Magazine article The Spectator

Heaven and Earth

Magazine article The Spectator

Heaven and Earth

Article excerpt

I don't really like Radio Three's recent venture into blockbuster one-man blowouts. It's a bit sophomoric and anorakish, and the completism can reduce even the greatest composers to wallpaper. Bach is unquestionably one of the greatest. But during 'Bach Christmas' it often seemed as though one were switching on into the same piece extended on an endless loop: might as well have been Telemann! This impression was compounded by a tendency to prefer jogtrot 'sewing machine' performances. Many minutes must have been shaved off the project by going for modern high-speed baroque. In fairness, I must add that of course I couldn't hear everything, and did catch some diversity of interpretative style and many moments of thrilling beauty.

Most missed was a sense of Overview (something frequently achieved elsewhere on the network with far more modest means -- e. g. , This Week's Composer). In its absence, I'll tempt hubris by trying one myself.

Albeit universal, Bach is also human (though a friend recalls a graffito from the Sixties declaring 'Bach is God') and doesn't extend to the utmost of his divine creator's range. What he clearly does contain comes in three main categories. In secular instrumental music -- suites, partitas, concertos, for keyboard, solo violin or cello, orchestra -- physical energy prevails; the robust body rhythms of this dance-based corpus, its cheerfulness, with outbreaks of festivity; its tone of small-court ceremonial, provincialtown society, family comity, though in no way lacking tenderness, lyricism, inwardness, is fundamentally extrovert.

In religious vocal music, the range is infinitely wider and deeper: from epic in subject and scale (both Passions and the huge B-minor Mass) to small-scale devotional intimacy (particularly in the earliest cantatas -- Weimar, Cöthen -- perfect instance the actus tragicus with its florilège of biblical touchstones as personally revealing as those chosen by Brahms for his Requiem); and plenty in between, including the four smaller masses and the vast mass of church cantatas. Here the scope is as great as the music: occasions brilliant or funerary, spiritual utterance in many shades, strenuous battle-pieces wherein Satan is routed and the city of God rises bright and strong, theological dialogues (between Hope and Fear usually) of exquisite feeling, images of expectant virgin-brides and contented mothers, renditions of sin, guilt, unworthiness that can attain tragic expression.

And, third, his works of learning: literally educational in little musettes, passepieds, minuets, marches, etc. for his own children, from which they (subsequently everybody) can progress to little fugues and inventions in two, then three parts; thence to ever more ambitious compilations of theory and practice, the two incomparable volumes of 24 preludes and fugues each; thence to quasi-scientific demonstration -- e. g. , the Goldberg Variations; thence visionary speculation -- The Musical Offering; The Art of Fugue -- wherein a mortal maker renders his ablest hommage to the author of the celestial motions.

All three aspects interpenetrate without incongruity, strain, imbalance to achieve flawless integration.

So what does Bach seem not to have?

For people who dislike this music, it is deficient in wit, lightness of being, surprise, grace, charm, elegance; and wholly lacking sensuousness, hence sensuality, hence eroticism and passion. …

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