Bach with Bite

Article excerpt

RICHARD SENNETT on Peter Sellars's staging of two cantatas

"Bach is the least abstract composer who ever lived -- he's the most pictorial, the most utterly human." And that is why, Peter Sellars says, he has started staging Bach's music. Sellars is himself famously "now". The director has set Cosi fan tutte in a diner; he has made Don Giovanni snort coke. These aren't stunts: Sellars scrupulously respects the music he transports to the modern world, and his Mozart works brilliantly. But does Bach need him?

Classical music in general certainly does. For the past half-century, it has faced the danger of becoming a museum art. In the past, many people who went to concerts played music at home; that icon of respectability, the piano in the parlour, transformed seething youth and stern parents into collaborators. In more religious times, church music did what tedious sermons could not: make the presence of God palpable. Just because such intimate connections to music are vanishing, music performed in concert halls has an ever more formal and distant relationship to its listeners.

Performers can try to take off that chill in many ways. We can, for instance, talk to an audience about what they are about to hear. Talking across the footlights breaks a spell first cast in the early 19th century, when concert audiences were plunged into darkness, admonished to utter silence; musicians onstage, dressed to the nines, appeared as emissaries of another world. Almost any kind of talk, I have found, will do; what audiences want is not an explanation, but a connection.

Sellars talks, and he talks well; during a recent staging of two Bach cantatas at the Barbican in London, he prefaced each with a moving description of the music. Moreover, rather than speak with the voice of authority, he conveys that he is searching, experimenting with different ways to bring the music nearer to his listeners, aiming to take the museum-chill off the music. His own path lies in making you see as well as hear, and in a peculiar combination, by making high-art sound cohabit with the visual dreck of everyday life, its used cars, fast-food diners and worn clothes. "Cohabit" is the operative word: he popularises but he does not dumb down.

The two Bach cantatas he chose for the Barbican event are a different kind of experiment, using just about the most demanding music he could have tackled. One of them depicts a person on the point of suicide, the other on the point of death. Bach's music makes these subjects intense, taut, compelling; there seems at first little room and little need to add anything else.

Bach's work on suicide, "My heart swims in blood" (Cantata 199, written c1713), was itself an experiment, one of the young Bach's early attempts to write a solo-based cantata. To create coherence, he filled out the orchestral parts so that they became individual presences addressing and responding to the soprano singer. The cantata on death is a piece written 14 years later (though it has an earlier catalogue number, as Cantata 82), and shows how far Bach had come in his musical experiment: in its form, the music more resembles a modern concerto; the voice-writing is more explicitly operatic.

In the earlier cantata, we are told a straightforward story, a person so depressed that she is rescued from suicide only at the last moment by awareness of God. In the later cantata, we are presented with a dramatic irony set forth in the title. In German, it is "Ich habe genug", and the sense can be rendered in English as "I've had enough of life" or "My life is fulfilled with the coming of death and union with Christ". Bach's text intends weariness and joyful expectation in equal measure; his music makes both happen unexpectedly, with sudden ruptures and shifts of mood.

Sellars's experiment in the early cantata goes exactly against Bach's own. On a raised platform, the soprano soloist acts out the gestures of despair without any visual connection to the sounds from the small orchestra beseeching, appealing, and finally speaking to her. …