by Anastasia Tsioulcas
The log of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's performance on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
One of the most moving documents to emerge from the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination is a radio broadcast. It's WGBH's audio of what was supposed to be just another Friday afternoon concert given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra — which turned into an eloquent elegy for JFK.
James Inverne, former European performing arts correspondent for Time magazine (and my former boss at Gramophone magazine, where he was editor and I was North America editor), has delved deep into what he rightly calls "one of the most emotional pieces of radio ever recorded" — and emerged with an extraordinary story.
Although Kennedy's assassination was a national and even international tragedy, this president was a native son of Boston. He was born as the grandson of the former mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, and as the son of former Massachusetts legislator and local bigwig Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. So perhaps there were even more layers of disbelief and sorrow in Symphony Hall that day after the pride of the city was gunned down — and you can hear all of that in real time.
In the days that followed, there were other heart-wrenching musical moments, like the New York Philharmonic's nationally televised performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony the day before music director Leonard Bernstein gave an unforgettable speech at Madison Square Garden that includes some of his most famous remarks: "This sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather it will inflame our art ... This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before."
But what is most remarkable to me as as listener, hearing the Boston broadcast from Symphony Hall on that Friday afternoon, is the sense of how those people in that time and place — performer and audience member alike — process this shocking event collectively, in a way that is totally unimaginable to us 50 years later, as we learn each minute's news within the weirdly solitary glow of our screens. First, we hear the gasps and shushes after BSO music director Erich Leinsdorf utters the words: "The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination." Second, a wave of groans and sighs after Leinsdorf continues, "We will play the funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony" — as if the crowd's shared response is that they couldn't possibly have heard the first part right, but that then the orchestra's change in repertoire confirms the awful, unimaginable truth. And then, for the next 14 minutes ... utter silence, save for the incomparably somber music.
Inverne includes an incredible interview with Boston Symphony librarian William Shisler, to whom Leinsdorf had relayed a message less than 10 minutes before the start of the performance: Run to the archives, collect all the parts for the second movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony — the funeral march — and get them to the players as fast as you can. President Kennedy is dead. And as Shisler passed out the music to the musicians, who were already onstage by this point, he had the terrible task of relating the reason they were changing the program.
As Shisler told Inverne, "I sincerely believe that music played its part in the tragedy for all of us. Afterwards of course everyone was glued to the television sets for days and days. But in that period of time when we were all there, listening to Beethoven in that concert hall, we all had to respond to this terrible tragedy for ourselves. And the music sort of soothed us, reached out to each and every individual, and helped us to process what had happened."
In January 1964, the BSO and area choruses performed in a memorial service at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The New York Times reported: "Mr. Leinsdorf said earlier in the week that he had chosen Mozart's Requiem because, as was the work of President Kennedy, it was left unfinished by premature death."
by Marin Alsop
Benjamin Britten takes a cup of tea during rehearsals for his War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral, in Coventry, England in May, 1962.
I'm a bit of a cynic when it comes to composer anniversaries but this year, marking 100 years since the birth of Benjamin Britten, has been absolutely fascinating for me. I am now living proof that such centenaries can indeed change the way we look at a composer and provide us with opportunities to explore their breadth and depth. In Britten I have found a new hero, a musically surprising and multi-dimensional citizen of the world.
Discovering Britten through his monumental War Requiem has been both easy and complex — a perfect summation of the man himself — but always immensely inspiring.
As Leonard Bernstein said, "Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. On the surface his music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming ... and it's so much more than that. When you hear Britten's music — if you really hear it — you become aware of something very dark ... there are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing and they make a great pain."
In the War Requiem, from 1962, Britten took the status quo and turned it on its head in the most polite way possible, setting the stage for Bernstein's own worldly commentary in his Mass 10 years later. I feel confident that without Britten's Requiem, Bernstein's work would not be the same.
The traditional Requiem Mass, so vividly captured by Mozart and Verdi and then pushed in a new direction by Brahms — whose intimate personal hand is evident throughout his German Requiem (which he toyed with calling "A Human Requiem") — becomes the vehicle for Britten's own personal beliefs and worldview.
An avowed conscientious objector, Britten left England during the Second World War, an action that he would later have to defend vigorously. His commitment to pacifism and humanity manifest itself through his War Requiem.
The traditional sections of the Requiem Mass (Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, etc.) are interrupted by an unexpected and powerful song cycle, the texts of which express a decorated hero's nightmarish experience in the trenches. The harrowing poems Britten used were by Wilfred Owen, himself killed at age of 25 in World War I.
What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons No mockeries for them from prayers or bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -- The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
The tension of war grows more vivid with each song, until the enemies meet at last, only to realize that they are in essence the same:
Tenor It seems that out of battle I escaped Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped Through granites which titanic wars had groined. Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred. Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared With piteous recognition in fixed eyes, Lifting distressful hands as if to bless. And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. "Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn." Baritone "None", said the other, "save the undone years, The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world, For by my glee might many men have laughed, And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we spoiled. Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
With two orchestras, three soloists, large adult choir and children's chorus, the War Requiem can at times be bombastic, but more often it achieves an unbelievable level of intimacy. Uniting these disparate forces to deliver Britten's message of peace and his clear warning against violence and war, is wholly rewarding for me, both musically and politically.
When the final section, Libera me, kicks into high gear, with the elements from the entire piece juxtaposed and perfectly balanced, I am completely awed by Britten's genius. But mostly I wish I could thank him for having such enormous courage to stand up for his beliefs.
Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.
Weekend Edition Saturday
A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.
British composer Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago this Friday, Nov. 22. Before you ask "Benja-who?" consider this: Did you see Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom last summer, or Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her back a decade or so ago? (Well, maybe you have to be an art-house denizen for those. But Moonrise Kingdom was more or less built around Britten's music.) Then you've already heard his music. Or, when you were a child, did your teachers or parents ever put The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra on the old hi-fi for your listening pleasure? Bam! You've already heard Britten.
But let's take a step back before we examine bits and pieces from his amazing output, and look at what he achieved over his lifetime. Britten, who died in 1976, was a gifted composer by any measure, but also an openly gay man in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal, and an avowed conscientious objector in the midst of the ravages and brutality of World War II. And it's fitting that his last name is a homonym for his nation: Pretty much single-handedly, he made it OK for English composers to write operas in (gasp!) English, writing about...English things. As he said in an address to the Aspen Festival in Colorado in 1964:
I like giving concerts, and in the last years we have traveled as far as Vancouver and Tokyo, Moscow and Java; I like making new friends, meeting new audiences, hearing new music. But I belong at home — there — in Aldeburgh [England]. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships."
I like giving concerts, and in the last years we have traveled as far as Vancouver and Tokyo, Moscow and Java; I like making new friends, meeting new audiences, hearing new music. But I belong at home — there — in Aldeburgh [England]. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships."
(And Americans, take heart: he went on in the same speech to say that he reached this conclusion in 1941 — on a visit to California.)
So in honor of this artist for whom Britain's Royal Mint has just created a new 50-pence coin, we offer you this pocket guide to Britten and his music. With it, you'll be ready to take on any Anglophiles or teams of tenors that you may encounter by Friday — which, not coincidentally, is also the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. And if on the off chance you're really, really ready to make a commitment to Britten: Decca has issued a stunning collection of the complete Britten — a 65-CD set, featuring recordings spanning 20 labels — that will keep you very busy until at least his 101st anniversary.
by NPR Staff
All Things Considered
Jeremy Denk played Mozart at Carnegie Hall Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony.
In the classical music world right now, many eyes are focused on Jeremy Denk. The 43-year-old pianist was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in September, his new album of Bach's Goldberg Variations is pleasing critics and this week he played Mozart brilliantly at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.
Denk is also attracting fans beyond classical music. His reputation as a writer, with his disarming mix of thoughtfulness and wit, is growing in articles he's written for the New Yorker, the Guardian and NPR Music.
Weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath invited the busy pianist to talk about his new recording of the iconic Goldberg Variations, a nearly 90-minute masterwork that Denk has referred to as "maniacal, in the best way" and as "the biggest jazz riff ever written."
On recording Bach's iconic Goldberg Variations
"It's a thrill and a terrifying experience to release a recording of this incredibly well-known piece. It's one of those pieces that's on the public square. You know, everyone loves to have an opinion about it and talk about it. I just had to put out my version of it and see what happened, I guess.
"It's one of the great masterpieces and one of the icons of our keyboard repertoire. It does have built-in problems. It's 80 minutes of G major — mostly G major. And I wrote in one of the other essays that it's a 'fool's errand, and attempted by the greatest geniuses of all time.' But on the other hand, as I've played it, it's like this incredible old friend that keeps coming back."
On what keeps the Goldbergs from being boring
"The piece is about invention and imagination and the joy of re-invention and re-imagination and about how much you can ring out of this 8-note bass idea? How much can you get out of this set of chord changes? In another way, it's like the biggest jazz riff ever written — it's endlessly funny in some ways and endlessly moving in other ways. It's partly an encyclopedia in which every possibility of musical style of the time is explored. And it's partly like an adventure, a journey. The short answer is Bach's genius makes it not boring, and the incredible ways he has of working the same ground."
On the improvisational feel of the Goldbergs
"There's that sort of riffing element. There's a very strong way in which Bach will take a single idea and just go bananas on it. And each variation is like going bananas on a single premise. There are blue notes in Bach, too. There are tremendous numbers of naughty notes, even especially in the most beautiful variations, like in No. 13. At the end of the most serene, arching melody there are one or two naughty notes that creep in, and it's sort of bittersweet and sort of wicked. That's one of my favorite things about Bach is these sort of wicked last thoughts at the end of paragraphs."
On the humor in the Goldbergs
"There's a variation — 23 is the one I believe — with the two hands chasing each other in scales going down the keyboard. The left hand begins and the right hand follows one eighth note later. And this joke Bach takes to incredible and ridiculous extremes, sort of the Road Runner and the Coyote after each other for two minutes up and down the keyboard. I can't believe that Bach wasn't attuned to the almost slapstick humor of this variation and how important that is in relation to some of the other, very serious variations. A lot of it has to do with the two keyboards [on a harpsichord], just the fun of the two hands leaping over each other and doing all kinds of stunts and somersaults. Some of the greatest laughs in music are in this piece, I think."
On the hand acrobatics needed in the Goldbergs
"Many is the time on stage I have rued those acrobatics. There are all these places where the hands come at each other and then they have to sneak over each other, and those are always very treacherous, especially in performance. And then the hands kind of cross back around and come back as if revisiting the site of an accident. It was written for two keyboards [of a harpsichord] so there are a lot of problems specifically about the one-keyboard piano. But that's part of the joy of the piece and part of its outlandishness too. Bach, in his invention, really loves to try all the possibilities of these two keyboards at war, in contrary motion, in parallel motion in every possible geometry."
On the forward-thinking 25th Variation
"Bach was capable of ranging pretty far. In a way he's almost ranging backwards in time, if you think of some of the chromatic possibilities in the madrigals before Bach. So it's both future travel and past travel. What is so extraordinary for me about that variation is this idea of the two hands being at war — which is sometimes very funny — becomes this kind of existential problem. They never play together and they are constantly doing dissonances that are never quite resolved and then new problems are set up. And the right hand will go off and play a note that is completely mystifying, and only when the left hand comes in a little bit later do you finally understand. There's this constant ambiguity and disturbance between the hands. This variation makes it clear that maybe we thought we knew where we were going but really, really don't."
On why people love the Goldbergs
"There are so many reasons. But the [main] theme itself is one of those miracles. One of the characteristics of the theme that I find most affecting is in the way, in the last quatrain of it, it does something that has not happened in the theme before. It begins to move and elide over the bars in a way that it never had before and the melody takes off in this beautiful flurry of 16th notes. And only at that moment, at the end, when the 16th notes reach the most beautiful place, then the theme is over. There's something about that confluence of the attainment and the relinquishing of the idea at the same time. I think people really get moved by it and it's something very true to life, also."
John Tavener's ethereal music was influenced by the Russian Orthodox traditions.
British composer Sir John Tavener, whose music became a cultural touchstone that stretched far beyond the classical sphere, has died at age 69. His death was announced by his publisher, Chester Music, which noted that the composer died at home in Child Okeford, Dorset, earlier Tuesday. No cause of death was given, though Tavener had long suffered from numerous health problems, including a stroke in 1979, a diagnosis in 1990 of Marfan syndrome (a genetic condition that causes heart problems), and a debilitating heart attack in 2007 that led to four months on a ventilator and four months in rehabilitation.
Born in London on Jan. 28, 1944, and knighted in 2000, Tavener was born into a family who encouraged his love of music. He began studying the piano and organ at an early age, and went on to attend the Royal Academy of Music in his home city. At age 12, he met his early patron Rhoda, Lady Birley, whom he called his "adopted godmother" and who over the years introduced him to London's high society, including the likes of Lady Bonham-Carter, Loulou de la Falaise and Diana Cooper, viscountess Norwich.
From the very beginning of his professional career, Tavener made music that had wide appeal and marked him as something of a superstar. His first recording, at age 22, came in 1968 on The Beatles' Apple label, which released an album of his oratorio The Whale, a piece that had its world premiere in the first concert ever given by the London Sinfonietta.
The inspiration for The Whale came from the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale — and that was no accident. For Tavener, music was more a vehicle for spiritual expression than an end unto itself. In a 1999 interview on Morning Edition, Tavener told reporter David D'Arcy, "We seem to have lost our contact with the primordial, the idea of call it divine revelation as opposed to something that's learned by the human intellect, something that, if you lay yourself completely open and you just open your heart completely, something will actually come into it."
Tavener converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in 1977 and began traveling frequently to Greece, another important center of Orthodox Christianity. He often referred to his own music as "icons in sound," drawing upon the Orthodox tradition of utilizing religious images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints as a portal into the divine. Very soon after converting, he was commissioned to set the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the principal Orthodox Eucharist liturgy) in English. It was Tavener's first directly Orthodox-inspired music, but many such works followed. Tavener sometimes borrowed traditional, centuries-old Orthodox melodies note for note in his own music, without attribution and escaping the notice of most of his Western audience.
Over the next 20-plus years, his spiritual engagement led to a panoply of music including "The Lamb" (1982), on a text by William Blake; the Virgin Mary-inspired cello concerto The Protecting Veil (1988); his opera Mary of Egypt (1991) about the life of a fourth-fifth century saint; and his 1993 Song for Athene, with a text by Mother Thekla, a Russian Orthodox abbess, Cambridge University graduate and Tavener's longtime spiritual adviser, who died in 2011 at age 93. Originally written in 1993 to commemorate the death of a young friend named Athene Hariades, Song for Athene was later used at Princess Diana's 1997 funeral and gave Tavener's work a global audience.
In 1999, Tavener wrote a piece for the acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous 4 and the Chilingirian Quartet called The Bridegroom. Reached Tuesday afternoon by telephone, Anonymous 4 member Susan Hellauer recalled meeting him during rehearsals. "It was almost like he was not the composer, but a new listener," Hellauer said, "as if he were just experiencing it for the first time. It was a very emotional and spiritual experience for him, not just a musical transaction. He made that very clear."
Despite critics tagging Tavener as a "holy minimalist," Hellauer says that his music is very difficult to perform — but very beautiful as well. "It actually floats. It appears out of nowhere, and then it floats back into nowhere," she said. "It doesn't have that kind of Western structure of themes and developments. It just is, and then it's gone. And very well-crafted. His music is not easy to sing. It sounds simple, in a way. There's not fireworks-type technical demands, but the demands are in sustaining a line, sometimes very long notes, holding the line up for long periods of time, in a very quiet way."
As time went on, Tavener's own scope expanded beyond Orthodox Christianity to encompass a wider spiritual and artistic journey. In 2003's The Veil of the Temple, an all-night choral work Tavener later called "the supreme achievement of my life," he drew upon Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Native American sources. In this deeply mystical eight-hour piece, Tavener asserted that all these religious traditions were inwardly united and all valid paths to God. In later years, he continued this exploration, as with 2007's The Beautiful Names, a setting of the 99 names of God from the Muslim tradition, sung in Arabic.
Despite Tavener's declining health, four new works were premiered in 2013: his choral pieces Tolstoy's Creed and Three Hymns of George Herbert by the City Choir of Washington at the Washington National Cathedral in April; and two new works at the Manchester International Festival in July, Love Duet from The Play of Krishna and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
He was often lumped in with the New Agey infatuation with chant. But he hoped his music was more than that, as he told Morning Edition.
"Of course, you can take it cynically," he asserted. "I remember the director of Decca Recordings said to me — I asked him, 'What do you feel about young people buying records of chants and all the rest of it?' And he gave the cynical answer, which I, in a way, would have expected of him. He said, 'Well, I think, you know, they just like to relax into it.' I don't think that's true; I have a sense of hope about the way in which the new generation is going. I don't think they have the cynicism of my generation."
Tavener once said there are plenty of artists who can show the way to hell. He wanted music to lead us instead to paradise.
He is survived by Maryanna, his wife of 22 years, and their three children, Theodora, Sofia and Orlando.
An old video is suddenly making the internet rounds, because living vicariously through a performance nightmare is an ever-popular sport, I guess. (And we've collected plenty ourselves.)
It depicts pianist Maria João Pires in front of an audience (at a dress rehearsal?) with conductor Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Just another day on the job for this elegant Portuguese soloist — until she realizes that she's prepared the wrong Mozart concerto for the performance.
With characteristic understatement, she appears to tell Chailly (at about :50 in), "I'm going to try it." And because it's Pires, she pulls it off — brilliantly. As pianist Stephen Hough observed this week in the Telegraph, "The real shock, the real skill, the real miracle is the luminous sound she creates as she arches that opening gesture in a circle of intense but understated expression."
What's your very worst "uh-oh" moment onstage?
by Tom Huizenga
This rare portrait of Bach, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, hung in John Eliot Gardiner's home during World War II.
Johann Sebastian Bach has been a central figure in the life of British conductor John Eliot Gardiner since he was a youngster. On his way to bed, he couldn't help glancing up at the famous 18th-century portrait of Bach that hung in the first floor landing of the old mill house in Dorset, England where Gardiner was born. It was one of only two fully authenticated portraits of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, painted around 1750, and came to the Gardiner home in a knapsack, delivered on bicycle by a Silesian refugee who needed to keep it safe during World War II. Bach's music also hung in the air of the Gardiner home. Each week the musically inclined family gathered for serious singalongs, which included Bach's motets.
It's a scene Gardiner sets at the beginning of his new book, BACH: Music in the Castle of Heaven, published today by Knopf. From his childhood interactions with Bach, Gardiner would grow up to become one of the composer's greatest champions, creating his own orchestras (English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique) and choir (Monteverdi Choir) to play the music in historically informed performances.
Gardiner's obsession with Bach culminated in 2000, when he and his musical forces (and a team of recording engineers) embarked on a massive pilgrimage. Traveling around Europe and the U.S., they performed all of Bach's sacred cantatas (about 200 of them) on their appropriate Sundays in different churches.
Music in the Castle of Heaven
by John Eliot Gardiner
Hardcover, 628 pages | purchase
More on this book:
Gardiner's new book was more than 12 years in the making, and one of its goals is to get to know Bach the man a little better, since scant information has been passed down about his personal life. Bach was filled with contradictions, Gardiner discovered. He had anger management issues, and yet he had the capacity for tenderness.
"He had normal flaws and failings, which make him very approachable," Gardiner says. "But he had this unfathomably brilliant mind and a capacity to hear music and then to deliver music that is beyond the capacity of pretty well any musician before or since."
Despite Bach's contradictions, Gardiner says, in my conversation with him below, the composer would have been a great guy to hang out with.
In your book, you're saying Bach's music is well-known, but we end up knowing very little in comparison about Bach the man. How do you try to crack that nut in your new book?
Well, with great difficulty and that was a big challenge. But I think basically there are three elements that you have to draw on. Number one is the contextual information that you can gain from the sources, from the local, parochial sources about conditions in Germany at the time of Bach's birth, conditions pertaining to the schools that he went to, conditions pertaining to the whole difficult social life of Germany recovering from the 30 Years War and on the brink of enlightenment but still hanging on to a pre-Galileo view of the world — very medieval in a way — and not allowing yet the full flood of enlightenment thought to change their weltanschauung.
The second area which I found very useful to explore was his own annotations and comments that he introduced in his copy of Abraham Calov's Bible commentary — Calov being a 17th-century theologian — a book in Bach's private library which Bach annotates very carefully and very meticulously and things that draw his eye like, for example, how to deal with the concept of anger and that Calov makes it clear that you can be, you must turn the other cheek if somebody is being angry about you or if you feel angry in response to a personal slight. But if the attack is on your profession, your skill, your office, not only can you respond with anger but you should respond with anger. And that to me explains a good deal of Bach's very competitive and antagonistic response to the authorities who were employing him at different stages in his lifetime, and made life difficult for him, or in his own words, "caused a life of envy and hindrance." So that was a big resource.
And the third area of research that I really plunged into with a great deal of enthusiasm was of course the evidence that can be gleaned from a deep immersion into his compositions of music with a text attached to them. In other words, the passions, the motets, the Masses and above all the cantatas that he wrote in such a concentrated period in Leipzig in particular. And I was fully aware in writing the book that I was treading on treacherous ground in so far as one man's reading can be very different from another person's and it's a very subjective source of evidence, if you can call it that. But I felt convinced that my deep immersion into that music did allow me the occasional glimpse of the chinks in his armor plating as it were, when his personality sort of grinned through the fabric of the music. And that gave me huge encouragement to persist and to try and get to the end of the book, because it's not, as you I'm sure realize, a conventional life at all.
About your immersion into the music. You mention in the book that part of your aim is to show how Bach's approach in his vocal music reveals his mind at work, his temperamental preferences as well as his philosophical outlook. So how does the music reveal the mind?
Well, music is a much more elusive and ephemeral form of communication than words alone and yet it has its own precision. I mean, it's Mendelssohn who famously said that he found that music was much more precise than words. The problem comes in actually defining that precision and saying what exactly the music is saying. But I think the one thing you can extrapolate from studying Bach's setting of religious texts is that there is a counterpoint going on between the meaning of the texts per se and the affect and impact of the music surrounding the text setting, and it divides into two broad categories, really. One is collusion and a direct sense of sympathy and empathy between the import and the meaning of the words and the type of music that Bach uses to surround it and explain it — the text. And then there's at the other extreme, collision — those moments where the music and the text seem to end up pointing in opposite directions.
In his new book, conductor John Eliot Gardiner searches for the real J.S. Bach.
Can you give some examples of those two types?
Well, there are quite a number of cantatas where the text is quite genial and talking about, "God is right, all you have to do is to comply and just get on with it," and Bach is writing music of wonderful frippery and irrelevance as if to pull the leg of the listener. It's not that he's saying, "God isn't right," but he's saying, "You don't have to take it in such a literal way — you can enjoy it." The cantatas are full of instances where just by prolonging a single syllable or a single word or repeating things, he gives a different emphasis than the one the preacher would have done when announcing the scripture from the pulpit. And music has this extra — particularly Bach's music — expressive potency which is so extraordinary and it's something that leaps out of its initial context and appeals to us now in the 21st century in a way that perhaps he never acknowledged. I mean, he was writing this music for a very specific moment, for a very specific time of year, in a very specific liturgy in a parochial context. And yet such is the breadth of his vision that it can reach us now.
In a similar vein, you mention in the book that you were "keeping a weather eye out for the instances in performance when his personality seems to rise through the fabric of his notation." And I'm wondering if there are specific examples you have in mind, where Bach the man, whom we seem to know so little about, rises up through the music.
There are quite a few instances in the cantatas but they're not that well known. I can give you one instance in a piece that is very, very well known and that's the B Minor Mass, where I think that really applies. In the credo there is this monumental chorus, "Confiteor unum baptisma" — I believe in the universal baptism and the resurrection of the dead. And Bach starts off in really good, solid Lutheran card-carrying fashion by inserting a cantus firmus, a sort of almost plainsong statement, in the basses followed in stretto with the altos and then with the tenors. And you think, "Oh, this is a really major ex cathedra statement" — and so it is until the point when the music seems to crumble and it just simply dwindles and the tempo slows down.
These great girder-like proclamations cease and the music enters into a sort of twilight zone full of dark modulations. And a searching quality enters in the music to the point where you don't know which direction it's going to move in. There are extreme insecurities of harmonic movement and it feels at that moment that Bach himself is saying to himself and allowing us to share his momentary doubts as to whether there is going to be a life beyond our earthly existence.
And only at the last moment is there a scalar descent in the bass line and suddenly there is this eruptive chorus with trumpets and drums, "And I look for the resurrection of the dead" — Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. And suddenly, there's a sprint to the line and it finishes in a flourish and that's it. The impressiveness of that jubilant chorus, which is so affirmative, would I think be a lot less if it hadn't been for the transitional patch of murky self-doubt that comes before it, and I think that's something that humanizes Bach the man to us. It makes us feel that he, too, had his doubts and had his wobbles.
You have a very intriguing chapter in the book called "The Incorrigible Cantor," where you talk about a side of Bach that I think many people, even fans of his music, really don't know that much about.
Well, that's all to do with anger management and attitude towards authority and I think the seeds of that are to be found in the unsavory atmosphere that pertained in the schools that he attended and in the gang warfare that took place in the towns between the rival choirs who were busking to raise money for their schools and their education.
Even though you can't pinpoint Bach's direct involvement with any of these incidents, that is the typical background of the schools that he was attending. And it all comes to an eruptive moment in Bach's own life when he's age 18 and in his first job in Arnstadt, and he has a silly disagreement with a bassoon player who can't manage to play an obbligato little riff that Bach writes for him, which is difficult. But, patently, the guy made a bit of a mess of it and Bach swears at him and calls him something quite insulting. And the bassoonist, in order to gain his own back, awaits for him with his gang in the town square. When Bach is on his way back from the castle going home, they set up on him and with knives and cudgels and Bach is obliged to defend himself by drawing his sword and there's a nasty incident and eventually they're separated and Bach goes on his way. And the next day he goes to the Consistory and lodges a severe complaint and the Consistory don't back him up, they give the moral victory to the bassoonist.
And that, I think, is a sort of paradigm, or it's a foretaste anyway, of the problems that Bach encountered at so many different stages in his career. Like when he was in Weimar, he is really disappointed to be passed over in the hierarchy and he doesn't get appointed Kapellmeister when the guy that's appointed ahead of him is manifestly less talented, less competent. And Bach looks for a job elsewhere and he gains a job elsewhere and the Duke of Weimar imprisons him for cheekiness and subversive behavior and on it goes.
When he gets to Leipzig, he signs a very elaborate contract with the town council and he falls foul of their regulations in so many different ways and he finds himself in battles either with the clergy or with the town council or with the headmaster of the school, and it wears him down and he then describes, in one of the few private letters we have, how his life is full of "vexation and hindrance" and how the people here in Leipzig are little interested in music and have a curious disposition.
So there's a sense that he's always the outsider, that he's up against something, that he's incorrigible to some extent. And he carries on right until the bitter end fighting battles which really he didn't need to, maybe. And that is one side of his personality. And maybe it was a creative side because it — in his embattled state — fired him up to write the music that he did. On the other hand, there's a totally different side to him — the convivial family man who welcomed all visiting musicians and who took infinite pains to look after the musical education and the career steps of his children. So there is a fault line running right through his personality, I feel.
I think we tend to think of Bach as the bewigged "grand arbiter and lawgiver of music" who would be far from being jailed or drawing a sword on someone. And I think we tend to romanticize Bach's big job in Leipzig where he landed in 1723 and where he wrote so many great pieces — the St. John and St. Matthew Passion, the Goldberg Variations, the B Minor Mass. We imagine him just quietly churning out his church music but ...
It wasn't like that at all.
Right. You reveal in your book it's so much different than that. Tell us just briefly what a day in the life of Bach might have been like when he was in Leipzig.
Well, he was responsible not just simply for writing the music but also as a schoolmaster, for disciplining and for being a kind of house father to a lot of the boarding school choristers who were in his charge and who had their dormitories right up next to his private living quarters in the Thomas school in Leipzig. So how Bach had any time for a private life, God knows. But he would have taken prayers. He would have taken early lessons. He would go into daily rehearsals and daily classes, and then he would get to his desk and start composing the cantata for the week that was going to last up to 35 minutes depending on the occasion. And it didn't end there.
He then had to see to its copying out. And there was this little kind of mini factory, or sweatshop, of copying that was under his supervision with students, sometimes family members, doing the copying out of the parts of the score, readying for the one and only rehearsal. There may have been a few private, tuitioned rehearsals when he could have dealt with particularly difficult solos or obbligatos but basically it was rehearsed in breakneck speed on a Saturday before the performance on a Sunday.
In addition to that, he was also assessing organs in different parts of the country, around Saxony, and he was writing recommendations, he was supervising a harpsichord hire system. Some of his works went through publication and he was publishing other people's works. He was tireless, absolutely tireless. And he kept up that rhythm for at least the first three years — before he either burnt out a bit or else became disillusioned by the lack of support and responsiveness on the part of the town authorities from the clergy.
And not to mention that he was a father and a husband and a bandleader and a recitalist.
All that. It's true.
Your book is not a typical chronological bio of Bach where he was born here, then he did this, he did that, and then he died.
It's not intended to be a conventional life work.
Instead you tackle aspects of Bach in each of the chapters and I'm wondering why you chose that approach.
Well there are plenty of life-and-works of Bach and I didn't feel qualified to write that and certainly not to speak with authority on the keyboard music and the organ music in particular, where that's been dealt with very well by other authors. Where I did feel there was a strong case for emphasis was on the church music and particularly on the cantatas — the music that I know best. And so what I tried to do is to take the reader by the hand and take him or her through a series of different perspectives of looking on Bach.
I start off explaining in the preface why I think the book could be written that has a different approach. Then in the first chapter I describe my own approach, my own curious and upbringing and experience of Bach, which at the time it didn't strike me as being odd or exceptional, but it was only when I got to school that I realized that it was a bit odd and how I came to interpret Bach and to have a lifelong fascination with him and found that the models that were held up before me of how to perform him were to some extent unsatisfactory and how, if I was ever going come to terms with his music, I would have to do it in my own way, which meant forming my own choir and a period instrument orchestra and how that led to the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000 and so on.
Tell me a little bit about the wording in the title of the book. It's called BACH: Music in the Castle of Heaven and that title seems to me to put Bach up on a pedestal a little bit. And that's the kind of veneration, or 'hagiolatry' as you put it, that you seem to try to work against in the book.
Yeah, I guess you can accuse me of that because I do revere Bach. The castle of heaven is a translation of the Himmelsburg in German. It was a chapel in the Red Castle of the Dukes of Weimar from which Bach performed, and the music floated downwards, out of sight of the Duke and the congregation. And what I was trying to suggest by calling the book Music in the Castle of Heaven, is that Bach was producing the most heavenly music that perhaps has ever been heard on Earth and yet his sights were set on the castle of heaven of performing music as a good Lutheran to a much higher degree of perfection in the afterlife. And I'm trying to suggest that we're the beneficiaries of a kind of celestial vision.
Well, I think we are. After studying and performing Bach's music for so much of your life — and now you've written this book — you must feel somehow like you know him. So what is the answer? What was Bach like?
Convivial, cantankerous, remote, present, full of humor but deeply serious.
All dichotomies. But a great guy to go out and have a beer with.
Do you feel like you're closer to knowing who he is after writing this book?
Yeah but I might be just deluding myself, but yes I do.
Do you think he was basically just a normal, not too interesting, guy who happened to be a genius at writing music?
He had normal attributes. He had normal faults and failings which make him very approachable, but he had this unfathomably brilliant mind and a capacity to hear music and then to deliver music — in terms of improvisation and then in notated music — that is beyond the capacity of pretty well any musician before or since, yes.
You know it's quite obvious that for this book — at over 600 pages including a glossary, a chronology, 20 pages of notes — that you've done countless hours of research. And I'm wondering what was the single most surprising thing you discovered about Bach that you hadn't known before?
I think that would have to be his compassion towards those who've lost a dear one. Where you'd expect it to be gloomy and lachrymose, Bach writes music of ineffable tenderness and consolation and music that doesn't require you to be a Christian, or let alone a Lutheran, to be able to have access to that wonderful compassionate solace that his music can bring you. You can hear it in some of the motets and you can hear it in some of the cantatas, famous ones like Ich habe genug, but also in the cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity which are particularly concerned with infant mortality. You sense that he's really befriended death in a way that no other composer I know of has done to that degree, and with that degree of persuasiveness. That's something I cherish, and that brings me personal comfort. And also I can extend it by suggesting people listen to or approach or perform that music if they're in a state of bereavement or loss.
If you had to pick one piece of Bach's music that you have recorded to recommend to someone who's not really all that familiar with Bach, what would you pick?
"Actus Tragicus," Cantata 106.
And why that one?
Because it's a precocious, early example of what I've just been talking about: somebody who is dealing with eschatology, dealing with the ends of things, dealing with the eternal mysteries of life and of death and of finding a path through all that pain and grief to find a serene ending.
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