Bach

In listening to Bach as composer of the week this morning, I remembered that a while ago David Tang conscripted me to give a talk that he was supposed to be giving to the London Bach Society. I could not remember what on earth I could have said to a group of assembled music lovers. So, I looked it up and post it as a thought for Christmas:-

In thinking about what I should say about Bach, I decided to re-read a book which I bought when it first came out — James Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason — which I originally bought in the bookshop of the Getty Museum in California and read in the aeroplane on the way back.   I do not know how it is regarded by experts:  probably just as a work of popular history.   But for me at least, it is a good introduction to that world of the late Holy Roman Empire, of small courts and Lutheran churches, which Bach inhabited in what is now southern Germany and was then Thuringia and the Electorate of Saxony — Eisenach, where Bach was born, Ohdruf where he moved after the death of his parents when he was nine, Lüneburg, far to the north near Hamburg, where he moved aged fifteen to take up a choral scholarship, Weimar, where he served in the ducal kapelle, Arnstadt where he became church organist, and Köthen, north of Leipzig, where he was Kapellmeister to the Prince.

Gaines’s book taught me two things which I did not know and which I would like to reflect on.   The first is that, in many ways, Bach’s music was profoundly conservative, dedicated to the piety of traditional Lutheranism and the profundity of spiritual experience at precisely the time when music and the movement of thought were moving towards the more rational and secular pleasures of the Enlightenment courts.   Those of you who have read the book will remember that it is constructed round the moment when, right at the end of his life, Bach visits his son, Carl Philip Emanuel, who was the chief harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam.   He arrives in Potsdam having travelled over two nights by coach from Leipzig.

Frederick, who, as a youth, had been very keen on music (to the fury of his brutal father) hears that Bach is in town and summons him to the palace.   The Emperor sets Bach a test of creating a three-part fugue.   Bach passed the test triumphantly to the admiration of the audience, as was reported in the newspaper the following day.   The Emperor then asks him to make it into a fugue for six voices.   Bach is unable to do it on the spot and goes home to Leipzig somewhat humiliated.   He then composes The Musical Offering as a statement of his musical beliefs and a demonstration of his extraordinary compositional skills:  his belief that music is ultimately an aspect of theology, a way of understanding the music of the spheres, and not of superficial pleasure;  he shows what can be done with supreme mastery of counterpoint at a time when counterpoint was going out of fashion.

The second thing that Gaines’s book taught me, which I had not known, was the extent to which Bach’s music was nearly totally forgotten for more than a half century after his death, that he himself never heard the B Minor Mass, that it was only in the early nineteenth century that the work of Bach began to be rediscovered — in England, following the performance by Samuel Wesley of Jesu, meine Freude in the Hanover Square Rooms in 1809 (this was the performance space which, by the way, had been established in the 1770s by Johann Christian Bach) and, in Germany, in 1829, when the St. Matthew Passion was again played in Berlin under the auspices of Felix Mendelssohn who inherited the manuscript from his teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter.   As you will all know, in the nineteenth century, the awareness and appreciation of Bach was dependent on large choirs.   This was one of the reasons why the London Bach Society was established by Paul Steinitz in 1947, as well as of the Tilford Bach Festival in 1952 — in order to get back to the original sound of the works of Bach, so that his music can be heard in the way that it was originally composed.

I find this aspect of Bach’s life and absence of immediate posthumous fame rather moving and I wish I had known about it before.   Here we are celebrating the life of a composer who we all regard as one of the greatest composers who has ever lived.   I am one of those people who heard the conductor on Desert Island discs (or have I imagined this ?), who when asked what music he wanted played said ‘Bach’;  and then the second time, he said ‘Bach’;  and then the third time;  and so on until the end of the programme.   But at the time that Bach wrote his music, it was increasingly unfashionable and was scarcely played after his death, much less so than the more fashionable music of his son, Carl Philip Emanuel.  

I would like you to ponder this, because I think it suggests a profound and too often forgotten truth.   We do not necessarily know who amongst the current artists of today are going to be admired in a century’s time.   Tastes in music, as in the visual arts, can radically change.   If Bach can be forgotten and then, a century later rediscovered, so too can any number of contemporary artists, composers and, perhaps, writers too.   So, we should not be too confident of our own judgment.   There is such a thing as the judgment of history.   To some, it may be possible to say, there is hope.

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6 thoughts on “Bach

  1. johnjomahoney says:

    Happy Christmas Charles, greetings from the west of Ireland. Thank you for another year of your blog,erudite and entertaining as always, despite the challenges of this year. I am sorry to see the UK depart the EU,and I share your concern about your Government’s handling of the Pandemic. Finally thank you for your mention of The Coincidence of November’s, which I have enjoyed and without your mention I might have missed. Here’s hoping the vaccine allows us a better year, John O Mahoney

  2. Happy New Year! Your piece prompted me to listen to Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach – I hadn’t for a long time. I think many of us will remember the Sotheby’s sale of GL’s wonderful collection of 17th and 18th century objects a while ago. As to “things one never knew”, I discovered that GL played the role of Bach in the 1968 film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena. As to rediscoveries, the Vivaldi revival is fascinating too (rather controversial figures like Mussolini and Ezra Pound played a part in this).

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