of the instrument arranged by Sotheby’s. “I won’t go that crazy on this again,” Mr. Carpenter said with a smile after trying out the viola in an empty showroom at Sotheby’s. “It’s possibly the most expensive instrument in history, and I don’t want to break it.”

If the viola fetches anything near its asking price, it will dwarf previous sales records for musical instruments. The “Lady Blunt” Stradivari violin set an auction record when it was sold in 2011 for $15.9 million. While some instruments may have been sold privately for more, none are believed to have gone for anything near the $45 million being sought for this viola, which was owned and played by Peter Schidlof of the Amadeus Quartet until his death in 1987 in England.

It is a staggering sum for a fiddle: Its $45 million base price is more than enough to have saved both New York City Opera, which has folded, and the San Diego Opera, which is also closing because of money woes, or to buy several hundred top-of-the-line concert-quality grand pianos. And it underscores the way collectors have driven up the price of rare instruments in recent decades, with inflation far outpacing, say, musicians’ wages.

Violas are sometimes thought of as the unloved stepsisters of violins – rarely in the spotlight, played by fewer famous virtuosos, with less music composed specially for them. But it is precisely their status as second-class citizens that has made this viola so valuable: While there are roughly six hundred violins made by Antonio Stradivari, only around ten of his violas are known to have survived intact. That makes this instrument, the “Macdonald” viola, rare indeed.

The viola, owned by Mr. Schidlof’s family, will be sold in a sealed-bid process by Sotheby’s and by Ingles & Hayday, which specializes in the sale of valuable musical instruments. Buyers will be asked to submit bids of $45 million or more – not knowing how much their competitors have bid – and the viola will be sold to the highest bidder.

“The value is a combination of factors,” said Tim Ingles, a director of Ingles & Hayday. “It is a Strad, which is the first thing, made in the very best period of Stradivari’s work, which is between 1700 and 1720. It’s incredibly well preserved – one of the best-preserved Strads in existence. It’s one of only ten violas in existence. Then you add to that the fact that one of the most famous violists of the twentieth century played it for over twenty-five years.”

Still, setting a price for such a rare item is not easy.

Mr. Ingles said that the “Macdonald” viola – named for one of its early-nineteenth-century owners – sold in 1964 for $81,000 to Philips, the Dutch electronics company, which owned the Deutsche Grammophon record label and bought the instrument for Mr. Schidlof to play with the Amadeus Quartet, which recorded on the label. (The ownership of the viola eventually passed to Mr. Schidlof “by a process we don’t fully understand,” Mr. Ingles said.) But the valuation is not as simple as adjusting the 1964 price for inflation – $81,000 in 1964 would be around $613,000 today – because the value of rare instruments has far outpaced inflation in recent decades.

Mr. Ingles said that the sellers determined the viola’s asking price partly by examining how its value compared with other instruments over time. The $81,000 it cost in 1964, he noted, was more than three times the auction record for a Stradivari violin then. The $45 million base price now is a bit less than three times what the “Lady Blunt” sold for.

It is unclear who might offer such a sum for the viola, which will be first on view in New York. It then goes on display in Hong Kong and Europe. Collectors, foundations and patrons have often purchased rare and valuable instruments, which they then sometimes let musicians use. But David Redden, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, said that the instrument might appeal to another kind of buyer: the type who will pay $7.6 million for a coin or a fortune for a rare stamp. “We see them at Sotheby’s quite frequently – the sort of person who is absolutely fascinated by, sort of, the greatest object of its kind, in every category, and is able to participate at that level,” Mr. Redden said.

Of course, no one would try to spend a $7.6 million coin, or mail a letter with one of those postage stamps made famous by a printer’s error. The viola is still meant to make music. “Musical instruments and string instruments are quite different from selling some of the other things,” Mr. Redden said. “Because they need to be played.”

David Aaron Carpenter plays Bach’s Suite in C Major (BWV 1009) on the “Macdonald” viola.

Michael CooperThe New York Times

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen


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JerusalementrycropThree hundred years ago, Bach was in Weimar, serving as court organist to Johann-Ernst III of Saxe-Weimar. He had just been promoted to the role of Konzertmeister, a position that required that he lead a monthly performance of a church cantata in the Palace Church.

Alfred Dürr has determined that the first cantata by Bach performed at Weimar on 25 March 1714 was Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182). Depicting the Palm Sunday theme of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta suspects that the poetry was written by the court poet Salomon Franck. The chorale movement near the end of the cantata quotes Paul Stockmann‘s Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod, originally composed in 1633.

The score of the cantata acknowledges the reverberant acoustic of the church building by directing the divided violas and the continuo to play pizzicato when accompanying a recorder and violin duo. The chorale is arranged in the manner of Pachelbel: every line is first prepared in the lower voices, and then the soprano sings the cantus firmus while the other voices elaborate upon the text. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes the closing chorus as “a sprightly choral dance that could have stepped straight out of a comic opera of the period.”

Although church authorities in Leipzig typically forbade the performance of cantatas during Lent, an extraordinary opportunity for Bach to reuse Himmelskönig, sei willkommen occurred shortly after his arrival in Leipzig. On 25 March 1724, the solemnity of the Marian feast of the Annunciation outranked the Palm Sunday observance.

A Red Letter Day


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The Fourteen Diverse Canons (BWV)

The Fourteen Canons

The 329th birthday of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach may not strike most people as a very significant anniversary, but for Bach scholars, 21 March this year is a very special day. Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number fourteen, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this fourteen years into the twenty-first century. Coincidence?

To mark his birthday in 1685 – which is sometimes dated to the thirty-first of the month these days due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in Germany in 1698 – the Bach museum in the composer’s hometown of Eisenach will take a closer look at his esoteric interest in number puzzles. Among the items on display from 21 March until 9 November 2014 will be a famous 1746 portrait in which the composer wears a waistcoat with fourteen buttons, a personalized drinking cup with a fourteen-point monogram, as well as Bach’s annotated score for the Fourteen Canons (BWV 1087) built on the baseline of his Goldberg Variations (BWV 988).

A series of films and interactive displays will explore and sometimes question the validity of the most common theories.

Until the discovery of the fourteen canons in Strasbourg in 1974, looking for numeric patterns in Bach’s work had been considered a niche activity, said Jörg Hansen, the curator of the exhibition. But these days “most scholars accept that Bach shared other baroque artists’ passion for gematria,” an ancient system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases.

“That’s not to say that music came second to number games,” said Hansen, who was sceptical about some of the wilder theories, such as that the composer mathematically predicted the date of his own death. In the late 90s, one Bach scholar developed a computer program just to show that any given number could be found to reoccur in Bach’s work once you started searching for it. The number thirteen, for example, occurred just as frequently as the number fourteen.

But in those days, Hansen said, there were few academics who denied that Bach had a playful mind, and the theory that he enjoyed encrypting his personal signature in the texture of his compositions was seen as less fanciful. “[Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach was recorded as saying that his father ‘was not a fan of dry mathematical stuff.’ Increasingly, I think that statement should be read with an emphasis on ‘dry’ rather than ‘mathematical,’” Hansen said.

The curators of the Bach House in Eisenach are not alone in their renewed interest in Bach’s number puzzles. Danish director Lars von Trier‘s new film, Nymphomaniac, features a series of earnest conversations about Fibonacci numbers and Bach’s polyphonic theory.

Philip Oltermann – The Guardian

Bach Psychology


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PsychologycropThere is an unofficial marker in the timeline of canonical classical music. It falls around 1800, during Beethoven’s lifetime, separating composers for whom biography matters to non-academic listeners from those for whom it doesn’t. It is assumed the listener needs to know about the lives of post-1800 composers: about the onset of Beethoven’s deafness and resulting feelings of alienation in order to understand the storming anger in his music, about Chopin’s sense of exile in order to properly feel the longing expressed in his, about Schumann’s struggles with mental illness in order to properly feel the spasms between passion and introversion in his, about Mahler’s faith and disillusionment in order to feel the weight of existential crisis in his. It grows out of our desire to find personal meaning in art, to find some message encoded in all those notes. We need to believe we know what our composers were about before we can trust that we’re receiving their ideas properly. To get it wrong is somehow to do them an injustice. It certainly simplifies the process of listening. We know, with Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Mahler, what sort of mood we are supposed to be in even before the music begins to play. But it also simplifies and often distorts the historical record, reducing the complicated lives of our heroes to a series of mythological icons. Elsewhere in this publication [Los Angeles Review of Books], I’ve wondered if this is a problem worth worrying over: “A thousand battalions of Mozart scholars cannot erase the image of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. But should they try?” With the publication of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a new quasi-biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), we’re situated comfortably on the other side of the 1800 line, back during the musical “Baroque” where we have a chance to see the problem at its thorniest, focusing on the composer who proves its most difficult test case.

For today’s classical music audiences one of the most problematic aspects of music before circa 1800 is answering the simple question “why did they make this piece of music I’m about to listen to?” The answers, for Beethoven and all composers succeeding him are comfortably familiar: Music is testimony of the self or the world of the self. It is done for Art (capital A), for the Inner Spirit, for the memory of the persecuted, to expose the existential anxiety of it all, etc. The early Romantics reached back a little bit and quickly salvaged Mozart (who, after all, should have lived to see 1800) by projecting testimony back onto him – of Oedipal strife and a difficult personality – fairy tales that still make up his mythic badge (“drunken child savant”), providing a framework for listeners to have satisfying emotional experiences when listening to him. But further beyond the wall mythology gets more difficult. As entertaining as Vivaldi’s music is, and as intense as his life may have been, who seeks out his music to experience the artistic integrity of his personal testimony? No one cares what Palestrina’s relationship with his father was like, or whether or not Handel believed in authoritarian order when he wrote Giulio Cesare. So much of the daily reality surrounding the music of the more distant past gives us less heartfelt, less Romantic, less personally-resonant answers to the question “why do it?” (for the King, for the paycheck, for the Pope’s pleasure cruise) that the profundity of the music can seem to suffer for its lack of subjective, creative angst that we seem to crave and they perhaps did not.

Thus much pre-1800 music is today relieved of being much more than “mood” music. Our approach to the music of the Renaissance, for instance, often becomes caught in a circular logic that keeps us at a distance. It is beautiful, yes? It is expressive, yes? And so what does it express? Beauty. And why is it beautiful? Because it is so expressive. But what does it express? . . . and on and on. The music of the Baroque, on the other hand, often represents extreme emotional states. It is not, however, the conduit of the composer’s own feelings, but of the “official” emotional posture required for whatever event, patron, institution or (for the opera) story they were writing. Emotional states, during the enlightenment, were just another natural phenomenon to be illustrated and represented, like winds or water or birdsong. As Joseph Kerman put it “Baroque composers depict the passions. Romantic composers express them.” The idea of personal expression had to wait for a few big cultural rifts. First, the freeing of composers from the Ancien Régime system of patrons and institutions, making them independent artists following no one’s taste but their own or their public’s. Second, the Napoleonic cult of the individual commanding that the artist, no less than the philosopher, look inward. As Johann Gottlieb Fichte pitched the new Romantic creed in 1792: “Turn your gaze away from all around you, and inwards on to yourself.” Once again, Mozart and Beethoven were the earliest prototypes of the new musical artist who would not or could not submit to the whims of church or aristocratic patronage and who instead struck out on their own, misfits, outlaws, non-conformists misunderstood by their era. This is all as much mythology as history, a plotline we internalized so long ago it will likely never be shaken.

And so biography for Pre-Romantic composers has often seemed superfluous to the experience of listening – merely academic, and usually pretty hopeless. Among the pre-1800 masters, Bach biography in particular is a prickly and thankless calling. It requires one to fuss endlessly over minor details, or at least to pretend to. It entails teasing phantom details from in-between precious few lines of actual primary sources, most of which are notoriously dull and legalistic. It requires you to do this while knowing that these same precious few, dull, legalistic sources have already been pored over by dozens of prior adherents to produce dozens of contradictory hagiographies and incompatible mythologies leaving us little more than a name-symbol accompanied by a jumble of tepid modifiers. To Christoph Wolff‘s recent Bach: The Learned Musician, we can add a few more alternately dismissed or embraced by Gardiner: the “exemplary Teuton,” the “working-class hero-craftsman,” the “bewigged, jowly old German Capellmeister,” the “incorrigible cantor.” If none of these monikers sounds terribly appealing or particularly dramatic to you, as opposed to say, Beethoven: The Stormy Napoleonic Revolutionary, or Mahler: The Disillusioned Neurotic Spiritualist, then you are starting already to see another problem with Bach biography. When you combine the stubborn refusal of the historical record to yield much of anything tantalizing, the expectation that none of it makes it into his music anyway, and the cowing complexity of that music, the end result is not a familiar emotional character-type but a cold distance, a sense that he and his world are unreachable and irrelevant to the listening experience. Yet Bach receives more biographical attention than any composer before Mozart and remains his chief rival for sheer quantity. Unlike the other canonic masters, the popularity of Bach studies shows no sign of letting up. The early twenty-first century has already seen more attempts to figure him out, of both the strict academic variety (along with Christoph Wolf’s biography, there are substantial essays and monograms by Robert L. Marshall, Peter Williams, and John Butt) and user-friendly “crossover” variety (Davitt Moroney, Martin Geck, Paul Elie, Eric Siblin) than any of the other candidates, including those like Mozart and Beethoven whose source material is richer in detail and drama. This mania for redundant parsing of the same scant material remains an unusual situation. Understanding it is key to figuring out what, if anything, Gardiner’s attempt has to offer.

His goal, on one hand, is humanization, to bring Bach closer to us. And, having throughout his life as a conductor absorbed any and all research on his favorite composer, he acknowledges many of the problems:

Even to his most ardent admirers Bach can seem a little remote at times: his genius as a musician – widely acknowledged – is just too far out of reach for most of us to comprehend. But that he was a very human human being comes across in all sorts of ways: not so much from the bric-à-brac of personal evidence such as family letters and first-hand descriptions, which are few and far between, but from chinks in his musical armour-plating, moments when we glimpse the vulnerability of an ordinary person struggling with an ordinary person’s doubts, worries and perplexities.

The anxiously modified tautology “he was a very human human being . . . ” gives you some sense of what Gardiner fears he is up against. More than any other composer, Bach illustrates the problem of articulating the emotional mechanisms of music. There is a long tradition of disappointing hermeneutics lurking there. The mainstream of Bach reception has been characterized by a frustrating poetic reticence, a dissonance between strong claims that his music is emotive and deeply moving coupled with a refusal or inability to identify the source of that emotion in terms other than its exhaustiveness or its impressive contrapuntal achievement. The poetic potential of his music is usually tied to its stylistic breadth and technical complexity, an exercise in the monumental and the logical, which impresses only insofar as it remains aloof from emotional particularity. That distance has proven useful. The vagueness of those powerful emotions everyone claims to feel, their being tied to something so seemingly unnameable, has allowed each generation to remake Bach in whatever image suits them. It is, in other words, what makes possible that most ubiquitous and banal claim about Bach’s music: that it is “Universal.” That cardinal cliché is difficult for any biographer of a “great” to avoid, and Gardiner is no exception, finding in Bach’s sacred music, “a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge.”

Such platitudes, of course, tell us nothing except how easy it has been to renew Bach’s music decade by decade. As anyone surveying the last hundred years will realize, and as Paul Elie pointed out last year in his Reinventing Bach, the twentieth century belonged to the miraculous Leipzig cantor. While other composers had their moments, and the center of the concert hall canon might seem to tilt every so often between earlier and later Romantics, by the beginning of the twentieth century it had been decided that Bach would always stand as the monad, the font, the Grossvater of us all. The image of Bach as prototype has been a cultural obsession since the 1830s when the Romantics first rediscovered his great settings of The Passion of Christ. That revival, beginning with Felix Mendelssohn’s historic performance of the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) in 1829, the first time it had been heard since Bach’s own lifetime, succeeded in doing two things for Mendelssohn’s generation: it extended the German canon back a century, proving that “deep” music had always been a Teutonic thing, and it made a literal merger between Art and Religion for a generation that increasingly saw the concert hall as a site for their most spiritual and philosophical experiences.

Since that moment, Bach has been the official center of gravity that binds together the musical universe. It’s not an empty honorific. “In Bach,” according to Mahler, “the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” For Brahms his music represented “a whole world of the deepest thought and most powerful feeling.” The nineteenth century turned his off-putting complexity and biographical distance into a mechanism for confronting the sublime, that ultimate proof of Romantic ideals. Whether it was the tangle of a solo keyboard fugue, or the glacial face of the opening chorus in the St. John Passion (BWV 245), his music was a test, a mountain to be climbed so that one might, with pain and awe, glimpse and reach out to touch the highest possible points mortally attainable.

By the third decade of the twentieth century, the sublime had met up with the mass market mechanisms of radio and recording. His most famous works were packaged for maximum virtual mountaineering, the keyboard works played in lush, gargantuan transcriptions by the likes of Rachmaninoff and Busoni or clothed in the grandest garb of all, the oversized Wagnerian symphony orchestra. If the mountaintop is too far away, and too steep a climb, then the NBC Radio Orchestra would snip off the peak and send it to your living room where it would still seem plenty big. The transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski of works like the Chaconne (BWV 1004) for solo violin or the  Passacaglia and Fugue (BWV 582) for organ were gorgeous, plodding wooly-mammoths that marked a moment of maximal popularization for Bach: Gothic Bach, Unfathomable Bach. This was the Bach world that John Eliot Gardiner was born into and would eventually help to replace.

His career as a conductor of the Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique falls squarely into a newer phase of Bach reception, an epochal shift in what Bach symbolized and eventually what he sounded like. This new Bach, the Bach that has reigned in the cultural imagination for the last seventy-five years, which musicologist Susan McClary has dubbed “Pythagorean” Bach, emerged as part of the stark turn away from Romanticism following World War I. The modernist rejection of “subjectivity” and personal psychological confessionals in art led to something of a downfall for Wagner, Mahler, and most of the great nineteenth-century Romantics. But the disillusioned post-war avant-garde found intellectual solace in the alienating distance between Bach and the human. Unlike Wagner, and Beethoven, and Schumann, Bach was untainted by personal psychology and corruptible human desire. He again benefited from having no historical personality, seeming to float above it all in a positivistic paradise where music and number intersected free of the original sin of emotion. His difficult and seemingly flawless counterpoint could serve as a crucible for what mattered in the years of Modernist formalism: Truth, objectivity, incorruptible processual integrity. The chores of complicated composing rules seemed to the modernists the best protection from backsliding into old bad (read: Romantic) habits. For Stravinsky, Bach’s fugues were “a pure form in which the music means nothing outside of itself.” Even as multiple generations or artists turned for comfort to the play of abstract forms, Bach managed to remain the center of the musical universe.

Even the radical post-World War II composers of total serialism, chance music, and computer music could not fault the pristine precision of his counterpoint. Gothic Bach had given way to Harmony-of-the-Spheres Bach, a different kind of metaphysics, but one no less rooted in the sublime – The Mathematical Sublime. Think no further than the close bond between Bach and Glenn Gould, that next great mythic icon of modernist detachment. To twist Gardiner’s tautology, Gould was one of the least human human beings to have ever been. Like everyone else, he found himself in Bach, imagining him as an artist “withdrawing from the pragmatic concerns of music-making into an idealized world of uncompromised invention.” This, of course, is precisely what Gould did in 1964 when he retired from live performance to concentrate his efforts exclusively within the precision-bubble of the recording studio, freed from the concert hall and its stink of the human and the social. Gould, too, is now central to our mythology of artist types and, in the popular imagination, Bach has remained the music for that type: esoterics and ascetics and Beautiful Minds. It is the music to which Hannibal Lecter plans his meticulous escape in The Silence of the Lambs. It is the music obsessively plinked out by the father of Allison Janney’s character on The West Wing, of course a mathematician, of course seeking structure through the spreading disorder and isolation of Alzheimer’s Disease. Music, Math, and Discipline. Clarity, Structure, and Complexity.

It is necessary to revisit Bach’s complicated reception history because it is out of all of this that Gardiner hopes to bring back to human form his “very human human being.” It is a tall order, and a motivation one may not immediately trust considering how much Gardiner’s own recordings have helped to solidify the modernist view. As he relates it in Music in the Castle of Heaven, he experienced that version of Bach early on in his studies with Nadia Boulanger who preached the Stravinskyan catechism of discipline and order: “She insisted that the freedom to express yourself in music, whether as a composer, conductor or performer, demanded obedience to certain laws.” His own recordings, part of the wave of “historically informed” interpretations using original instruments and claiming to resurrect the performing styles of Bach’s own era, have come to define the sound of Bach for the current generation of listeners. Those initial claims to “authentic reconstruction” have long been put aside, and we have (most of us) come to admit that we like this sound not for its historical authenticity but for how well it matches up with our own Mondrian-esque view of Bach: sleekness, clarity, momentum, almost superhuman precision (with Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir often at tempos that take the breath right out any mere humans foolish enough to try and sing along). Gardiner’s interpretations are only the most successful of an entire generation of conductors (along with those of Sigiswald Kuijken, Phillipe Herreweghe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Masaaki Suzuki among others) whose sound lays bare the abstract lines in Bach’s counterpoint by eliminating all of the distractions of older, Romantic performing styles: too much vibrato, too much rubato, too much dynamic swelling, not to mention too many performers. It would be impossible to overestimate how important Gardiner’s recorded legacy is to contemporary Bach reception. As novel and shocking as his recordings may have seemed to my own teachers who grew up on Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler, I am just young enough that his 1990 Mass in B minor (BWV 232) recording on Archiv was the first I heard, as was his St. Matthew Passion, and most revelatory to me, his recording of Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243a). Today, for my students, Gardiner’s Bach is “normal” Bach, and those earlier conductors seem shocking, impossibly foreign, as from a lost and bizarre era.

The book, then, surprises. Given this reputation for clarity and precision, it is surprising that Gardiner’s inner dialog with the composer is such a humanely messy concoction of the spiritual and the psychological. One wonders if the motivation for the book is not to provide something of a correction to his own public reception. That a great performer may look back on his career and fear that everyone has missed his point all along must be daunting. Though one suspects that the thirty-year-old Gardiner, caught up in the heady days when the “authentic performance movement” was laying siege to record labels, might have written a different book. Much of Gardiner’s current view seems to have been born of the extraordinary project he undertook in 2000, dubbed the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While hardly as austere an experience as the name implies (it was backed by a major record label and documented by a BBC camera crew), it was still a powerful testament to our continuing Bach obsession – a full year spent living life as an itinerant cantor, moving from one church to another throughout Europe, preparing and rehearsing two complete, often unfamiliar, Bach cantatas each week along with a number of other Bach monuments, some two hundred total pieces of difficult music all conforming to the liturgical calendar that was the composer’s own constantly ticking task master. That intensity of focus, of having one’s international conducting career turned for a year into the comparably claustrophobic vocation of Lutheran cantor, in short the pretense of “walking in the composer’s shoes,” seems to have shaken loose a lot in Gardiner. He speaks of it like an evangelist bringing back answers from the desert:

Following Bach’s seasonal and cyclical arrangement of cantatas for an entire year provided us with a graphic musical image of the revolving wheel of time to which we are all bound . . . solving the enigma of how this music brimming over with vigour and fantasy could have emerged from beneath the wig of that impassive-looking cantor . . .

The punishing pace of creativity and the picturesque settings seem to have provoked a sort of vision quest, part time-travel fantasy and part genuine insight into how distant a figure as Bach might actually be. It is no surprise, then, that the most satisfying sections of the book are those where Gardiner lets us into that inner dialog by reconstructing his thoughts during moments when he is swimming in the music during rehearsal or performance. Some of this talk is very much in line with the Pythagorean orthodoxy:

to convey what it feels like to be in the middle of it – connected to the motor and dance rhythms of the music, caught up in the sequential harmony and the intricate contrapuntal web of sounds, their spatial relations, the kaleidoscopic colour-changes of voices and instruments . . . the way it exposes to you its brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm.

So far so Gould: sequences, spatial relations, colors, contours, lines. But as the book progresses, Gardiner reveals another layer of his current thinking about the composer, through both his perspectives on those same dull primary sources, which unfortunately he chooses to revisit in great detail, and through his favorite individual passages of the cantatas and Passions, which happily he does in just as much detail. The biographical half of the book shines in those sections when he imaginatively recreates the feel of the places Bach lived, penning him in a much smaller and uglier world than one might wish to imagine. Gardiner’s biographical Bach is impressively small: not a German but a Thuringian, not part of a Lutheran community but part of a family-clan, not a citizen of the Enlightenment but an overworked and alternately obsequious and litigious crank mired in the petty squabbles of provincial town life. Remote from the big thinking that usually makes up the intellectual context of Baroque studies, Bach’s world as presented by Gardiner is decidedly un-sublime. While far too conjectural in its details to be taken as an authoritative biography, it is a welcome antidote to the sweeping historical movements which usually serve as the “context” of important artist’s lives: The Enlightenment, The Baroque, The Holy Roman Empire. Bach’s world is too small for such big frames. Gardiner usefully reminds us that it is entirely possible to live “in the Enlightenment” without knowing it or showing many signs of it. It is a common sense point that some academic writers of epistemological “top-down” history might heed more often.

With a Huizinga-esque flair, Gardiner depicts Bach’s milieu in terms calculated to pull him off the mountaintop of “pure music.” From the rough and tactless scrounging required of preceding generations of the great “Bach Clan” to survive the gray landscape of the Thirty Years War (“the malaise which through most of the previous century had blighted the struggles of their parents’ and grandparents”), to Bach’s own dingy coming of age in the brutish boy’s schools of Eisenach and Ohrdruf with their Caravaggiesque gangs of knife-wielding ruffians (“brawls . . . [that] . . . developed unchecked while the burghers stood by, impotently wringing their hands . . . [over the] territorial division of the town between these embryonic Jets and Sharks or Mods and Rockers”), all the way to the petty arguments that made up much of his life in a Leipzig run by “a formidable alliance of secular and religious powers whose methods of subjugating employees had been honed over time and who were expert at making life difficult . . .,” Gardiner shows a consistent flair for the drab and depressing.

As in Huizinga’s history writing, the rough detail in this portrait of a querulous, often petty cantor and his dour world is meant to shock and alienate the reader. In breaking the composer out of his abstract cocoon, Gardiner also manages to break down the stereotype of the detached ascetic inhabiting a world of pure intellect. But that distance, once achieved, and the reader’s predictable recoil from the grubby reality offered up, is actually just a step toward Gardiner’s next goal, to locate in Bach some basis for a tragic persona that can serve as a framework for reading his works psychologically and autobiographically. The goal is not without merit. For listeners, it promises a renewed emotional resonance between we moderns and Bach’s sacred music that goes beyond the old saws of purity or complexity. The tactics, however, are predictable and problematic. To pull Bach, and only Bach, across the 1800 wall and into the world of authentic testimony, Gardiner needs to pick and choose when to allow him to be a very human human being living in his very small human world, and when to allow him the luxury of transcending that world in order to communicate his “universal” message. It is a difficult needle to thread.

The Bach that emerges is heavily marked by that rougher, darker setting. But the resulting scars are arranged into a familiar pattern, that of the romantic outsider. He is orphaned, death-obsessed, outlaw, non-conformist, a sullen misfit. He is “battle scarred” from disputes with both civic and court authorities, scars that include the memory of imprisonment and the threat of destitution. He rejected the career path of his more successful contemporaries toward the soulless but profitable theater music of larger urban centers out of pure artistic integrity (“not from any Lutheran prudery but simply because the music he heard there left him cold”). Instead he propagated “mutant” musical forms that were largely misunderstood by his own audiences and bosses. He is set upon by smaller musical minds who question his lack of a university education. Thus even Bach, the supreme technician (and posthumous terrorizer of conservatory students the world over), is able to fill the Romantic role of the unschooled, or at least un-institutionalized, outsider. He stands alone as a complex psychological figure among a collection of shallow and imperious straw men: despots, bureaucrats, venal patrons, abusive pedagogues, jealous academics, frivolous popular composers (Telemann serves as the main foil here), and audiences craving easy delights. Bach alone is allowed the luxury of introspection and depth because Bach alone is tasked with having something important to say to us directly. The personal flaws of this “imperfect man” selected for our inspection are consistently of the anti-hero variety. He is, in short, every bit the visionary and martyr we’ve come to expect from artistic hagiography. The process is completed when Gardiner makes the final turn so familiar to us from our side of the 1800 wall, revealing that the ultimate primary source for Bach’s biography is the testimony of “the music itself.”

The music gives us shafts of insight into the harrowing experiences he must have suffered as an orphan, as a lone teenager, and as a grieving husband and father. They show us his fierce dislike of hypocrisy and his impatience with falsification of any sort; but they also reveal the profound sympathy he felt towards those who grieve or suffer in one way or another, or who struggle with their consciences.

Much of this is merely an extension of the call made over ten years ago by Robert L. Marshall for bolder attempts at Bach Biography. There is much resonance between Gardiner’s portrait of Bach and Marshall’s suggested method, to extend back to Bach the posthumous Freudian couch sessions practiced so provocatively (and questionably) by Maynard Solomon in his biographies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Both Marshall and Gardiner fixate on Bach’s experience of loss. Marshall goes so far as to posit that an obsession with death and human frailty, not to mention a deep attraction to Lutheran orthodoxy, might be explained as a retreat from the anxiety of being twice orphaned, first by parental death, and then by brotherly abandonment. It is a method that requires inflating poorly documented, sometimes partially guessed, bits of biographical detail with intense emotional consequences. Gardiner’s musical analyses flow freely from this font. Simply put, Bach’s personal experience of loss, coupled with his fervent immersion in Lutheran doctrine, led him to a uniquely honest understanding of shame, of temptation, and of the desire for redemption. Such themes, of course, never go out of fashion and were staples as well of Baroque opera and of the sacred works of Vivaldi, Telemann, and scores of other composers. But Gardiner singles out Bach for an “authentic” religious conviction in contrast to the shallowness of his more theatrical contemporaries. To revisit and rewrite Kerman’s formula, “Baroque composers depict the passions . . . except for Bach, who expresses them.” One of us after all. This coupled with Bach’s unmatched willingness to forgo the beautiful and the pleasurable in favor of uncomfortable moments of pain, rage, and revulsion separates him from those others. At its best such diagnoses invest old music with a new and contemporary psychological power, a process that leaves one conflicted, offending the historian while stirring the concertgoer. Being both myself, I’ve long since learned to stop worrying and enjoy the resulting neurotics made out of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, et al., and so I am fully prepared to do the same for Bach. But we should never forget who the patient on the couch really is.

Gardiner’s task is made easier by the predictability of the resulting trope. We all know the artist type that we expect to be born of such angst. The gateway from slim source material to mythological archetype is a bit like Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station. It will always be there for you if you run confidently enough at it. In Music in the Castle of Heaven, this dimension of testimonial expressivity remains Bach’s special prerogative among Baroque composers, a special status essential to the book’s final and most substantial argument, that among the music of that entire era Bach’s sacred vocal works are uniquely relevant to our modern condition.

Gardiner provides us two different vantage points on Bach’s testaments. Based on his experience during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, he is the perfect guide to walk us through a diachronic survey of an entire year’s cycle. It is an ambitious analysis offering glimpses of a composer responding to the challenge of producing a new sacred composition every week – a complex of moving Rembrandtian musical portraits of humans in distress. For a few cantatas and for the two extant Passion settings he gives us extreme close-ups, visiting with each movement and scene at a level of detail that allows us to luxuriate in the conductor’s vision of his newer darker Bach. His reading of Christ Lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) demonstrates the surprising zeal of a twenty-two-year-old’s commitment to Lutheran eschatology. The text and governing melody, harshly ritualistic and tribal, are by Luther himself.

No innocence could be found.
Thus it was that Death came so soon
And seized power over us –
Held us captive in his kingdom,

Bach’s musical setting weeps, wails, and roars with striking realism even as it astounds in its intricate textures. The result is a grim reminder of how effective Luther’s language and Bach’s music can be at bringing abstract theological concerns down into the world of everyday mortality:

Timeframes overlap here: first that of pre-regenerate man, then those of the Thuringians of both Luther’s and Bach’s day, scarred by their regular brushes with pestilential death.

Gardiner uncovers (or injects) much that is new and worth the reader’s time. The St. John and St. Matthew Passion settings get particularly engaging analysis, fitting to their position in Gardiner’s view as the greatest example of music’s ability to mimic tragedy and to force passive listeners into a recognition of their culpability in the world they inhabit:

[they] . . . animate the conventions of tragic myth and tragic conduct . . . leading his listeners to confront their mortality and compelling them to witness things from which they would normally avert their eyes.

These close readings have a lot to offer. They are rich in technical detail for those that want that in a music book, and bold in their emotional lunges for those who will skip past the shop talk of rhythms and counterpoints. But Gardiner’s hope is for more than mere compellingness. It is for relevance. His book is a failure if it cannot frame Bach’s Passions as something more than historical artifacts of a proto-enlightenment. That is the reason he doesn’t go too far into that world before pulling up. Others have already delved farther into what Gardiner almost sheepishly calls “the delicate issue of religious belief,” questioning the ability of today’s audiences to connect to a music so deeply rooted in convictions that many of us do not share or may even outright reject. Richard Taruskin offers that if one digs far enough into the real historical Bach, one finds a worldview worth truly recoiling from, a world of enforced consensus, absolutist ideology, anti-individualism, misogyny, and small-minded bigotry: “pre-Enlightened – and when push came to shove, a violently anti-Enlightened–temper. . . . Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served – Luther’s truth – was often bitter. . . . Even when Bach is not expressing actively anti-Enlightenment sentiments . . . his settings are pervaded with a general antihumanism.” This, according to Taruskin, is why “only a handful of Bach’s cantatas can be said to have really joined the modern performance repertory, and a thoroughly unrepresentative handful at that.”

Gardiner offers us some relief from that “abandon ship” position, coaxing us to dip a toe into real history, just enough to give us something more real than Pythagorean Bach or Mountaintop Bach, just enough to darken the mood a bit for audiences who like their music pathological but not demagogic. History, in Music in Castle of Heaven, is in the service of contemporary experience. It must bend to achieve Gardiner’s goal, which is to convince us that Bach’s sacred vocal music remains socially relevant. It contains, after all, vivid and relatable depictions of very human human beings at their most pathetic, guilty, ashamed, supplicating, desperate. Gardiner believes above all else that exposure to these works is good for us in a way that even Bach’s own instrumental music cannot match. Simply put, it fosters empathy:

although Bach is habitually required to deal with such towering universal themes as eternity, sin and death, he shows he is also interested in the flickers of doubt and the daily tribulations of every individual, recognising that small lives do not seem small to the people who live them.

The extent of this belief is on stark display on the CD covers to the recordings that coincide with the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Released by Gardiner’s own label, each CD features a photograph by Steve McCurry, best known for National Geographic’s famous cover photo of twelve-year-old Sharbat Gula. The CD covers all attempt to repeat the power of that iconic image, a single person staring directly at the camera and thus, challengingly, into the eyes of the listener/holder of the CD. What changes from photo to photo is ethnicity, gender, traditional clothing or makeup. Like Gula, known across America and Europe not by her name but by a reductive formula – “The Afghan Girl” – (direct object + ethnicity + gender = human), the people in the photographs are all easily reduced to interchangeable symbols of exoticness. They are ethnically and geographically diverse, with the notable absence being the white European or American that one might presume is Gardiner’s expected Bach CD purchaser. If their ethnicity does not establish their “otherness,” then their indigenous dress, makeup, or ceremonial posture certainly does – a cascade of very human humans, all very different than you. Shuffle the deck of humanity and buy the complete box set! It is easy to read this exercise as naively exploitative orientalism. But I am willing to give Gardiner the benefit of an earnest belief that these images press the same issue as the music, asking us to confront the ultimate test of empathy – distance. It is easy to feel for the person near you, or the person who most resembles you. The consequences of their suffering are clearer and closer. The true test is how compelled one is to act on behalf of someone far away, who does not resemble you, and who you will never meet. It is a bold and clumsy attempt to make a strong claim that Bach’s sacred music has powerful work to do still today, the highest order of work, of making the world a better place all the way from the private to the global:

for beleaguered humanity at all times and in all places – from instances of false accusation in private or domestic life to the outrages under regimes of torture.

Music in the Castle of Heaven seems meant to complete a triad: striking musical performances, provocative visual imagery, and now a book-length exploration of these works, step by step, psychological trauma by trauma. But this brings us back to where this essay began, prompting the question of why it requires so many pages of biographical backup? Why the need to establish that the message we receive from this astounding music is rooted in Bach’s own psyche and endorsed by his own intentions? Twenty years ago, during the great “authentic performance” debates, this same question was asked of performers like Gardiner who claimed “historical verisimilitude” as a justification for their new performance style rather than simply admitting that they played the way they wanted to because they (and we) liked the sound. Gardiner’s own rhetoric was called into question back then as an example of the poietic fallacy, the idea that the only, or most valid, meaning of a musical work is one derived from the composer’s own thought process. It is a habit that leads us to credit our own feelings to someone else – someone whose mind we cannot hope to read, but whose authority we crave – the composer or author as lawgiver. The debate is long settled so far as performance is concerned, and performers in the new style have (mostly) accepted that, as Taruskin sneakily commended them, “being the true voice of one’s time is . . . roughly forty thousand times as vital and important as being the assumed voice of history.” But reading Music in the Castle of Heaven, it seems as if Gardiner, the author, learned nothing from the trials of Gardiner, the performer, or at least thought he might slip old habits by in another form.

Take for a final example his readings of Cantatas 178, 179, and 135, the texts of which center on spiritual hypocrisy (from BWV 178: “wicked men . . . conceiving their artful plots with the serpent’s guile” and from BWV 179: “Likeness of false hypocrites, We could Sodom’s apples call them, Who, with rot though they be filled, On the outside brightly glisten.”). The music is filled with strident, heavily articulated orchestral slicing, fiery long-winded chewing-outs for melodies, and unexpected harmonic thunderclaps. For Gardiner, the one thing that is missing is personal testimony:

such sustained defiance that one asks whether there is a submerged story here – of Bach operating in a hostile environment. How much more satisfying, then, for him to channel all that frustration and vituperative energy into his music. . . . This is superb, angry music executed with a palpable fury, with Bach fuming at delinquent malefactors. One can picture the city elders, sitting in the best pews, listening to these post-Trinitarian harangues, registering their intent and starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable as these shockingly direct words – and Bach’s still more strident and abrasive music – hit home.

Perhaps. Certainly the notion reinforces Gardiner’s own Bach mythology, Bach again as prototype, this time of the outsider anti-hero – proto-Beethoven. It is attractive. But whatever satisfying defiance this music parallels in modern listeners – anger at hypocritical corporate double-speak or outraged moralizing at ignorant power-wielding political hacks – is both self-evident in the sound and already built in to our cultural moment. It does not require the backing of Bach’s imaginary diary or visions of puffed-up Leipzig burghers.

In the end, the book is an argument for these difficult works to be kept alive, sprinkled with a fear that in our age of spiritual skepticism, and our new $.99/track digital music marketplace, Bach’s shorter instrumental works (and heaven forbid Vivaldi’s brilliant and breezily accessible concerti and arias) may be better built to thrive. But the case for relevance, and the call to keep the cantatas from fading, will be made between Bach’s music, his performers, and us. The answer to the question “why should we listen to this?” does not have to coincide with the answer to the question “why did he write it?”

If one has any doubts, look around at how many different Bachs are coexisting today, when more than a century of shifting performance styles and emotional perspectives are all streaming together on Youtube: Romantic Bach, Modern Bach, Gothic Bach, Pythagorean Bach, ascetic Bach, Lutheran Bach, audacious virtuoso Bach. You can choose whichever you’d like today, and a different one tomorrow. They all once claimed to be “the real” Bach – proof of how the process of reception is the history that matters. Just be aware, when reading Music in the Castle of Heaven, that John Eliot Gardiner’s tragic orphan-empath is only one Bach among those many. No more or less accurate to the “true” past, but perhaps more prepared to survive the immediate future.

Michael MarkhamLos Angeles Review of Books

Bach in Baku


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BakufestivalcropAs part of the First International Bach Festival in Baku, Azerbaijan, a 4 March 2014 concert was presented in the Organ Hall of the Müslüm Magomayev State Philharmonic Hall by Bjorn Boysen, Professor of Organ at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and Russian soprano Natalia Arkhipova.

The event brought together the head of the Baku branch of Lomonosov Moscow State  University and atistic director of the ÜNS Creative Scene, Nargiz Pashayeva; Chairman of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs, Hijran Huseynova; Azerpasha Neymatov, Azerbaijan’s People’s Artist and Chairman of the Union of Theatrical Figures; prominent public figures and representatives of diplomatic missions. The hall was filled to the brim, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed the musical legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The festival will continue on 18 March 2014 with the Azerbaijan State Chamber Orchestra and soloists, under the direction of Teymur Geokchayev, performing instrumental concertos and vocal works of the great German composer.

Nazrin GadimovaAzerNews


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