Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Classics: Bach's faith rouses devotion, not ennui (or ridicule), in this nonbeliever -- his Jesus isn't the Right's "macho Jesus"


Baritone Matthias Goerne sings the second aria, "Schlummert ein," from Bach's Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug, with the Salzburg Camerata Academica conducted by Roger Norrington.
Fall asleep, you weary eyes,
close softly and pleasantly!

World, I will not remain here any longer,
I own no part of you
that could matter to my soul.
Here I must build up misery,
but there, there I will see
sweet peace, quiet rest.

"If I were setting out to 'sell' Bach, or even to try to sketch the Bach who most matters to me, I would start with the secular music -- with, say, the Brandenburg Concertos and the solo-cello suites. But the cantatas may be the place where one comes closest to encountering the soul of Bach."

by Ken

Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach. If the very name doesn't strike awe, maybe you aren't listening carefully.

The sheer quantity of music Bach (1685-1750) wrote is all but unimaginable. Scholars have speculated doubtfully as to how long it would have taken one person just to write out all that music, without even considering the act of creation -- not to mention the quality of it.

Here's another way of measuring the quantity. A few years ago among the new listings from my indispensable Berkshire Record Outlet I noticed the Hänssler Classics edition of the complete works of Bach, all 173 CDs' worth (171 audio plus 2 data), at a price so low that not only could I afford to buy it, I didn't see how I could afford not to. Figuring that BRO couldn't have a lot of copies of this mammoth set, and that every BRO customer with a grain of sense would want one, I had the sense to pounce, placing an immediate order.

When I received a shipping notice, beyond my enormous relief, for some reason what caught my attention was the shipping weight: 18 pounds. Ever since, I've thought of the Hänssler set as "18 pounds of Bach."

As to the quality of the music, it is if anything more awe-inspiring than the quantity. I wish it were possible to point to a piece here or there that appears "dashed off." That might make Bach appear more human. Not only does the quality never seem to lag, but large chunks of that 18 pounds of Bach remain at the core of the repertories they represent. For the next couple of centuries it would be hard to find a major composer who didn't consider Bach the master of them all. Far from any of this music being dashed off -- though one sometimes gets the feeling that old J.S.B. could toss off a four-voice fugue in his sleep (writing in his sleep would help explain how the man got all that music on paper) -- a sizable portion of it is among the most intellectually formidable music ever composed.

It's possible, though, and regrettable, to get carried away with the extraordinary intellectual content of Bach's music. Like every great musician, he had a compulsion to communicate, and his musical curiosity seems to have been insatiable. Unlike his exact contemporary Handel (1685-1759; the closest the music world would come to having another year like 1685 was 1813, when both Verdi and Wagner were born), he hardly traveled. Yet he managed to stay abreast of what was being done in music all over Europe, absorbing what suited him into his own musical personality.

To offset, or at least temper, the image of Bach the intellectual giant, is it possible to write music more meltingly beautiful than we have in the opening clip, the bass aria "Schlummert ein"? For all Bach's formidable intellectual powers, and the defining fact that he was by profession a church organist and composer, it would be a shame to overlook how deeply people-oriented his music was. I do believe he felt he was performing and composing in the service of God. Nevertheless, I have to believe that a crucial part of the mission his God intended for him when he set pen to music paper was to communicate with his fellow humans.

I have a slightly funny history with Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug, long one of the most performed of Bach's nearly 200 sacred cantatas, in good part because of its unusual configuration -- a sequence of numbers written entirely for one vocal soloist, a bass. (It's really a baritone, but the distinction between baritones and basses hadn't yet come into play, so as far as Bach was concerned, he was just writing for a high bass.) It happens to have a close kin in Cantata No. 56, Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, and with the dawn of the LP era they became natural, even inevitable disc-mates.


cantata. A musical composition, often using a sacred text, comprising recitatives, arias, and choruses.

Well, there may be choruses or there may not. And there may also be duets, and purely instrumental movements (often including a "sinfonia," or overture). And there may be one vocal soloist, or two, or three, or four. The "often using a sacred text" point is important, because in Bach's case, going by the standard BWV numbering, all but a handful of Cantatas Nos. 1-200 are sacred, and then Nos. 201-216 are all secular. Other composers also wrote secular cantatas, but more often than not when we think of the form, we think of a setting, often written for a particular occasion in the church calendar, of texts either drawn from the Bible or commenting on it.

(Bach's cantatas, by the way, are generally known by a combination of their BWV number, which is to say the numbering in Wolfgang Schmieder's monumental 1950 Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or Catalogue of Bach Works, plus the first line of the first vocal number.)

One of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's most successful early recordings was a 1951 coupling of Cantatas Nos. 56 and 82, with that fine baroque specialist Karl Ristenpart conducting. Throughout his career Fischer-Dieskau performed a great deal of Bach, and with the advent of stereo it was only natural that Deutsche Grammophon would want him to redo the baritone-cantata coupling. The remake was undertaken with the then-reigning baroque star conductor Karl Richter and his Munich Bach Orchestra.

About 1971 I acquired my first tape deck with pretensions to any kind of fidelity, a cassette deck. Naturally I felt the need to have cassettes to play on it, and among the titles I bought was the DG Archiv cassette edition of that Fischer-Dieskau-Richter Bach 56/82. I bought lots of other stuff, but it was when I put on the Bach tape that, despite what must have been a significant hiss level (DG cassettes weren't yet using Dolby noise reduction), I stopped listening to the medium and simply heard music.

For some reason the music that sticks in my head from those days isn't Cantata No. 56, which must have been on the "A" side, but No. 82. Here is what I remember being overwhelmed by: Fischer-Dieskau and Richter performing the opening aria, "Ich habe genug."


When I've thought about Bach in connection with Sunday Classics, it never occurred to me that I might write first about the cantatas. Certainly if I were setting out to "sell" Bach, or even to try to sketch the Bach who most matters to me, I would start with the secular music -- with, say, the Brandenburg Concertos and the solo-cello suites, music that is as personal to me as any music there is.

It was another accident that got me thinking about the Bach cantatas. I must have been feeling guilty about neglecting my "18 pounds of Bach," and one morning, when it was time to choose some music for the subway journey to work, I decided to pick something from it at random. It's packaged in overstuffed jewel boxes of four CDs each, and the one I grabbed happened to be of cantatas (Nos. 103-114, to be specific). I almost allowed myself a do-over, on the ground that the cantatas were the one portion of the compendium I had actually listened to complete and in sequence when I got it. But then I decided, what the heck? It's not as if I'd listened carefully to all those cantatas that first time through. So Cantatas Nos. 103-114 it was. And I found that once I was immersed in the world of the Bach cantatas, it was hard to un-immerse myself. The cantatas may be the place where one comes closest to encountering the soul of Bach.

The second time I had occasion to interview then-New York Philharmonic music director Kurt Masur, the subject was Bach, in connection with his upcoming performance of the St. Matthew Passion. This is kind of a funny story in itself, although not of the "ha-ha" funny sort.

Masur of course had a long history in Leipzig, which was and is above all Bach's city. As longtime music director of the city's historic Gewandhaus Orchestra, he had frequently programmed Bach's great choral masterworks -- the two great Passions, the St. Matthew and St. John; the B minor Mass; and the Christmas Oratorio. But in New York, he was told by the orchestra's management, he couldn't do that. New York, you see, is "a Jewish city." And while Masur is known to have presided over the orchestra with typical Germanic absoluteness, he does seem to have been bullied quite a lot by the management, and probably quite wrongly -- I think he knew a great deal more about musical audiences than they did. And finally he had been allowed to schedule the St. Matthew.

In the interview, the Bach association Masur talked about first went back to childhood, to his first aural memories: the sounds of Bach's organ music in his small hometown church. This was the soundtrack that played in his head as he grew up, and somehow I've never been able to get that aural image out of my head. (I suppose I'm envious.) For Masur the experience led naturally to a desire to play the organ, which he learned to do in that church, and then to become a pianist, which he was working toward when a hand injury put an end to that.


I imagine there's a good chance that in addition to Bach's organ music, Masur heard at least some of Bach's sacred cantatas performed in his church. That's what they were written for, after all -- some of them for special occasions in the liturgical calendar, others for ordinary Sunday-service use. And the church cantatas occupy a special place among the composer's output.

Bach wrote a staggering quantity of staggering-quality secular music, but I don't think there's any question that the spirit of the sacred imbues all his work -- that as a musician he always thought of himself as in service to God, and this is perhaps nowhere expressed more personally than in the many hundreds of arias he wrote for the intimate performance circumstances of the church cantatas.

Of course there are also stupendous arias throughout the "big" choral masterworks. I don't know a more beautiful vocal performance of anything than the 1929 recording by the baritone Friedrich Schorr -- the supreme Wotan and Hans Sachs -- of the bass solo "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" from the B minor Mass (included on Preiser's second Schorr CD).While there's no clear demarcation between the arias written for the "big" choral works and those written for the cantatas (and indeed there was a certain amount of shuffling of arias back and forth; for that matter, the Christmas Oratorio itself is in fact a set of six cantatas), still the cantatas, by virtue of the compact scale of their format and occasion, have a particular intimacy of utterance.

Bach's arias are basically familiar in form; they're more or less standard baroque arias of the A-B-A form familiar from our discussion of Handel's "Lascia ch'io pinga" (Whether it's Handel or Wagner, the good old "A-B-A" form mirrors real-life experience): a main section, a middle section, and a repeat of the main section -- with a very little bit of text made to go a very long way thanks to considerable repetition.

Bach's arias do, however, have one powerful distinguishing quality. Although we think of the aria, logically enough, as the ultimate solo form for singers, Bach's arias are by and large not solos but duets.


How does a solo singer have a duet? Who with???

Well, how about your friendly nearby flutist, or oboist, or fiddler? Somebody from the small group of instrumental soloists Bach has included in the instrumentation for this cantata. (That instrumentation, by the way, varies widely from cantata to cantata. Bach generally chose the forces he wanted with careful consideration of what he planned to do in that particular canata.)

By way of illustration, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau again, now in 1974, singing the section "Aber wer gen Himmel siehet" from the aria "Ächzen und embärmlich Weinen" from Cantata No. 13, Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, a bass-and-violin duet with Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin part and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich providing the bass continuo line, and Menuhin providing voice-over commentary. And here is soprano Christine Schaefer, giving a lovely performance of a soprano-and-violin duet, "Bereite dir, Jesu" from one of the better-known cantatas, No 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Concentus Musicus.

Better still for our purposes, here is a soprano-and-oboe duet, "Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen," from Cantata No. 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, sung by Barbara Schlick, with oboist Ofer Frenkel and the Accademia Daniel directed by Shalev Ad-El:

The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body.
Ah, call me soon, you death-knell,
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.

Inescapably, immersion in Bach's sacred music means immersion in the teachings and person of Jesus. As I contemplated writing about Bach's cantatas -- or rather specifically about Bach's cantata arias -- I found myself reflecting on this oddity: that I, who have never been a Christian of any sort, and haven't for many decades even pretended to subscribe to any clump of religious superstitions, am so prepared to be swallowed up in the depths of Bach's unflinching religious faith?

I actually thought I would write a piece explaining this. Ha! I can't offer an explanation, just some observations relative to the subject.


I once tried to explain to a friend, one of the wisest and most sensitive people I know, how it is that Handel's Messiah, which had once struck me as a pile of wheezy old religionist hooey, came to have deep personal meaning for me. In this space I took advantage of last Christmas season to express my wonder at Handel's sense of wonder at the miracle of birth (For Christmas Eve, savor the true miracle: "For unto us a child is born), and the sense of hope it brings, the sense of possibilities, of realizing who and what we can be.

Really, Handel gives us the feeling that that is the miracle: that a child is born (and a son given). Even when this particular child's future responsibilities are set out ("Wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father), note how Handel italicizes the additional role: "the Prince of Peace."

I tried to explain to my friend that I don't need to believe in a Redeemer in the Christian sense to take personally the soprano's great aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth." The aria is just as powerful if for me that Redeemer refers not to some mysterious external force but to the spark of goodness inside us which drives us to be the best people we can be -- against considerable opposing forces, both within and without. And I guess Bach's faith energizes me in much the same way.

(Parenthetically, I find it fascinating that two composers as dominant in their age as Bach and Handel, in so many ways so different, nevertheless so often cross-reference, complement, and even explain each other.)

Bach's belief in Jesus as a representation of the best in us, the fullest and most meaningful humanity of which we are capable, the Prince of Peace, doesn't require much of a stretch for me. In fact, that belief, not to mention the actual teachings of Jesus, is what makes me crazy in the incessant braying of modern-day crap Christianity. Longtime DWT readers have heard both Howie and me sound this theme frequently. The ignorant, lying, bellicose, immoral crap Christians not only seem blitheringly unaware of what Jesus actually preached, but represent something very close to the forces of oppression and inhumanity that were Jesus's lifelong antagonists.

By coincidence (or is it coincidence?), in the Introduction to Max Blumenthal's book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party,I just encountered this remarkable description of the "macho Jesus" central to "the authoritarian mindset driving the movement that has substantially taken over the modern Republican Party: the Christian right," as he experienced it personally in five years of interviewing hundreds of its leaders, attending dozens of rallies and conferences, listening to "countless hours" of radio broadcasts, and sitting "in movement-oriented houses of worship where no journalists were permitted."

As I explored the contours of the movement, I discovered a culture of personal crisis lurking behind the histrionics and expressions of social resentment. This culture is the mortar that bonds leaders and followers together. . . .

The movement's Jesus is the opposite of the prince of peace. He is a stern, overtly masculine patriarch charging into the fray with his sword raised against secular foes; he is "the head of a dreadful company, mounted on a horse, with a double-edged sword, his robe dipped in blood," according to movement propagandist Steve Arterburn. Mark Driscoll, a pastor who operates an alternative Christian rock venue from his church, stirs the souls of twenty-something evangelical males with visions of "Ultimate Fighting Jesus." This same musclebound god-man starred in Mel Gibson's blood-drenched The Passion of the Christ, enduring bone-crushing punishment at the hands of Jews and pagans for two hours of unrelieved pornographic masochism.

A portrait of virility and violence, the movement's omnipotent macho Jesus represents the mirror inversion of the weak men who necessitated his creation. As [psychologist Erich] Fromm explained, "the lust for power is not rooted in strength but in weakness [italics in original]. It is the expression of the individual self to stand alone and live. It is the desperate attempt to gain secondary strength where genuine strength is lacking."

No indeed, Bach's Jesus has nothing in common with this macho Jesus. And I imagine Bach's deep Christian faith must be an irrelevance if not an outright outrage to the crap Christian worshippers of macho Jesus. Indeed, having come this far with Max, we need to continue on at least one more paragraph:
The movement's macho Jesus provided purpose to Tom DeLay, a dallying, alcoholic Texas legislator transformed through evangelical religion from "Hot Tub Tommy" into a dictatorial House majority leader known as "The Hammer." Macho Jesus was the god of Ted Haggard, a closet homosexual born-again and charismatic megachurch leader, risen to head of the National Association of Evangelicals, preaching the gospel of spiritual warfare and anti-gay crusades. And he was the god of Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., an eccentric millionaire whose inheritance of massive wealth literally drove him mad, prompting his institutionalization, who found relief as one of the far right's most reliable financial angels. Macho Jesus even transformed the serial killer Ted Bundy, murderer and rapist of dozens of women, who became a poster child for anti-pornography activists with his nationally televised death row confessional. . . .


Matthias Goerne's recording of Cantatas Nos. 56, 82, and 158 with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting is still available.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's stereo version of Nos. 56 and 82 with Karl Richter conducting, with one of the most famous of the cantatas, No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbaden, thrown in, is available as a mid-price CD.Fischer-Dieskau's mono version with Karl Ristenpart has been reissued on Hänssler's Profit label,with his 1950 Brahms Four Serious Songs accompanied by the fine pianist Hertha Klust thrown in.

The Hänssler complete Bach set is apparently currently unavailable. It's highly recommendable, but not for $599. Brilliant Classics has a 155-CD complete Bach,as usual assembled from a wide variety of sources, which you can find as low as $100. (Amazon lists it at present at $119.) The price is certainly right, but from the dabbling I've done in the set, the performance level is, shall we say, problematic.


Here is the updated list.

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At 3:10 PM, Anonymous me said...

Jesus vs. Jeezus

At 3:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I like it, me!


At 6:38 PM, Anonymous me said...

Tim Kreider has done some great stuff. Too bad he isn't more widely published.

I think he's getting sick of politics though, and moving more toward "regular" humor. But I think his political stuff was best.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the tip (now that it's too late)! I didn't know his work, but this is lovely, and certainly to the point!



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