My very good friend Baruch, is a great admirer of Bees, Bach & Buddha. He taught maths and physics at a college for further education in the UK. He is good at carpentry and masonry work and has built some of the kitchens at Brockwood Park (where I worked) in the past. I asked him to write a post for my blog on Bach and here it is.
John Eliot Gardiner’s book ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ is wonderful – I’ve just finished reading it this morning. It took long for three reasons: I read slowly, had to look up words in the dictionary all the time, and wanted to listen to the music he was discussing as I was reading about it.
He is immensely knowledgeable, not only about music, but the whole history of the period, Christianity and art. His vocabulary is so extensive that I had to look up words on every single page, and sometimes couldn’t find them even in the dictionary – but on the internet, (where all things dreamt up by man can be found.) He also has a glossary at the end of the book, mainly of musical terms. I kept a list of new words (new to me), which came to about 150 words, mostly ones I had never encountered before.
Of course, I couldn’t always follow the technical details, because of my lack of formal musical education – you will get much more out of it. He writes exceptionally expressively, in a rich style conveying strong impressions. He is able to fill the gaps in the documented evidence that exists, through his knowledge of the milieu, thus creating a vivid reconstruction of Bach’s life.
It is hard to understand how such music can be created by a human being. A musician by the name of Teresa Cahill has said that ‘when the angels play music for themselves, they play Mozart, but when they are asked to play for God, they play Bach!’ I am trying to put my finger on what it is about Bach that makes almost all other music seem to me, (a musical ignoramus no doubt), simplistic and mundane. Gardiner concentrates on the cantatas and passions with which I guess he is as familiar as anybody can be. Bach disdained opera, because for him music making was a devotional act, and therefore a serious act of worship. Perhaps this is part of it. Mozart and the others composed beautiful music for enjoyment, telling stories and the romantic expression of feelings and of mood, while Bach was calling on ‘God’. His purpose was a religious one, and although he lived and breathed within the Christian Lutheran milieu, his religious insight transcended it and is universal.
Bach shares with Mozart, Beethoven and others the ability to give musical expression to their inner state, their mind, but the difference may be in the quality of that mind. He seems to have composed in a state of communion, which may be why even technically the music surpasses the human; it has about it the quality of simplicity within complexity, the perfection of complexity you find in nature. Every piece, every movement, is new and of a different character, a new creation with its own integrity like a different flower in the forest. The music is not just beautiful, it is also true, a fountain of goodness. Casals said that when Bach is played, the sun shines. There seems to be a place where Beauty, Love and Truth are one; Bach seems to gives expression to this in music.
I think Bach was a one-off phenomenon in human history, because he combined within himself several qualities to a very great degree, each of which rarely appears on earth even on its own. First requirement seems to be to be born into a thoroughly musical environment, and within a religious context; then the foundation of the supreme technical mastery of the art of music, and this includes a mind that is of high mathematical intelligence; next is sheer musicality, the ability to express beauty and insight in sound. Then the capacity for invention, development and exploration, and then the ‘habit of perfection’, as JEG puts it, and finally the rarest of all seems to be the quality of a true religious mind. You can add to these the physical and mental strength of a man who could compose and perform one cantata per week for two years, with two passions to boot (John & Matthew), copying the parts by hand, rehearsing, performing, dealing with the ignorant Leipzig Consistory. The man was strong, a power house of creative energy.
Click the BBC radio3 page here to listen to some of the compositions by Bach. The image below is a 1748 copy of the 1746 portrait of Bach (aged 61) by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. This copy is privately owned and is located in the William H. Scheide, Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The original 1746 painting hangs in the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), Leipzig, Germany. Courtesy of http://www.musicwithease.com/bach-pictures.html