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Why Bach Moves Us

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Sotheby’s
The Thomasschule and Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was the choir director from 1723 until his death in 1750; painting by Felix Mendelssohn, 1838

The truth about Bach’s personality probably rests somewhere in the middle. The picture of Bach as humble Lutheran servant of God, model child, and fully mature adult is undoubtedly too saccharine. The arguments with town councils show a strong will and prickly temperament, and his private biblical exegesis suggests inner resentment. Gardiner is to be applauded for yanking us back to reality, for underscoring that the youthful pranks mentioned by C.P.E. Bach may refer to a less responsible side of his father. But the letters of family amanuensis Johann Elias Bach, describing a cantor’s home filled with visitors, carnations, and canaries, suggest a warm domestic haven rather than the lair of an angry young man.

The obsessive search for Bach’s dark side subsides in the second half of the book, when Gardiner arrives at the music he knows and loves best, the Leipzig vocal works. Here the tone brightens.

Bach’s decision, upon becoming cantor of St. Thomas, to provide a new cantata for each Sunday and festival day of the church year was the most momentous compositional decision of his life. It was common at the time for cantors to produce annual cantata cycles of approximately sixty works each. Georg Philipp Telemann, writer of 1,700 cantatas, and Christoph Graupner, with 1,400 to his credit, could shake church pieces out of their sleeves, and it is no surprise that they were offered the St. Thomas position before Bach. But Bach’s writing was much more substantive and intense, and the commitment to weekly cantata composition during his initial Leipzig years was a daunting personal challenge. He had only a modest supply of earlier works. He had no professional copyists at his disposal. He had no more than a motley band of singers and instrumentalists.

The weekly routine of cantata production must have been arduous: composing a thirty-minute work, overseeing the preparation of performance parts, rehearsing the score, and finally performing the music one, two, or even three times, depending on the Sunday or feast day in question. Even more remarkable was the multiyear commitment: the steady production, week in and week out, with Passions, oratorios, and Latin-texted works added at the high points of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The obituary stated that Bach composed five annual cycles, making a total of approximately three hundred cantatas. Only two hundred or so survive.

Gardiner’s direction of the “Bach Pilgrimage,” the performance of the complete cantatas in liturgical order during the course of 2000, gives him a unique insider’s feel for Bach’s vocal music and the rhythm of an annual cycle. His walkthrough of the annual cycles of 1723–1724 and 1724–1725 (the others are more fragmentary) provides a marvelous sense of the liturgical seasons and Bach’s musical reaction to them.

There are great advantages to approaching the cantatas this way. We can experience, for instance, the tremendous burden of Bach’s first Christmas, when he had to compose, prepare, and perform nine works over a span of sixteen days. We can see just how methodically he approached composition when he began the second annual cycle, based on chorale tunes, by assigning the melody first to the soprano voice, then to the alto, then to the tenor, and finally to the bass, respectively, in the opening choruses of the first four works. Or we can note how toward the end of the same cycle Bach became enamored of the oboe da caccia, an exotic instrument with the body of an oboe and the bell of a horn, using it in six of the last twelve works.

These and other day-to-day matters come to life in Gardiner’s tour through the cantatas, as his writing picks up the lyrical flow of the music:

Here we see a great composer at the height of his powers meeting the challenges of a self-imposed regimen week by week and adjusting his choice of form, his approach and his tone of voice to each underlying theme, each symbol and each metaphor arising from the texts laid out in front of him. There can be no doubt as to the magnitude of the task or the rapidity with which his skill developed.

Gardiner believes it was Bach’s identification with Martin Luther that made all the difference. Luther’s earthy German translation of the Bible, a “prose of the people,” provided Bach with bold images to paint in music. It was the perfect counterpart to Luther’s hymns and hymn texts, to which Bach returned time and time again. Luther’s advocacy of music and his conviction that it could make scripture come alive legitimized Bach’s compositional ambitions. Picking up Spitta’s mantle, Gardiner makes the case that the cantatas, rather than the keyboard or instrumental works, are Bach’s greatest achievement. And within the cantatas it is the sacred pieces, backed by Bach’s fervent faith, that shine above the secular works, which in Gardiner’s view do not display the same intense conviction.

Crowning the cantata cycles are the Passions. Of the two that survive, Gardiner finds the St. John the most dramatic, perhaps because the text offered optimal opportunity for contrasts. On a small scale, this played out in arias such as “Betrachte, meine Seel” (Consider, my soul), in which the torn and blood-streaked back of the flogged Christ is likened to a rainbow symbolizing divine grace. Bach painted this image with exotic violas d’amore accompanied by a lute (or lute harpsichord, in a subsequent performance). On a large scale, it played out in the turbulent choruses of the hysterical and vengeful mob that contrast with the serene recitatives and arias portraying Christ. The chorales, perhaps actively sung by the congregation (this remains open to debate), stood as markers for the listeners, signposts of familiar texts and melodies that engaged them more deeply in the drama. Gardiner is right to point out the St. John Passion’s close ties with opera and its musical devices. As was true of opera, audience members could purchase the printed text at the event, even though they were already familiar with the characters and plot.

Gardiner concludes his survey of the vocal music with an extended exploration of the Mass in B-Minor, Bach’s most universal church work. Consisting mainly of recycled movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five-year period, it allowed Bach to survey his vocal pieces one last time and pick select movements for further revision and refinement. By shifting the text from German to Latin, he was able to move the music from the Lutheran Proper service to the Catholic Ordinary. The work is permeated with secular dance music, which accounts for its remarkable exuberance, grace, and appeal. But it also contains deeply expressive music from Bach’s Weimar and Leipzig church cantatas that gives it extraordinary emotional depth and drama. As Gardiner well describes it, the Mass “celebrates the fundamental sanctity of life, an awareness of the divine and a transcendent dimension as a fact of human existence.” Assembled in 1748 and 1749, it was Bach’s musical last will and testament.

Gardiner, like earlier biographers, ponders whether the work is Lutheran or Catholic. The Missa (Kyrie and Gloria) and Sanctus were compatible with the Lutheran worship service, as previous writers have acknowledged. But recent evidence shows that the Symbolum Nicenum and Agnus Dei portions could have been performed within the Leipzig Lutheran liturgy as well. In the case of the Symbolum, Gardiner suggests that Bach’s late insertion of the Et incarnatus puts the Crucifixus at the very center of the music, thus reinforcing Luther’s belief that the crucifixion was the central event of Christianity, an act that allowed man to perceive God through Christ’s suffering and death.

This is true, but the interpolation also highlights the incarnation, which was de rigueur for Catholic Mass settings of the time. There are reasons to believe Bach performed the Symbolum in its initial, shorter version in Leipzig as a Lutheran anthem, and inserted the Et incarnatus only when he incorporated the music into his evolving Catholic Missa tota. The extant manuscript of the B-Minor Mass is filled with scratch-outs, corrections, revisions, and insertions. It suggests a work in progress.

If Bach had lived longer, it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass, similar to those of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions. There he might have confirmed the Catholic nature of the whole by replacing the Lutheran term “Symbolum Nicenum” with the Roman standard, “Credo.” He also might have given the work a name (the present title comes from the nineteenth century; the Bach family seems to have called the compilation “The Great Catholic Mass”).

Which brings us back to the Agnus Dei aria of this monumental piece. Its text does not draw on Luther’s German or the poetry of a Leipzig librettist, but rather on the ancient language of the Mass Ordinary. Is it Bach’s use of this timeless Latin plea that still moves us so strongly today, or is it the seemingly inexorable progression of his melodic lines and harmonic sequences? Does the perfectly proportioned structure of the piece stir primal feelings that transcend time, place, and creed, to express the inexpressible? Although Music in the Castle of Heaven does not fully answer these questions, it forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And it takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener. As Otto Bettmann once remarked, Bach’s “music sets in order what life cannot.”

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