Reading further in Gardiner’s Bach, I’ve arrived at his treatment of Bach’s first cantatas, written when he was in his early 20s. Christ lag in Todesbanden was, Gardiner thinks, “most likely composed for his probationary audition for the position of organist at Muhlhausen” (pg 131). The music itself is very familiar to me, via lots of iterations of Bach’s cantatas on vinyl when we lived in Nova Scotia and there was always music in the house, but I’ve never had occasion to make any study of this or any other cantata. I’m pleased to discover that YouTube has an animated version that allows me to follow along with the text:
I continue to nibble at Gardiner’s Bach, finding juicy nuggets every time. Today I happened upon his description of Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich, which I’d never heard (or might have heard, without paying any attention to the text):
Implied… in this quite stupendous work –a ‘sacred symphony’ lasting less than five minutes– is an imaginary mis en scène: of Paul on the road to Damascus… [Schütz] marshals his ensemble of six soloists, two obbligato violins, two four-part choirs… not just to depict the scene with pictorial effects, not to fill in the textual gaps by means of apt rhetorical figures, but to create a compelling psychodrama compressed into eighty bars of music. The result is an astonishing portrayal, every bit as striking in its way as Caravaggio’s altar painting…
OK, that’s arresting enough that I thought maybe YouTube would have the piece, and sure enough, complete with the Caravaggio painting and conducted by Gardiner himself:
And here’s Gardiner’s exegesis:
True to past practice when setting Christ’s words, Schütz employs his voices in pairs. They emerge from mysterious depths as a barely audible mutter in a four-fold repetition of Saul’s name, separated by rests, before transferring to the next terraced pair, each climbing through the space of an octave before evaporating in a wordless violin extension… What began as a quiet reproach, the voice of conscience, now grows into an accusation, the monosyllable punched out and tossed between the two halves of the double choir –to encircle and disorient the now-enfeebled Saul before the Was verfolgst du much is sped up in dizzying contracted rhythmic patterns and terraced echoes. Schütz’s purpose is to make sure that the listener gets caught up in the process and becomes equally disoriented. In performance (especially in a church with a long reverberation and with the musical forces deployed spatially) it can amount to an aural bombardment with a disturbing resemblance to the amplified noises of the torture chamber directed at the target from all sides, in all pitches and volumes. (pp 116-117)
Without the YouTube version I’d have thought Gardiner’s description pretty gripping, but the combination of text and audio and visual doth elevate the experience considerably. And Gardiner keeps pulling musical rabbits like this out of a whole forest of hats, which makes for slow going but potent education.
I’m trying to figure out how/what to write about John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven, a book that I’m reading in short bursts because it’s so rich –like a small mountain of single-malt-filled chocolate truffles.
In more than 600 pages of smallish print there are hundreds of asterisked footnotes, 10 pages of chronology, 20 pages of notes and references, almost 30 pages of index, an 8-page glossary of musical terms, wodges of illustrations… The book is almost entirely concerned with Bach’s choral works, which are discussed in a level of detail that only a Conductor (and perhaps only John Eliot Gardiner…) could possibly attempt. I have only a tenuous grasp of music theory, no background in choral music, and no vocal training, but I continue to be riveted by Gardiner’s writing, and by the insights into Bach’s life and work on just about every page. Among materials that bear upon the book are:
a nice review from The Guardian.
In my podcast archives I have Gardiner talking about his Cantata Project:
And here’s a conversation between Gardiner and Philip Pullman, covering a lot of Bach territory:
YouTube has a 90-minute BBC special on Gardiner’s take on Bach’s life that’s supremely worth watching, and you can get a quick flavor of the tenor of this program in a bit more than a minute of Gardiner’s explication of a familiar portrait of Bach:
The whole 90 minutes:
The book is full of things I feel I should already have known, from basic facts (e.g., Martin Luther did his translation of the Bible into German in Eisenach, the town in which J.S. Bach was born a couple of hundred years later) to broad historical background (the wars of the Reformation fell especially heavily on Thuringia and Saxony) and ecclesiastical detail (Luther considered congregational singing to be an especially important part of worship).
On pretty much every page there’s the wherewithal for a dramatic enlargement of what the reader knows about music history and/or music theory. An example that sends me scurrying to Spotify to hear a piece that I’m not familiar with is this passage on Monteverdi:
[Monteverdi] recognized that the hitherto unexploited potential of what Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental bass line, giving it just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast. Melodic shapes and rhythmic patterns no longer needed to be tethered by the guy-ropes of rigid polyphonic structure. Before L’Orfeo no one had grasped this potential freedom to manoeuvre or used it to plot expressive rises and falls for singers that encouraged spontaneous spurts of movement; to rush, drag or clash against the metrical beat and regular strummings of the plucked continuo instruments. It was with L’Orfeo that Monteverdi made the decisive creative leap — from a pastoral play, intended to be sung and not spoken throughout, to a musical-drama with emotions generated and intensified by music. (pg 104)
Some unconscious inkling of the way the senses vary and clash in their receptivity to visual, aural and tactile stimuli may have been at the root of the anxiety that churchmen on both sides of the denominational divide in 1600 felt about religion borrowing the clothes of secular theatre. They bridled at the infiltration of ‘operatic’ techniques within their walls and liturgy. Contemporary musicians found ways, as musicians invariably do, to skirt around these rigid functional categories and, magpie-fashion, to pick and steal just what attracted them, maintaining only the thinnest formal veneer for the sake of propriety, while choosing the frame, design and modes of expression… (pg 105)
I expect to be tempted to quote passages whenever I return to Gardiner’s Bach.
Among the Great Joys is discovering and reading books that further enlarge what I already know about subjects I’ve been following for a while. As a lifelong collector of fugitive materials and odd bits of knowledge, my own personal landscape of such subjects is pretty well populated, and for some areas the prospect is highly articulated —musics being a case in point. My holdings threaten to overflow shelves and disk space, but there’s always room for more, and any given subdomain is always open for elaboration, via sound, print, video, and my own experiments.
Lately I’ve been reading two books that at first glance might appear to have very little in common: John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir. The two are in very different registers: Gardiner’s is über-scholarly and quite long, while Van Ronk is breezy and colloquial. Both are loving recreations of past time and place, full of outward links and references to things and people one already has some familiarity with. Both are significant social/cultural documents all by themselves, and both provoke orgies of listening and further ferretings. I’ll try to tempt you to further explorations of Van Ronk in this post, and save Gardiner for later.
Van Ronk’s perspective on The Great Folk Scare of the early 1960s is Greenwich Village-centric, and sometimes at odds with the Cambridge-centric version that populates Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, but there are many viable versions of those realities. YouTube has lots of Van Ronk, and this clip gives a pretty good taste of what the written memoir is like:
Van Ronk’s book is full of quotable bits, stories and commentary both. For example, he says of jazz ear-training:
…There are people you can’t fool, people who can tell you, “No, that’s not Ben Webster, that’s Coleman Hawkins,” or “That’s not Pres, that’s Paul Quinichette,” and be right every time, and to do that, you can’t just groove with the music. You have to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal people never use. But we weren’t normal people, we were musicians. To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening… (pg. 10)
On toward the end of the book, Van Ronk offers this summary of the 60s folk era:
In fact, looking back on that period, very little of what got put down had much permanent value. There was a genuine artistic impulse, but the paradigms were flawed, and if you compare it to what was happening on Broadway in the 1930s, that scene was infinitely more creative and important than ours. The forms that were accepted as part of the folk matrix were too limited, both technically and in terms of staying power, and the ideology of the scene allowed for a great deal of sloppiness, which meant that nobody had to push themselves. Most of the songwriters were writing well below their abilities, and people who were capable of learning and employing more complicated harmonies and chord structures confined themselves to 1-4-5 changes. Some of them were enormously talented, but they were like an enormously talented boxer who insists on fighting with one hand behind his back. The result was that we produced a Bob Dylan, a Tom Paxton, a Phil Ochs, a bit later a Joni Mitchell –but we did not produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Duke Ellington…(pg 212-213)
So I’m once again plunged into thinking about the ‘folk’ side of my musical interests, though I’m not much closer to a solution to the problem of organizing and interpreting their vastness.
I’ve been pretty much nuts about Greek music for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been collecting it on various genres and formats since the early 1960s. Yesterday Dust To Digital’s new Greek Rhapsody arrived and I’ve been enjoying a deep dive into instrumental stuff rescued from 78 RPM obscurity. Tony Klein’s accompanying book is full of things I knew something and nothing about. $35 well spent.
Here’s a SoundCloud example from the link above:
Klein provides 10 fascinating pages tracing the story of the musician ‘A. Kostis’ (“in all probability Konstandinos Bezos”)
I keep being surprised by Spotify, by the depths of musical obscurities within. Just now I saw an Airform Archives post that quoted the liner notes from John Fahey’s Yellow Princess, one of his albums that I don’t happen to have. So I looked on Spotify and sure enough there it was. Listening now, transported back to the first time I heard Fahey (a record playing at a party in Berkeley in July 1967 –it was Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes, which I do have and love… and Spotify has it too).
into the light of sheer awe (Bireli Lagrene and Sylvain Luc):
Thinking about Bert Jansch and Steve Jobs, both of whom live on in our minds: Blackwater Side sketched on the new instrument
I’ve finally solved the problem of easy high-quality recording, using tools that I’ve had on hand for years but never quite managed to put together into working configuration. My glorious Earthworks microphones (QTC1) plug into an M-Audio MobilePre USB unit (an earlier version of this), which I was never able to make work in the Windows world, and I’ve had but never explored GarageBand ever since I got the Mac a year or so ago. It’s my ignorance of electronica that’s at fault here, but now I can record stuff whenever I want to. Here’s a short snippet with the new instrument (see it here), trying out one of the GarageBand preset effects. I’m sure I’ll find it embarrassing when I have more experience with the instrument and the equipment/software, but for the moment it’s a nice little marker.
And here’s another fragment, working up to a tune I particularly love and will do more with real soon now: Sovay