Posts Tagged ‘J S Bach’

On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

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Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.

Christmas books

December 26, 2018

It’s always lovely to receive presents at Christmas, and, as you might expect, a number of mine are usually books, and ones that I’m really looking forward to reading; no change this year!

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A slim but beautifully produced volume: Something of His Art, by Horatio Clare. This one was prompted by J S Bach’s epic journey on foot, of some 230 miles (each way) from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Luebeck in northern Germany to visit the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude; last year the writer covered various stages of this journey for the BBC, accompanied by a sound recordist and saved his impressions.

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Seasoned readers of my blog will be aware of my fascination (obsession?) with deserts. William Atkins’ book The Immeasurable World (Journeys in Desert Places) is therefore right up my street, and I can’t wait to get started, but the Bach will come first…

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Travel and photography are two of my interests and so I’m looking forward to serious browsing in a weighty tome Travelogues, by Burton Holmes: this American travelled worldwide in the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century and took thousands of photographs of all the places he visited: here’s a chance to look at photos of places as they used to be in the days when travel meant travel and not tourism, and was a serious business.

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One novel, this year, which has had rave reviews wherever I’ve come across them – and I’ve read other books by this contemporary Polish writer – Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ll let you know…

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.

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…

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