Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, December 19, 2013

on Bach

Paul Elie's Reinventing Bach and John Eliot Gardiner's Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven are, as I'm sure many reviewers have already noted, complementary and contrasting books. Gardiner's emphasis is consistently on the performance of Bach, and on the ways in which historical scholarship has enabled us to reconstruct the great composer's intentions and purposes. Elie, on the other hand, focuses on modern recording technologies as enabling past, present, and (probably) future revivals of interest in Bach. Elie doesn't ignore performance, and in fact relates several anecdotes of Bach concerts he has attended, but for him, performance is always secondary to the individual listener's experience of the music — experience made ever more powerful by ever more sophisticated technologies of recording and playback.

I love Gardiner's book, digressive and sometimes incoherent though it is, because I'm fascinated by historical detective stories — the ways in which dogged researchers can unearth surprising pieces of information which turn out to alter how we think about a subject or a work of art. But Elie's emphasis on recording and individual listening matches my own experience much more closely. In part, this is simply because of a back problem I've had all my life: it's very difficult for me to sit upright for any length of time, which has limited my ability to attend the theater and the concert hall. I find it much easier to concentrate on music when I can get into a comfortable position and be still for an extended period.

Nevertheless, I am always aware that when I'm listening to music alone I am missing the distinctive experience that you get when you listen in the company of others. But I don't feel that loss very strongly; in fact, when I listen to music in the company of others I tend to be distracted by their presence, and it's not that often that I feel that we have had a truly shared experience. Honestly, if I could choose to be the only member of an audience I almost always would. So like Elie I am not troubled by the thought that music listening is becoming an increasingly solitary experience. There are worse things in the world. Though I do understand why musicians and lovers of the concert hall feel this retreat into solitude is a great loss, I don't feel it myself. Indeed, listening to music on headphones is perhaps my major way to cultivate a disconnected solitude that's otherwise hard for me to find.

As might be expected, given their differing views on the centrality of performance, Gardiner and Elie differ in the music of Bach they emphasize. Bach's choral music dominates the portrait drawn by Gardiner, whose conducting of the two great Passions, the B-Minor Mass, and (especially) the cantatas is justly famous. Elie, by contrast, tends to emphasize the great soloists and the music they played: Albert Schweitzer and the organ pieces, Glenn Gould and the various piano masterpieces, Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma and the cello suites. Here too I find myself more sympathetic to Elie: when I listen to Bach, which is often, it's the keyboard works, the cello suites, and the violin sonatas and partitas to which I most often turn.

And along those lines: I recently discovered that the cellist Christopher Costanza has not only recorded Bach's cello suites but has created a website that embeds recordings of each suite along with Costanza's commentary on each movement. It's a very helpful way to listen to the music more thoughtfully, even if the fidelity of the recording is not the best.