Feature Review – A Bach Christmas

Written by: Ying Chang

BBC Radio 3, Friday 16 December-Sunday 25 December 2005

From 7 o’clock on the evening of the 16th to 5 p.m. on Christmas Day, including ‘through the night’, BBC Radio 3 broadcast the entire works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ying Chang listened in…

“Perhaps the universalising impulse is an essential feature of western modernity, something which Bach himself intuited at its early stages and even helped to formulate” (John Butt)

“…at the tipping point between ancient and modern culture…” (James R. Gaines)

There was never any doubt that “A Bach Christmas” would be a success: a chance to hear the most consistently excellent oeuvre in Western music en bloc; performances rare, legendary, or both; a wealth of informed and deeply-felt commentary; and a seasonally appropriate meditation (even down to the chorales that have become familiar as carols) on God, on life, and on death. Yet such familiarity has, rather than contempt, bred awe more than intimacy. However much Bach I listen to, however much I read about him, however much of his music I can carry around in my head, at some level he still seems distant.

There are many reasons why Bach is more remote as both a composer and a human being than, say, Mozart or Beethoven. Some of these reasons are intellectually trivial – for example, because the numerical catalogue of his works is not a single chronological list but divided by genres and categories, we cannot know without further study which works were coeval.

Then there are simply so many cantatas and organ pieces, familiar only to performers and a few listeners, that it is difficult to secure an overview of the music. At the most generous estimate, perhaps only a tenth of Bach’s output, (in playing time, including the epic “St Matthew Passion” and “Mass in B minor”, rather than in terms of number of works) is well-known to the committed listener to music; you could double that for Beethoven. It has also been noted that Radio 3’s ‘Beethoven Week’ (which contained a good number of works performed more than once) took three days less than “A Bach Christmas”.

Some reasons are more substantial, but still extra-musical; there is little in the way of self-revealing writing like Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt” Testament or Mozart’s letters. Nor are the memoirs and accounts of those who knew Bach nearly as reliable.

Then, in terms of musical style, Bach shows a remarkable consistency from early to late – there is a certainly a process of distillation, recombination, increasing sophistication and chromaticism – but there is nothing like the periodisation, the development from musical immaturity to wisdom we see so often in great composers. We do not speak of Bach as we do of ‘late Beethoven’, ‘the last Schubert masterpieces’, nor of Schumann’s ‘flight into madness’, let alone from expansive to concentrated (Brahms) or diatonic to twelve-tone (Schoenberg).

Le style est l’homme, (the style is the man). For Bach, the man was the style – our conception of Baroque music is indissoluble from both the Bachian soundworld and Bach’s own work in integrating and refining the music of different European traditions.

Above all, whereas the archetypal Romantic artist – and in music, Beethoven is already the pattern for this – explores his own existential situation in his work, Bach’s music, as is widely commented, is about a man’s (and therefore mankind’s) relationship with God, rather than with himself or another person. The Romantic age still resonates for us; when Beethoven explores the limits of human intellect and will, we instantly identify with him. Bach’s age was more stylised, in any case, but his own music is opaque as an elucidation of the composer’s own soul; rather, it is a window on the infinite and on eternity.

Bach hardly lacked drama in his life: orphaned within the space of a year at ten; a legendary ability to walk for his art – initially 200 miles to boarding school in Lüneburg, then later another two hundred-odd to hear Buxtehude in Lübeck; married twice and widowed once; father to twenty children, half of whom died before him; a month imprisoned for leaving his job too insubordinately (an event reflected in a Radio 3 broadcast and musical montage from Brixton prison); and blindness. But, crucially, Bach did not dramatise any of this in his music: he wrote operatically, but he did not write opera, least of all an opera that might be a metaphor for his own life. Nor would Bach’s temperament, emotional and irascible yet highly disciplined and God-fearing, suit an “Amadeus”-like drama. Bach clearly had a strong ego, but he put it entirely at the service of a higher calling (just as his performers must subordinate theirs).

Although Bach’s oeuvre is impressively ample in many genres and was developed while he was at Cöthen freed from the need to write sacred choral music, the abiding memory of “A Bach Christmas” is hearing the cantatas and their Mass and Passion cousins. The doyen of Bach conductors today, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, was fittingly the daily guide in the midday cantata survey, incorporating his research for and reminiscences of his own Bach cantata ‘pilgrimage’.

Gardiner suggested the privilege it is to be able to listen to Bach cantatas on CDs while sitting at our leisure in centrally heated houses rather than as part of a four-hour service on hard benches in chilly churches. He reminded us how Bach himself, with staggering commitment, set himself the task of writing a weekly cantata for performance, never allowing himself the easy (and hardly reprehensible) escape of performing suitable music by other composers whenever necessary. The list of eminent Bach cantata conductors is long and distinguished – Karl Richter, Rilling, Suzuki, Gönnenwein, Herreweghe, Koopman; we had the chance to hear the interpretations of these and many more, not just over lunchtimes but at all hours of the day and night.

So complete a survey contained much incidental delight, new or familiar – and this even as a result of unplanned listening: Preludes and Fugues on the piano by Samuel Feinberg and Maria Yudina; chorale arrangements by Hubert Harry; archive recordings from the Leipzig Thomaskirche Choir (responsible for the earliest known survey of the cantatas); the Magnificat with its Christmas interpolations in seasonal context; Christopher Hogwood championing Bach on the clavichord, and Trevor Pinnock reminiscing about his recordings; Gardiner’s conducting of Cantata 159; Collegium Aureum’s ‘Peasant’ Cantata with Elly Ameling – a few highlights of a very long list.

One aspect of interpretation is, however, common to such disparate periods and performances – a sense of spirituality. We live in a world widely condemned as materialistic, shallow, and even empty. No doubt such debates between idealism and power have existed since the dawn of civilisation; however, there seems no doubt that Bach represents a sense of constancy – as well as consistency – in the apprehension of something beyond, something that can only be described as a spiritual world.

To ask if Bach composed as he did without believing in God is an over-simplification. Bach lived in a far more religious age than we do; the Reformation was not simply a succession of historical events for him, but the defining present for his musical compositions. Not only had his part of Germany been instrumental to the Reformation’s beginning, but its intellectual and ideological underpinnings were also essential to the very possibility of his sacred music. An atheistic Bach, employed in his actual post, would have been logically impossible.

However, there is no doubt that the debate about ‘Bach and God’ highlights one vitally important feature of his present-day reputation. In our world, precisely because it is one so universally perceived as being secular and fallen, Bach instantly recalls us to a sense of the divine, of music, and therefore of life as a mystery.

Many eminent observers, irrespective of their faith or lack thereof, comment that when playing or listening to Bach, they are drawn into another world. As Gardiner says (and I run the quote on not to misrepresent him): “At the moment of performance, I am a Christian. Culturally yes, doctrinally and theologically no”. In the summer BBC Radio 3’s Beethoven survey enacted for us the human spirit’s triumph; “A Bach Christmas” recalled us to its humility.

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