Why did he write it?

gibbonI may have got into a muddle with the lectionary. Bach used a different pattern from me (in fact I’ve used two different ones in my time), and I’ve been unsure which Sunday we are on and which cantatas I should be listening to. Tomorrow is Epiphany 5 according to the Revised Common Lectionary, but the Wikipedia page for Bach’s cantatas only offers me 4 Epiphany Sundays. Next week is Septuagessima Sunday for Bach (three before Ash Wednesday, so there is no cantata this week. Perhaps the choir got a week off. I wanted some music, though, so I consulted the list at the bottom of the page. BWV 117 was composed for no known occasion. ‘It may have been a general purpose cantata.’

I suppose a lot of Bach’s music was written for specific occasions, or to commission. But not all. The Partitas were probably written just because he wanted to write them. Perhaps he wrote this cantata for enjoyment.

It is, once again, a wonder and a marvel. A kind and happy piece of music. The opening chorale, which also ends the piece, is a delight, gently joyful and full of grace. As sometimes happens to me, the music moved me so strongly that I felt it physically. Walking towards some great trees, the sun shining (we’ve had a lot of sunny Saturdays despite the very sloppy weather this winter – 40 houses flooded in Somerset – did you hear?), it was when the chorus came in that my legs felt weak.

Now, I’ve been thinking about singing, recently. There is a choir festival at St Andrew’s Hospital, and singing and performing seem to be therapeutically significant. There’s an idea around that singing may have preceded speech in human evolution, that we, like gibbons, are singing primates.

Singing certainly seems to be associated with courtship. Many songs are love songs, perhaps the majority, and it is in the years when many of us are finding and bonding with a partner, late teens and twenties, that people tend to discover popular music. ‘That’s our tune’ a couple may say, and it will be linked forever with their falling in love.

I’ve been wondering about singing to each other. We have distanced ourselves from singing. Perhaps half the population regard themselves as unable to sing, and even more would say they are not worth listening to. Singing has been something professionals do for us. We listen mainly to recordings.

On the occasions I’ve heard singing live, it is very impressive. There is a power beyond the effect of the music, especially, I think, when an amateur sings. It’s a risky activity. Voices can crack and go off key, people can be overcome by stage fright. To risk all this, and perhaps to triumph, and to sing words declaring love, is extraordinarily powerful. At the choir festival a psychiatrist leading a choir made up of her patients, sang a verse – I could make you happy, make your dreams come true / Nothin’ that I wouldn’t do / Go to the ends of the earth for you / To make you feel my love’ – and it looked as if her patients all believed her.

I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone sing a song just for me, nor have I ever sung for just one person. I wonder what it would be like. It could be very embarrassing. So much emotion, such intensity, so powerfully expressed. Will one or both of you laugh inappropriately? Will it ‘go wrong’ in some way? It’s fraught, just like sex is.

But singing in groups and singing to an audience comes close to this intensity. Singing together to God is strong stuff, too.

Beautifully recorded, rehearsed and trained singers, music written by a paid composer three centuries ago for the worship of a religion that only has a loose connection with my own, the technology of Spotify and smartphones .. all of this does not obscure the immediacy, intensity and connection that music is about. This morning, in the sun, once again, it was beautiful – whatever that word means. I responded to it, and it felt as if it was written for me.



Tears, sighs, heartache

marble-5119_640For Epiphany Two, there is a choice of three cantatas: “My God, how long, how long?”, “Oh God, how much heartache?” and “My sighs, my tears”.

How miserable is this? The gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Epiphany in Bach’s time was the wedding at Cana, not a cue for wretchedness and foreboding, I would have thought. The wedding story is joyful and impressive, surely: Jesus gives the new wine of the reign of God.

But Lutheran Christianity, and Eighteenth Century Protestantism in general seems to have been gloomy. The only way to approach God was with the lowest self-esteem, and utterly helpless dependence.

It’s not my style, and nor, do I think, was it Bach’s. His music can sometimes be resolutely mathematical, and he does set abjectly pious church texts in very affecting music at times, but I think his default setting is jubilation. In the cantatas I’ve listened to so far, humour, affirmation and exuberance are never far away, so it will be interesting to see if he sinks into the pit of negative self-examination in this week’s cantatas. I doubt it.


Horns! Cantata 65 – Epiphany

How gorgeous this is! They will all come forth out of Sheba, bringing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. Opulent, confident, assured, and as always with Bach, exactly right. The French horns help create a sumptuously laid back atmosphere with a hint of royal progress.

I don’t know what to say apart from that I love it, and as always am amazed yet again when Bach pulls another miracle out of his hat. Perhaps when I’ve listened to a few dozen cantatas I will acquire enough discernment to appreciate them a little more precisely. Meanwhile I’m stuck with ‘isn’t it lovely?’ Like Ron Weasley in love.


63 and 28

I enjoyed Cantata 63, the one I chose for Christmas Day, and today I’ve been listening to number 28. This was written for Christmas 1, but it fits with today because it’s a year end cantata: Praise God! The year now draws to a close.

I have listened to three versions of 28 – Koopman, Suzuki and Gardiner. The Koopman recording has a dry sound, and the performance didn’t grab my attention. The Suzuki sound is resonant (sounds great on headphones) and his tempos are on the fast side – a romantic interpretation. Gardiner seems a little more reserved in the general sweep of the music, but with more texture audible.

The duet Gott hat uns im heurigen Jahre gesegnet is a delight. The closing chorale has a cadence at the end of one line that calls to mind the Passion Chorale. I wonder if this is a deliberate quote or just an inevitable Bach fingerprint.


Parsifal and Bach

On Wednesday I went to a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  I know the Prelude very well but not the other four hours and more of the opera!  It was a sublime experience of gorgeous music, compelling drama, innovative production, and spiritual experience.  Universal themes of sin, guilt, shame, wounded-ness, self-giving, the wounded-healer, the holy fool, personal vocation, redemption, wholeness, rest, and new creation are explored at length.  

It was also something of a contemplative experience.  To sit through a performance that begins at 5.00 p.m. and concludes at 10.40 p.m. means that your are not in control and simply have to place yourself attentively before the music-drama and let it do its work.

So, what’s the connection with Bach Cantatas?  Well, at an obvious level those of us who are listening to these sacred works liturgically are in it for the long haul.  And most of them are unknown to us.  We don’t have the advantage of coming to the work with the advantage that familiarity brings, knowing what to expect.  We are not in control and so have to sit and receive with an attitude of attentive contemplation, week on week.

Bach was no great fan of the opera of his time and composed no operas.  That being said, what’s struck me throughout the four weeks is the enormous sense of the operatic about these cantatas.  They are full of drama and emotion, and to such a degree that they surpass the operas of the day.

One other connection.  Wagner was a hugely innovative orchestrator, creating new sound worlds.  And although Bach didn’t have anything like the instrumental resources at his disposal he does an amazing work of surprising us with fresh and varied sounds.  Some of the arias have had me smiling broadly at his quirkiness, for e.g. BWV 61, Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  

I’m writing this while listening to BWV 132, the Cantata for the Fourth Week of Advent and looking forward to interspersing the cantatas for Sunday with the Christmas Oratorio.  So probably no Parsifal for a while, although I feel as though I’ve just embarked on yet another life-long relationship.

(Geoff Colmer)

Maximum Break

It’s happened before that I’ve listened to music in a particular place and the piece and the landscape have worked together in some way to enhance each other. There is a shoulder of Ingleborough that is forever full of Saint-Saens, a little stream on Ilkley Moor where a particular Schubert song takes me every time I hear it, and some slopes below Kinder Scout indelibly linked with the insufferable organ playing of Wolfgang Rubsam. It’s partly the immersive effect of headphones, and partly the synergy of eyes and ears.

Today is was a miserable stretch of muddy Nene riverbank, and an ecstatic Bach chorus that I accidentally put on at full volume. It was physically amazing and overwhelming. Even the dog realized something was up, and was very solicitous.

I enjoyed several more movements before I realised that I was listening, again, to the wrong cantata. A search for 147 had thrown up an album featuring 140 and 147 – which explained the ‘Wachet auf’ tune that I finally recognised. Spotify on a mobile, like most music programmes, assumes that you only listen to songs and don’t really care who wrote them or what order you hear them in. Type in BWV 147 and you get a whole string of songs called “Wachet au..” by Ruth Holton and Bach.

It was very good, the 140, but it shouldn’t come up until next November. So I found 147 on a Naxos album. I’ve always thought of it, or at least the ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ bit, as the snooker cantata. Once I’d got the image of Cliff Thorburn out of my mind it was pleasant, though not nearly as good as 140. The soprano on the Naxos set, Ingrid Kertesi, should NOT be listened to through headphones. Her hooty voice is on the sonic weapons end of the husky — piercing spectrum.

Last week’s cantata was pleasant and encouraging – which may not sound like high praise, but is, I suppose, what I would want from a Cantata that is helping me wait for Christmas. I found 147 (to be serious now) more beautiful and lovely, still undramatic, but once again generous and nurturing.

I find myself, not for the first time, wondering what it is about Bach that makes him so unlike other composers. For many years I had no sense of the person behind the music. I’ve read a biography, now, so I know a little about him, but it doesn’t seem very relevant. It’s as if he doesn’t address his listeners. There is little sense of rhetoric or drawing the hearer in. The music is just there. It is written according to its internal logic. It neither asks to be liked nor strives for effect, it just does its own thing.

I’ve been listening to the Goldberg’s recently. 70+ minutes of variations. ‘Difficult’ music. Wonderful when you get into it, especially if you can get inside it by playing (the easier bits of) it, but you have to make the effort. It’s like appreciating a major set of mathematical equations or learning about the Periodic Table, and it has that same sense of being given. Richard Ingrams has joked that he confuses Bach with God, and there used to be an old saying that Bach was God the Father, Beethoven was God the Son, and Mozart (or Schubert in some versions) was the Holy Spirit. I can see why – there is that sense of coming up against a natural phenomenon. It seems as unnecessary to question Bach’s musical choices as to ask why copper is heavier than iron.

bach2This is a reconstruction of Bach’s face from a bronze cast of his skull. It seems appropriate to see Bach as we also see the reconstructions of bronze age hunter gatherers, without his wig or the style given by the conventions early 18th Century portraiture.

Here is Bach as Homo sapiens, one of us, but also a force of nature, modest, but other.


Advent 2

Last week I listened to the cantata for Advent 1, and it was OK. It may have been a mistake to listen while lying in bed, tired!

Today I listened to this week’s offering while out walking the dog in the sunshine. It was wonderful. Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet! is like a movement from the Brandenburgs but with added choir. It has that thrill of excitement, that feeling of something just coming to the boil that is typical of Bach. Great Advent music, arresting, inviting and invigorating.

I’m not, though, sure if I listened to the right bits. This is partly a problem with Spotify. On my phone, there is minimal information. I searched for BWV 70a and got the one track, but it was followed by different tracks on different albums. All lovely stuff, but I wasn’t sure whether I was listening to BWV 70a or BWV 70, an enlarged version of 70a, recycled for a Sunday in Trinity, or maybe something else altogether.

I listened to various versions and liked them all. I listened to quite a few tracks from an album from the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki, and thought they had particularly enjoyable soloists. There was an aria for bass and trumpet that followed the Wachet! Betet! piece, and was superb – I think, though, that this was probably BWV 70, and not what I should have been listening to on Advent 2.