Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Bach's family were bakers of Thuringia, and it is said that this original Bach "liked to strum a cittern [lute] at the mill while wheat was ground."

He also liked to sire children. He begat Hans and Casper ... then came Johann and Cristoph and Heinrich. They were the musical clan in Eisenach, Erfurt, and Arnstadt, all ultimately church musicians, along with Johann Ambrosius Bach, father of our Bach.

Bach Senior was a Hausmann, a town musician. He arranged some music at the church, and for wedding receptions. He was of the guild, the "beer-hall fiddlers," and he married Maria Elisabeth and they had six children.

There were sixteen male Bachs in Johann Sebastian's generation, so why was he the sole genius, the others not so well known, nor artful? Mostly because they died. Five of his uncles did so early on, three of his brothers did, as did Jonas (aged ten) and Balthasar (aged eighteen). His own mother died when he was nine, and his father a year later. "At age ten Bach was an orphan." The Bachs

    lost as many members to disease as they gained in childbirth. They increased and multiplied in defiance of death.

Johann went to live with his brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdurf, where he was taught to play the clavier. He then moved to Lüneberg, where he learned the organ. It was the age of the organ. "By 1700 the pipe organ was a mechanical wonder: a device that made use of wood and wire, air and fire, to produce a range of sounds as various as any chorus or orchestra."

    The organ was engineered for solitude. With several keyboards, it enabled the musician to undertake complex counterpoint, setting one musical line, with a specific tone color, against another, different one. It let him use his feet to provide further accompaniment. It allowed him to change the character of the instrument while he played by pulling out some stops and putting others in. It required an apprentice to work the bellows --- but more than most instruments, it freed the musician to play music all by himself.

"As a new technology, it was state of the art." Bach was not only a fine musician --- at age eighteen he was hired on as chief organist at the Neuekirche in Arnstadt --- he was an accomplished practicing engineer of construction and repair of the instrument. It was also said that he always began his performances at full blast. He would get them to crank up the bellows, pull out all the stops, and let go, rattling the walls of whatever dusty church he found himself in. Over the years, he would be the one you called there in Thuringia if you had problems with the local church organ.

Some have opined that he was the Steve Jobs of this instrument. He knew how to perform on it; he knew how to fix it; he knew how to design and build one from scratch. And the organ was the 18th Century computer: it not only needed constant maintenance, it was constantly changing, being updated, and Bach --- until the end of his days --- was creating new and astonishing programs for it. He managed in his lifetime to download a whole universe specifically for the instrument.

§   §   §

Where did this genius come from? That is the mystery, and Elie claims that from early to late in Bach's music, there is no progression, no going from "simplicity to complexity,"

    no pilgrim's progress fron innocence to experience. All that he knew, he knew all along.

By the time we have gone through all his works, those of us who love Bach know this to be true. Some of his earliest cantatas contain passages as great and profound as those to be heard in the late Passions, the B-minor Mass, and the oratorios. We can't trace a progression as we can with Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert from youthful fire to complex maturity. Bach is the complete musician, seems to have been so from the moment he appeared (after the lost years, 1702 - 1703) until he died fifty years later.

Those who want to investigate his genius now have a tremendous resource in their own homes. It's the organ of today, the computer. It is simplicity itself. Go to YouTube (yes, YouTube! --- I never thought I'd be counseling people to do YouTube) --- and put in to the top line "Bach Cantatas" and there you will find thirty pages of twenty-one entries each in which you will find (I believe; I haven't checked through them all yet) some 600 listings. There are repeats of different versions --- there are only 212 known cantatas --- so there are an excess of listings, including cryptic ones (Satchmo turns up once, as does Miles Davis: perhaps one of them made a transcription for trumpet from the G-major 'cello suite).

§   §   §

I first went nuts for Bach back in the musical dark ages --- the 1950s. Then, the only place to get his vocal works was to go out and buy the LPs: the elegantly packaged Archive recordings, or those on Vanguard, Westminster, and a few on Columbia, Decca, HMV, Vox and RCA. Now, on one page of YouTube you can find Cantatas 14, 23, 30, 32, 33, 34, 41, 54, 62, 63, 80, 95, 112, 113, 114, 140, 142, 152, 155, 188, 208, 214 and, in addition, "27 Videos with Helmuth Rilling" --- which seems to contain eight additional unnumbered cantatas.

If I look further on the thirty pages, I will find some old favorites Ich Habe Genug ("I've had it"), or the classic classic duet --- soprano and alto --- Teresa Stich-Randall and Dagmar Hermann from the old Vanguard Cantata 78 "Jesu der du Meine Seele" ... with conductor Felix Prohaska, If you have any doubts of the underlying joy-form-structure-genius-passion-glory-soul-heart-and-triple-header fireworks in Bach, stop reading what I am writing and go seek this one out. Drop everything and listen to it about a hundred times, and I think you'll pick up what I am trying to put down.

If you need further convincing, look up (again at YouTube) the cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131 with Ton Koopman. After you call it up, move the little pointer dooley below the picture over about half-way until you get the big guy starting to plug away at his 'cello, and soon enough, a sweet-faced tenor will appear. No, it's not the one with the white beard and specs mugging about on the platform (that's Koopman), it's Lothar Odinius. He will be singing "Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer Morgenwache bis zu der andern:" My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning (the writers of Bach's librettos --- much less the translators --- are not the greatest.)

Listen to Odinius twenty or thirty (or forty) times ... and then get back to me. You might, with this, drop all your prejudices about 18th century music and gorgeous tenor voices and music from the heart; you may, I would hope (and you should hope) ... get it. It's a great obsession for a lifetime, especially yours.

§   §   §

When I first started out on my cantata voyage back in 1955, I was suffering from a broken heart which I managed to cure over a few months with nightly doses of Scotch and Bach. I guess that cure was good as any, though you may have other ways of ungumming your musical soul that might be more productive and less hangover-producing. You'll learn soon enough that Bach isn't just doing counterpoint, he does acute and intricate surgery on the soul. And along with counterpoint, he does treblepont, cuadrapoint, and in some of his masses and passions, dodecapoints ... including voice, organ, with the damndest collection of instruments (some of which --- like the oboe da caccia, the corno da tirarsi, the lautenwerck and mellophone --- he invented or retrofitted himself).

What planet did this guy come from? Elie certainly doesn't know for Reinventing Bach is not so much about Bach as it is about the big four JSB performers of the twentieth century: that old romantic Leopold Stokowski, the purist, but klunky, organist Albert Schweitzer, gentle Pablo Casals (he left his country rather than support its politics), and most of all, with about a jillion entries, Glenn Gould.

Gould pops up in the strangest places, doing the oddest things. The author's theory is that Gould and Bach might have been deep kin over the ages because of their fascination with the mechanics of music.

We find Gould in a decommissioned church in New York City, where he "made the church his own,"

    a cross between stage and cottage, between chapel and radio shack, between laboratory and Baroque composing room. The studio was congenial to him: a vast windowless space, a hundred feet deep and as many high beneath a circuit of arches, outfitted with a nestling pair of grand pianos, a thicket of microphones, some tape decks and mixing consoles.
Here Gould was to record the Goldberg Variations, which was an effort "to combine the artist's attraction to the ideal society that is his audience."

Gould seemed to resent the fact that people thought him weird, despite the fact that he brought his own slooped-down chairs to his performances, complained of dozens of phobias, soaked his hands before each concert, sung incessantly in the solo recordings (driving the engineers looney), and probably killed himself with overdoing everything: binge practice-sessions, non-stop 3 a.m. long-distance telephone calls, hideous depression, a pharmacopia to match that of everyone's favorite rock star (it could be that he was the Michael Jackson of the Baroque set), interlarded with an acute allergy to people (and possibly himself). He once said, "Where it used to be just a fear of eating in public, now it's a fear of being trapped anywhere with people, even having any kinds of dealings with people." He died in 1982, aged fifty.

Thus, Reinventing Bach is not all about JSB. But it is a dandy guide to the history and technology of the recording industry, mini-biographies of a few musicians, along with a handful of improbable parallelisms (imagine Pablo Casals being compared to the great blues musician Robert Johnson).***

Plus, occasional riffs, like this one on Bach's grandest opera --- I call it that advisedly --- the St. Matthew's Passion:

    It extends the Christian drama of Bach into the epic territory of Wagner. It [is] a world unto itself, like the Sistine Chapel or the monastic isle of Patmos. It makes Jesus's final hours seem to pass in real time, so that the event one believer styled "death on a Friday afternoon" really does take an afternoon to transpire.

Speaking of the St Matthew Passion, not long ago I stumbled over the Karl Richter version of that astonishing work on YouTube from Herkules-Saal, München, Germany. There usually are no boffs in Bach, certainly not in the passions, but I did have a problem keeping a straight face through this performance. It was recorded in 1971. It was staged as if it were Die Walküre. The bass? Henry Kissinger, I swear. Alto? Nancy Reagan. Look for yourself. Richter? He appears as if he had just gotten through munching on bitter bitter melon. In all, it was a riot. Go find it ... see for yourself. I tell you: it's the Laurel & Hardy of Bach's holy music.

--- Richard Saturday
Go to another
on Bach

    ***"Monday, November 23, 1936, was a good day for recorded music.
    While Pablo Casals was playing Bach at Abbey Road,
    Robert Johnson was playing his blues in an
    ad hoc recording studio in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas,
    making the records that are for the modern blues
    what the Bach suites are for the cello:
    at once their high point
    and their point of origin."

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