Posts Tagged ‘J S Bach’

August favourites #23: reference book

August 23, 2018

One thing about Bach’s church cantatas is that they are in German; another is that they are full of religious references. Although I can speak German after a fashion, my command of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century theological German is quite limited. Reference books are needed, although the internet is now an absolute gold-mine of interpretations and translations. The first purchase I ever made from Amazon.com, in the days before they took over the world, was made with the help of a colleague who had a US account and could get a book delivered to the UK: a huge tome with interlinear texts and translations, rather after the fashion of a Latin crib from my school years, so that you could follow the German, see it parsed underneath and then read a passable translation of the text. And alongside are all the necessary scriptural passages to go with each cantata. Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts – clearly a labour of love – is always open next to me when I’m listening seriously.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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August favourites #21: Music

August 21, 2018

Some readers of my blog may be aware of my passion for J S Bach’s music, especially his church cantatas; one of my best memories is of a trip I made exploring his world in deepest Thuringia a few years ago. My interest in his music was sparked by a teacher at school – cellist and organist too – who felt that the master’s music was not for peasants like us students and so would not play it to us… For my favourite piece of music I go back to an Eastertide cantata (BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre), which probably sealed my passion for the man’s music. Many years ago whilst a student at Lancaster University, I picked up a second-hand LP on a stall in the city market, and this was one of the two pieces on it. I played it to death and wore it out, and it led me to listening to more and more of the great man’s church music. I never looked back. Bach’s music has been one of the great joys of my life, and combination of the words and music in his church cantatas I have always found spiritually uplifting.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

My travels: L is for Lübeck

September 22, 2017

I’ve wanted to go to this northern German city for a long time, mainly to see the Marienkirche, because that’s where Dietrich Buxtehude was organist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; my hero, the young J S Bach, walked the two hundred miles from Arnstadt in Thuringia to hear the celebrated organist and learn from him. Having absented himself from his post for several months, Bach then walked back to work… apparently he could have stayed, and inherited the post of organist, at the traditional price of marrying the incumbent’s daughter (!), but Bach didn’t fancy Miss Buxtehude who, shall we say kindly was no beauty and quite a bit older than him.

The Marienkirche is truly stunning. First of all, it’s vast – the largest brick Gothic church in the world, a helpful verger told me (but wrong, as I surmised, the title going to St Mary’s in Gdansk, which I also know, and thought was bigger) – and it’s beautiful inside and out. It took me many years of church-visiting to realise that in Western Europe, churches and cathedrals are stone because there is stone, whereas there isn’t further east, so when in mediaeval times the citizens became jealous of what the French and English were building, they persuaded the architects to come and help them create similar wonders in red brick. There is a Backsteingothik route all the way across northern and eastern Europe, ranging from tiny village churches to huge basilicas and cathedrals, and the more I’ve seen, the more astonished I’ve been.

The RAF fire-bombed Lübeck in 1942, and the Marienkirche burned. The bells fell from their tower and remain smashed where they fell as a memorial to the wanton destruction; a small plaque notes that the smaller one had rung for over 430 years, the larger for some 270. The church maintains links with Coventry Cathedral. But, as the verger explained, the dust and grime was burned off the walls which had been whitewashed at the time of the Reformation, revealing wonderful mediaeval painting and decoration.

More about the Reformation became clearer to me in this quincentennial year as I explored this and other of Lübeck’s churches: the altar is relatively unimportant, and the glorious centrepieces of the churches are the pulpits and the choir-lofts, because for the reformers, the sermons expounding the word of God and the hymns singing his praises were at the heart of everything. The choir-loft and organ in the Aegidienkirche (St Giles’), the smallest of Lübeck’s churches, left me speechless; the marvellous altar-pieces and gilded carvings there and in other churches made me realise just how much art we must have lost here in England in that orgy of state-sponsored vandalism that was the Reformation here…

There’s much else that is wonderful about this city, small enough to be walked around, surrounded by water, its two mediaeval gates, its astonishing town-hall, the numerous tiny alleys with courtyards and streets of houses almost hidden from view… and it’s also the home of marzipan. Which was duly sampled and enjoyed.

Making sense of it all…

July 29, 2017

I occasionally have moments of existential doubt about all the reading I do; I realise I could be spending large chunks of my life doing something else – though I have no real idea what – and I realise that one day all the carefully garnered knowledge and developed opinions will be no more than fading and ultimately extinguished electrical impulses in a no longer-existing brain… which is, I suppose, the ultimate fate of all human existence. Angst-inducing, nonetheless.

So what is it all for?

I’m a pretty fortunate human being, comfortable and retired, living in a peaceful part of the world at the moment. And I see all sorts of mayhem going on all around me, from the obscenity of warfare such as in Yemen and Syria, to the effects both current and feared of our species’ wrecking of the planet’s climate and environment; I see the rank stupidity of politicians and businessmen the world over, and the manipulation of ordinary people by selfish elites pursuing power and money. In short, something verging on dystopia.

I also look around and see marvels of human achievement: the exploration of space and the landings on the moon are my favourite examples, along with the achievements of writers like Shakespeare, the music of Bach and the paintings of Turner. I see the stunning beauty of the planet. And I find myself thinking, how have we managed to make such a pig’s ear of so much? does it always and inevitable have to be like this? Is this what the Fall was about – knowledge of good and evil?

And this is where my reading seems to come in: I’m trying to understand how we have, over time, sold our souls to the pursuit of money, riches, material goods; how we have allowed small cliques to take power, take possession of resources, oppress and kill others. And at the same time we have praised sages, wise men and religious leaders who have exhorted us to do the opposite, and not done it…

If we ignore the past, we are condemned to repeat it, said someone once. That’s it for the factual side of things. Now for the imagination:

Writers of fiction imagine things. They imagine and describe people, their world, their behaviours. And they help us to understand why people behave in the ways they do as individuals. Maybe we end up wiser at the end of a novel or a play. Writers of science fiction, and utopian fiction, go even further: they attempt to imagine and to bring to life how things might possibly be different, better.

Very often, they merely imagine the blissful future state, however, but are not able to imagine the transition from now to then, from our present to their future. Sometimes their future may seem rather dubious: who would want to live in Huxley‘s Brave New World? (Answer: quite a few of my sixth form students, at various times in the past…) Sometimes writers do try to move us from now to the future, and the way there is not smooth, is sometimes bloody.

And how do we know we will like that future? and if we do, how would we ensure it stayed like that? Given that there are so many different kinds of people, what do we do with those that don’t fit, or don’t want to fit? In Huxley’s world, the lucky ones were exiled to an island and closely supervised to see that they did not contaminate the rest of the utopia with any mischief. In Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time, misfits were put to death…

So I’m doing all this reading and thinking in order to try and work out how the world might be better in future, how the human race might live peaceably with itself and the rest of the species we share a planet with… in a future I’m not going to be a part of. But, it seems to me, it’s in the nature of human beings to want to think, explore, invent, discover, and through my reading I’m merely taking part in that enterprise; through this blog I’m sometimes sharing where I’ve got to with my journey; I don’t expect to make any earth-shattering discoveries, but I can remain hopeful. Is that enough? If I hadn’t done all the reading I’ve done over the last fifty years or so, I’m sure I’d have quite a few spare years, but I wouldn’t be me, and would I do anything more useful with that time?

To be continued, I suspect…

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

My travels: A for Arnstadt

January 4, 2017

Realising that I spend quite a lot of space in this blog writing about other people’s travels, it occurred to me to write about some of my own. I shall be interested in my readers’ responses.

I stayed in Arnstadt for a few days back in 2014 when I finally got around – thirty years after I’d promised myself the trip – to doing my tour of the places in the life of my favourite composer, J S Bach. Arnstadt, in Thuringia, was where as a young man he got his first post as organist.

Thuringia was a revelation: it was like going back in a time machine. So many of the towns were full of centuries-old houses, the ‘fachwerkhaus’ style, which we call wattle-and-daub, and of which some examples remain in older towns and cities in England such as York or Shrewsbury. But in this part of what used to be the DDR, they are everywhere.

You could see that Arnstadt and other places like it hadn’t caught up with the West, even more than twenty years after the re-unification of Germany: there were crumbling buildings, pavements and infrastructure everywhere, alongside new-build and modernisation. Roads could be dreadful, and often long stretches were completely closed in both directions for renovation. It felt poor compared with what I was used to in western Germany. Bargain-basement supermarkets abounded: my favourite, with its non-PC reference to Scottish parsimoniousness, was called ‘McPfennig’. People were friendly and helpful; it was a lot more ‘white’ than other regions of Germany, and there was quite a lot of right-wing political activity in evidence.

The flat I rented was in a building that had been a monastery in pre-Reformation times; a plaque noted that Martin Luther had stayed twice in the monastery (one of the town’s churches proudly marked the spot where he had preached from when he was in the town) and the coloured glass in the main house door included the date 1685 – the year my hero Bach was born… You could walk around the remains of the town walls, visit the church where he was organist, and a museum dedicated to him in the castle. There was a rather raunchy-looking statue of him as a young man in the town square. And you could walk the two miles to the small village of Dornheim to visit the church where he married his first wife Maria Barbara (except it was closed while I was there).

It was a hectic holiday as I strove to take in as many sites as I could in ten days, but as I drove around I noticed how beautiful the Thuringian countryside was, too, and realised that if it weren’t so far from England, I could have a really good walking holiday there too…

My A-Z of Reading: M is for Music

December 2, 2016

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.

Inarticulate responses

July 11, 2016

Reading has been such an integral part of my life – of me – for so long that sometimes it gets in the way of other things. Following those words on a page, instantly processed by my brain, reflected on, agreed or disagreed with, moderated, absorbed or rejected, is second nature. And I find this presents me with serious challenges when faced with other similar and yet very different stimuli.

I’ll try and be clearer. Along with reading I also enjoy listening to music, mainly classical, but some jazz. The input to my brain, my consciousness, my mind, is very different – no words! – and I’m far less sure what goes on, and what to do with it. Sounds don’t operate like words, obviously, don’t produce the same sort of response in my brain, in me; my response is mostly emotional – I think. But then my response to what I’m reading can also be emotional, and yet it’s not the same…

I enjoy art – huge generalisation there! – some kinds of art, painting from the time of Turner onwards, some sculpture, some strange conceptual art. Joseph Beuys fits in there somewhere. And I find responding to pictures and sculptures even more challenging. I can happily sit or stand and stare for ages; sometimes I have an intellectual response, which is easier and means I can talk about what I’m seeing; sometimes it’s a purely emotional response, and sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m mesmerised or entranced by what I’m looking at; I think I like it, but couldn’t really begin to tell you why… I realise that I don’t really have enough of the tools, or the necessary language (English teacher speaking here!) to explain my response.

And then I find myself wondering: is that OK? Is it necessarily like this, or is it because something was lacking in my earlier education? I don’t really think it matters that much, and yet, as I feel quite articulate in my specialist field of literature, I’d really like to be able to be like that, too, in my response to other areas of the arts.

My musical education at school was pretty non-existent; my voice broke early and I was bribed not to sing; I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument; most musical notation and terminology verges on the incomprehensible. And yet listening to the music of Bach has brought me as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. I can hear the complexity – that some call mathematical – and I can appreciate the genius; I can feel a man drawn to God. The late Beethoven String Quartets I find eerie, haunting even, and compelling, but that’s about all I can manage to articulate.

I never really had any education in art, either, apart from some very interesting and helpful stuff on architectural history at one point. My practical attempts at art of any kind were futile. Later in life, I have come to enjoy photography, which I find satisfying, and I have accepted this is as far as I’ll get.

If any artist speaks to me, it’s Turner, who to me is an impressionist before his time, whether in his huge canvases – particularly of Italy – or in his smaller watercolours and sketches; he does marvellous things with light, and can suggest a whole through the merest stroke of a pencil or dab of a paintbrush. But again, I can’t really get further than that in articulating what is is that affects me, moves me deeply, entrances me.

When I think more deeply, I realise that my responses to music and painting resemble my responses to poetry, when out of the words carefully chosen come images, words far less concrete than those I consume so voraciously when I read. But then it comes to me as I reach the end of this piece: the real problem is the words, which get in the way.

John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven

September 20, 2014

9780713996623 I’ve recently fulfilled a 30-year-old ambition, and visited the sites in Germany linked to J S Bach, and I took this book along as suitable reading to accompany my exploration. It’s a difficult book, especially for someone like me who loves music but has very little musical knowledge or understanding and plays no instrument; it’s a rewarding book which I read slowly and know that I can and will come back to in smaller doses as I re-listen to Bach’s music.

Gardiner takes his own track through the composer’s life and musical development, seeking to and succeeding in demolishing some of the hagiography that surrounds Bach. The focus is on his church music in particular, which suited me, as that has always been at the heart of my enjoyment of Bach. It’s highly contextual, which I found extremely helpful – all sorts of information is brought in to explain and enlighten aspects of Bach’s life and work, and Gardiner does benefit from all the latest research into the composer’s life and career (one of the things I found most eye-opening on my trip was just how much is still to be found/ discovered/ worked out).

That the book is also written by a performer – and a very distinguished one – with a love of the church music at the heart of all he does, was significant to me, and provided plenty of new insights for this uneducated reader. So, not an easy read, and probably not one to start with in an exploration of Bach, but nevertheless highly recommended.

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