September 28, 2013


Is Bach The Voice Of God In Music? (DANIEL JOHNSON, October 2013, Standpoint)

[T]he old-fashioned Lutheran view of Bach as the "Fifth Evangelist" is not completely at odds with Gardiner's portrait, as the celestial castle of its title indicates. As Gardiner relates, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000, he conducted all 198 surviving church cantatas in one year, according to the liturgical calendar, in 50 cities and 13 countries. This Bach cantata pilgrimage -- the recordings of which remain as an aural monument, both to the composer and to Gardiner -- was unique, not only in musical but also in ecclesiastical history. The cantatas are of course only one of many facets of Bach's oeuvre; but their sheer quantity and quality, encompassing his entire career, provide an inexhaustible fount of inspiration. Christianity is central to Bach's music, not just because his was a deeply religious time and place, but because only a composer who saw music-making literally as worship could have produced works of such a kind and on such a scale. Bach annotated his copy of the Calov Bible, now preserved in Leipzig, with 348 marginalia, including the following, which might serve as his credo: "NB. Wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present." Gardiner comments: "This strikes me as a tenet that many of us as musicians automatically hold and aspire to whenever we play music, regardless of whatever 'God' we happen to believe in."

Bach's God, however benign, does not believe in letting humanity take it easy. Unlike his older contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Bach never believed that his was the best of all possible worlds: on the contrary, its suffering was made tolerable only by redemption at the hands of Jesus, "the man of sorrows". Aged 22, he was already composing the miraculous work of consolation, the Actus Tragicus. Against George Steiner's dictum that Christian drama by definition cannot be tragic, Gardiner contends that the two Bach Passions, especially the later St Matthew Passion, belong squarely in the grand tradition of classical tragedy that extends from the Greeks to Shakespeare, Racine and beyond. He sees the revival of non-operatic music drama as "one of Bach's great achievements", pre-empting those of Mozart and Wagner: "Bach set in motion a new burgeoning of the genre, leading his listeners to confront their mortality and compelling them to witness things from which they would normally avert their eyes." However, Bach expected his audiences to use their imagination to visualise the tragic events evoked by his music, and Gardiner has an aversion to the staging of the Passions as "proxy-operas". They were written for the church, not the theatre; "extraneous aesthetic baggage" can only distract from and diminish this music. "Their power lies in what they leave unspoken," he concludes. "We ignore that at our peril." Amen to that. [...]

It is hardly surprising that such a distinguished conductor takes it for granted that others will share his reverence for Bach the man, whose fiery personality he discerns both in his music and in anecdotes passed down by musicians -- ripping off his wig and stamping on it in moments of rage, for instance. Gardiner describes his own reaction to seeing the Haussmann portrait again in Princeton some 60 years after it left his childhood home: "The overall impression is of someone a lot more complex, nuanced and, above all, human than the formal posture of a public figure would seem to allow." 

Yet Bach's humanity is inseparable from his faith in God's mercy. Blind, crippled by a stroke and dying, he dictated his "deathbed" chorale BWV 668a, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein ("When we are in desperate straits"), which directly addresses God: "Turn not Thy gracious countenance / From me, a poor sinner." Nothing, it is safe to say, could be less congenial to the "Olympian" mentality of modern man. "It is Bach," Gardiner defiantly declares, "making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God -- in human form." For that reason Bach must remain a closed book to those for whom the category of divinity is meaningless, and hence deny that it is possible "to make divine things human and human things divine". Music -- even Bach's music -- cannot be "divine" unless God is a presence, unseen and perhaps unconscious, in our lives. We instinctively reach for theological metaphors when we experience the numinous quality of sacred art and music. But for these words to mean anything, we must have at least some confidence that the universe itself has meaning. Bach puts us back in touch with that numinous, on occasion even visceral, presence of the divine. And this involuntary response tells us that there is something transcendental within us, at the very core of our being, that recognises itself in this music. We are made in the image of God, the Bible tells us; in the same way, our music is a distant echo of Paradise. 

Bach is as close as our echo comes to the real deal.
Posted by at September 28, 2013 8:56 AM

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