Attentive readers of my blog, who look at it on a PC and not a mobile phone, may spot that I have diversified the photographs a bit: partly because it is a bit boring always to have the same ones; partly because I have realised that I am post-corporate and do not have to have a standard image; and partly because COVID means the world has changed. I am grateful to the photographers, some of whom are friends, and most of whom I can identify, hoping that they don’t mind me cannibalising images which they did not necessarily expect to see reproduced in large.
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.
I have been sent by my friend James Bradburne, the Director of the Brera Gallery in Milan, what he calls his Yule Log, which consists of his thoughts and meditations during the course of the last year, but particularly through the first three months of COVID. I found them curiously and unexpectedly moving, reading his changes of mood as he grappled with having to close a museum down which had remained open through the bombing of the Second World War. It all already seems so horribly long ago: the beauties of spring as he sat it out in Florence; the switch to doing so much online, of which he was already very fortunately an intelligent pioneer; the recollection that COVID hit Lombardy long before it hit London, which should have given us due warning of what was about to happen. The thing which I found most moving was the sense of optimism when the Brera re-opened in early June as if it had then already been such an interminable lockdown which was now believed to be over; plus his thoughtfulness about the things which would need to change – less reliance on big exhibitions, less dependency on mass tourism, more connectedness to the local community, all things which may perhaps be obvious but are stated with unusual thoughtfulness; also how relatively recent the whole boom in mass tourism and visitor numbers has been, owing partly to the invention of the jumbo jet, and how quickly we forget. It’s a private Christmas letter, but some his thoughts are available more publicly:-
I went to buy some wrapping paper and found myself admiring the detailing of some of the door surrounds of houses in Princelet Street instead:-
If I was feeling despondent, which I was, my faith in life and art has been restored by opening a red envelope containing a book documenting a project by Ingleby Gallery which illustrates a single work of art each day over the last year – each one thoughtful, described and documented, a single work of art, the relationship of the artist to the gallery, thoughtfulness, uncertainty and exploration, including an extraordinarily wide range of artists, not just those they represent. Howard Hodgkin was among the first artists whose work they showed and they have a Louise Bourgeois in their kitchen.
I have been trying hard not to say anything about current circumstances: Christmas cancelled, imminent food shortages, no passage to Europe, a clown and buffoon in 10, Downing Street, deep down in a hole which we have dug for ourselves and from which it suddenly seems impossible that we will ever extricate ourselves, as we just dig deeper through a weird combination of ideology and total incompetence. Nearly the last straw was seeing the Prime Minister announce the termination of Christmas without the remotest sense of apology or any awareness that he had said precisely the opposite only two days before, so that we had all made our plans accordingly, 67 million of us, sacrificed on the superstitious altar of supposed sovereignty which will mean a New Year without food.
Happy Christmas !
I have been trying without success so far to load an article written by the Gentle Author on the back page of the January issue of The World of Interiors. It describes the many campaigns he’s involved with – not just the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but Bishopsgate Goosdsyar, Arnold Circus, and now a standardly bad shopping mall off Brick Lane. He is amazing. Then I happened to come across a picture he had posted of Spitalfields Market in 1933 from someone in Russia. If the Secretary of State turns down the planning application for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, as he surely must, it will be more than anything thanks to the Gentle Author’s tirelessly effective grassroots guerilla campaigning.
I love this characteristically unexpected Christmas image he re-posted:-
I’ve published books before, but I don’t remember quite the same sense of heightened anxiety when the first and only copy arrived today, air freighted from China and hand bound in England.
You don’t know quite what to expect: a bit smaller than imagined which means that it looks like a book to read; creamy paper; photographs taken back so that the colour is consistent and they sit neatly in the text. This was all the work of Harry Pearce and Johannes Grimond of Pentagram who fiddled with the detailing at the height of COVID. It was worth it.
What really transformed the book was a grant in April for the illustrations from donors who do not want to be named, but when I look at the book I think most of all with gratitude of them, not to mention the wonderful hard-working picture researcher turned project manager who laboured on it from March to September.
I salute them all !
I walked back through Whitechapel. After the desert of Aldgate, it was a relief to find proper streets again:-
And in case you think it’s already gone, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which still survives, but only just, and not necessarily for much longer:-
I wandered round Aldgate to remind myself of what little is left of its old character, round the back of the Whitechapel Art Gallery and in Alie Street nearby:-
Instead of any sense of urban unpredictability, it is all being swept away in favour of Hong Kong:-