Johann Sebastian Bach
The BBC's Bach Christmas

My friend Hugh said that overhearing a German ordering breakfast was not unlike the Imperial declaration of war in Berlin in 1914. And of course there is Tallyrand: he spoke French to his loves, English to his aides, Italian to the maids, and German to his dogs.

For ten days several years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation went German, via Johann Sebastian Bach. Twenty-four hours a day, we heard the master's declarations --- in the form of sonatas, suites, cantatas, magnificats, masses, passions, chorales, and other miscellaneous works. The producers stated that the whole known published oeuvre was to be heard ... and those not previously recorded were commissioned for special performance by the BBC.

They also broadcast comments from composers, experts, performers, and listeners. Wynton Marsalis said "Bach is the man! You can't get away from the old man." One commentator, whose name I didn't get, said that she liked listening to the Glenn Gould solo recordings of Bach, because if you turned the volume up, you could hear the pianist humming along: the very tightly disciplined piano playing, and this rather wooly voice of a singer who was not necessarily a singer.

A poem was played, "If Bach was a bee-keeper," with the bees humming counterpoint in his ear. And Angela Hewitt said that as she was learning "The Well-Tempered Clavier," she came to the conclusion that the last fugue of Part II, in B-minor, was not meant to be played --- just looked at. What surprised some listeners was the predominance of religious music --- not necessarily the already-famous B-minor Mass and the St. Matthew's Passion --- but the cantatas, sacred and religious, which took up a large portion of the 214 hours.

For those of us who have a place in our hearts for the vocal works of Bach, it was a dream, a musical pleasure palace, a ten-day saturnalia of the effusions of the baroque, where counterpoint and musical invention reigned non-stop, carrying us as close to the earthly paradise as we could hope and imagine in this lifetime.

I recall some fifty years ago, in the 50's dormitory of my tiny college, when my health had broken down and my heart (too) came to be askew. It seemed that the only things that could cure me were the nightly doses of alcoholic medicine (nipped directly from the bottle) and the then rare, very rare recordings of Bach Cantatas --- Westminster records with Hermann Scherchen, the carefully sealed albums from Archive with Helmut Walcha and Dietrich Fisher-Diskau.

Bach spoke to the heart of me, and it was only later that I realized that his solemn German religiosity was of a piece, especially as rendered by the discs of the day: austere, bleak, solemn. It matched my mood perfectly.

However, I found in some of the pieces Bach came across as a cheerful, even merry dance-master. Oboes and bassoons and organ could twine together on my old amplifier (complete with tubes that lit up) and my single (mono) speaker. It may have been these weavings floating up, elegantly decorated balloons of counterpoint that helped me to weave my life back together, making it tolerable ... if not understandable.

As I listened this week to the cantatas and masses, I could see Bach in his cappelmeister's room, leaning over the parchment, in the late-winter burnt-sienna light, with the tens of thousands of notes spilling out from his pen --- alto and contralto and violin counterpoint, the organ bass line, oboe and tenor with harpsichord enmeshing caught fugues in a line of perfect rhythm.

Or: see him at the organ at St. Pauls, in the freezing chapel, at 6 a.m. there in Leipzig. It being late February, his breath is frozen before him. A dim candle smolders near the music set before him, harmonies he wove out of his mad German soul. Bach is mad, he has to be to pour out so many extraordinary leaps of dissonance that lie concealed in his music, these notes that over so many years, 300 years after the fact, reach us, changing our hearts and souls still, after so many years.

Bach hovers over the wheezing organ, pumped below by hand by the shivering organ-boy. Above stands the chilled choir in their heavy coats, the hundred or so brave and stolid Lutherans, for the four hours of service in the unheated cathedral, a stolid people sometimes puzzled by the mournful lines of "Ich Habe Genug," the tenor merging and parting with the oboe in "The Magnificat," the astonishing soprano-contralto duet in "Jesu, der du meine Seele."

There was a certain saneness hiding in his lunacy. Anyone who could sustain the mystery that is a Bach mass or cantata or sonata would, by nature, be on the far edge, yet so contained. Mad yet contained, what with two wives, two brothers, eleven sons and nine daughters, eleven of them laid in the grave during his lifetime. "I compose for the greater glory of god," he once wrote. And indeed, the cantatas and masses were composure, a sanity in place despite the arbitrary agonies handed out by his beloved divine.

He was a man of temper. He spent a month in jail in Weimar because the town council, they say, had cheated him out of some money. But my favorite Bach temper story concerns not an insult to another person, but to another person's musical ability. As Christoph Wolff relates it, the young Bach passed by some students on the Arnstadt green. A Herr Geyersbach attacked because Bach had not only maligned him, but, according to the official record,

    he has maligned his bassoon at the same time, and whoever insulted his belongings insulted him as well, he had carried on like a dirty dog's etc etc.

It turns out that the exact language was somewhat different. Bach had not called him "a dirty dog's wiener," but had merely insulted Geyersbach's musical smarts by calling him a Zippel Fagottist: "a greenhorn bassoonist."

--- Lorenzo W. Milam
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