What Would Bach Do ?


I was mildly nonplussed to receive an invitation from BBC Religion and Ethics; would I come in to the studio to talk about J S Bach. What was he like and what did he think? The great thing about Bach is that nobody has any idea about this. I believe I’m right in thinking that the only surviving letter of his is a complaint to the town council about insufficient funding, a recognisable musician’s outburst which we can still empathise with today. But this is one of the many reasons I love Bach. No requirement to feel a particular designated emotion when listening to him; while the music moves along in its systematic, patient way, it can match your every inner feeling, whatever it may be at the time. And no great heap of biographical suppositions or programmatic statements to take into account, the polar opposite of Gustav “Feel My Pain” Mahler.

So it might seem as if there was no point in turning up to answer a question that need not be asked. But fortunately my interlocutor was going to be Professor John Butt, of Glasgow University. There can’t be a more engaging musicologist anywhere, and he’s also a revered performing musician. I loved it when, discussing the last movement of the St Matthew Passion, we moved to the grand piano (we were in the posh In Tune studio) to play an example or two, for which he produced a facsimile of Bach’s handwritten score from his briefcase. Sightreading while peering through the mass of Bach’s curly note stems, in ink now faded to light brown/khaki, added a touch of devil-may-care to our recording.

We agreed that a special feature of Bach’s music is his ability to intensify a movement, usually just before the end, with a surprise shift in harmony or scoring which nevertheless arises logically out of the the system which has propelled the music to this point. Searching for someone else who carefully plants surprises within a logical flow of events, I for some reason suddenly blurted out ‘Alfred Hitchcock!’ – only to find that John is also a Hitchcock analyst and specialist (on this occasion he kindly pointed out to me a particularly screwed-up Bernard Hermann chord in the St Matthew's final chorus). Coming to the end of our conversation, with its own unexpected turns, I was exhilarated to leave the studio thinking entirely different thoughts from the ones I had entered with.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer