Thursday, September 26, 2013

"A distant echo of Paradise"

Reviewing Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Daniel Johnson asks "Is Bach the Voice of God in Music?":
.... Christianity is central to Bach's music, not just because his was a deeply religious time and place, but because only a composer who saw music-making literally as worship could have produced works of such a kind and on such a scale. Bach annotated his copy of the Calov Bible, now preserved in Leipzig, with 348 marginalia, including the following, which might serve as his credo: "NB. Wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present." ....

Bach's God, however benign, does not believe in letting humanity take it easy. ....Bach never believed that his was the best of all possible worlds: on the contrary, its suffering was made tolerable only by redemption at the hands of Jesus, "the man of sorrows." .... Gardiner contends that the two Bach Passions, especially the later St Matthew Passion, belong squarely in the grand tradition of classical tragedy that extends from the Greeks to Shakespeare, Racine and beyond. .... "Bach set in motion a new burgeoning of the genre, leading his listeners to confront their mortality and compelling them to witness things from which they would normally avert their eyes." ....

.... For Bach, invention was not the same as creation — only God could create ex nihilo — but was rather "an uncovering of possibilities already there." Asked for his secret, the old cantor is reported by his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel (who was writing within living memory), to have replied that it was just bloody hard work: "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well." ....

.... Bach's humanity is inseparable from his faith in God's mercy. Blind, crippled by a stroke and dying, he dictated his "deathbed" chorale BWV 668a, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein ("When we are in desperate straits"), which directly addresses God: "Turn not Thy gracious countenance / From me, a poor sinner." Nothing, it is safe to say, could be less congenial to the "Olympian" mentality of modern man. "It is Bach," Gardiner defiantly declares, "making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form." For that reason Bach must remain a closed book to those for whom the category of divinity is meaningless, and hence deny that it is possible "to make divine things human and human things divine". Music — even Bach's music — cannot be "divine" unless God is a presence, unseen and perhaps unconscious, in our lives. We instinctively reach for theological metaphors when we experience the numinous quality of sacred art and music. But for these words to mean anything, we must have at least some confidence that the universe itself has meaning. Bach puts us back in touch with that numinous, on occasion even visceral, presence of the divine. And this involuntary response tells us that there is something transcendental within us, at the very core of our being, that recognises itself in this music. We are made in the image of God, the Bible tells us; in the same way, our music is a distant echo of Paradise.

Bach's achievement is so colossal, so immortal, that it can obscure the fact of mortality, the finitude of humanity, which music exists to make bearable. We who doubt, as Bach himself doubted, the promise of eternal life can take comfort from music that gives us a foretaste of God's love. .... A musical legacy that encompasses all human life but also transcends it was bequeathed to us by Bach. Under Gardiner's expert guidance, the gates are thrown open to Bach's castle in heaven — a place that, like the isle in Shakespeare's Tempest, "is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not". By hearkening to a music that is not quite of this world, we are granted an intimation of the next. [more]