People read music, I know; I don’t, I can’t: it might as well be Martian. Music is something I’ve roundly failed at, from being unable to play the recorder at primary school to being bribed not to sing at secondary school (my voice broke very early, and I am tone deaf). But I have always loved listening to music, and reading about music and musicians, and reading a good book whilst listening to good music, perhaps accompanied by a good drink, does take a lot of beating.
I grew up with pop music, graduated to rock, then moved on to classical and jazz, which is where I have stopped; if I were restricted to one composer only it would be JS Bach. I’ve often wondered about the nature of genius, and found myself thinking about Shakespeare’s magical mastery of our language, and Bach’s similar wondrous musical skills. Both, it seems, could just create – plays pouring from Shakespeare’s pen onto the page and thence to the stage; cantatas regular as clockwork every Sunday from Bach’s pen to manuscript to the stunning Thomanerchor…
I’ve read a lot about Bach, his life and music in an attempt to learn and understand, and it’s been quite hard. Obviously the biographical stuff I can follow, and the origins and sources of his musical ideas, and the religious themes that he explores and develops, but whenever a writer moves on to analysing and writing about the music itself, I find that I’m completely out of my depth. I used to resent this mental block I clearly have, but now I have come to accept it, and realise that the music remains special, even magical for me, and I don’t have to be able to understand it for it to give me intense pleasure.
When I visited Bach’s Thuringia a couple of years ago, I took John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven to read; I probably understood only about half of it, but it did take my understanding and appreciation of the musician and his music a bit further. I have found Malcolm Boyd’s Oxford Composer Companion to Bach an invaluable reference book over the years, and Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts is a wonderful companion which offers an interlinear translation as well as links to all the related Bible passages from which the master took his inspiration. Alfred Durr’s The Cantatas of JS Bach is finally coming in to its own (as it should, given the price of the English translation of the book).
Shakespeare, for me, touches the spirit with words or through words, summoning powerful responses to characters and situations. Yes, the situations he puts his characters in, and how he has them behave, are part of what evokes my responses, but the ways they use words – Shakespeare’s words, ultimately – to communicate their feelings, are a major part of their effect and my response. With music and with Bach, it is different. There are words – religious words, but in German – which conjure up feelings and ideas, but it’s the musical notes, the tunes that allow the words to achieve their powerful effect. And I am lost for words, whether watching Shakespeare or listening to Bach.