Philippe Herreweghe Johann Sebastian Bach: Ich elender Mensch, Leipzig Cantatas

§ Conspicuous yet Invisible

There are few people today who are not at least aware of J.S. Bach’s fame as a composer. Yet, for most so-called educated people this awareness does not extend beyond a mere recognition of a famous name. Even among those actually acquainted with his music, those who profess delight upon listening to his great art, there seems to be but little, or a shallow, perception of it as “peaceful” or “spiritual”, or other such vague terms which render an appreciation of his great as little more than another page in the catalogue of classical music.

As a layman himself, the author does not presume to possess a detailed knowledge of the theoretical organization of the music of J.S. Bach, but this is not a prerequisite for serious listening and the development of a profound acquaintance with layers of music and the relations between its elements. There is nothing stopping us from using our brain’s innate ability for selective attention and classification, which allied with an open listening channel to intuition can be used to find a plethora of beautiful proportions and patterns; this would enable us to start to understand the relations the latter have with the effects they produce inside and around us.

The appreciation and attention that is lacking is not of a technical kind, for academicians and musicians of all stripes have used and abused the lessons and voices found on the surface of J.S. Bach’s music. Disgraceful depictions in the metal genre appear in the most tackiest of fashions, dragging crown jewels through the mud and excrement of sub-par music limited by a limited understanding and a mundane mentality. A higher vision would allow one to see into patterns and then into the multitude of connections and the effects thereof as far as the eye can see (or the ear can hear), thus being able to abstract and carry the lessons discovered in three-fold attainment.

§ Weaving with Voices

The underlying methodology of Western classical music could be described metaphorically as the weaving of threads into a tapestry; very little other musical tradition, if in fact any at all, anywhere else, developed the art of music-making to such a degree. As one approaches Bach on the timeline of this tradition, one sees music evolving in the way that genres of any kind do, independently of the area of human endeavor, that is, by developing permutations and variations of a seed idea.

The advent of J.S. Bach, however, marked those particular discrete points in a tradition when a leap and transformation is achieved by a stroke of genius, whatever the so-called genius actually implies (most probably dedication, devotion, talent and something else, perhaps); he thus marks a towering achievement on dimensions beyond the normal permutations and variations that are normally brought forth as grains of sand.

For Bach, all instruments are to be treated as singing voices, but human interpreters are also brought closer to an instrumental usage; a special kind of baroque music is thus created, a profound and non-trivial methodology is birthed from this man that essentially opens up a new dimension (spans a new linear space?); this stands rather at odds with the Italian school of Opera, its divas, and represents a stark contrast on a deeper level of attitude towards life; where the one is transcendental, impersonal and devoted, the other is narcissistic and emotionally dependent on the attention of others —it would seem that the religious of music of J.S. Bach could actually exist in a void, and it would gain a life of its own, but Opera, on the other hand, exists for the soul purpose of feeding egos and tickling sensual emotions.

We might attribute the origin of this development to the particular soil on which J.S. Bach planted himself; being an adept of the organ, it does not seem, in retrospect, a surprise that the concept of music as series of pure threads of sustained vibrations would lead to the aforementioned melding of human vocal chords and instruments into the purest concept of musical voices to be used as variations in timber as phenomenal manifestations in the service of music, rooted in the noumenal organ arrangements from which they were likely, conceptually born.

What separates J.S. Bach from the rest is not merely the technical and theoretical solutions which he brought about, but the fact that he produced these in order to bring about such merging and purification of the musical ideal as his holistic vision demanded; he carved a new musick in order to crystallize a bridge, a link, which would work through a more organic instrumentality —in essence, an auditory spell that would evoke the sinking and consuming aura that his soul appears to have longed for.

§ Herreweghe’s Touch of Life

There are plenty of recordings of J.S. Bach’s music, though sadly most are oriented towards producing commercial products for the refined or the pretentious, pandering to today’s would-be elites and erudites. The explorations are not exhaustive nor spiritual, but rather educational, in that stale way that only modernity can produce, and often feel detached.

What stands out in Herreweghe’s several interpretations of J.S. Bach’s cantatas is his talent from bringing out the most expressive in singular voices, while at the same time emphasizing their place in the midst of the sonic tapestry; that is to say, he does not turn the cantatas into opera jingles for the ego-stroking of singers and soloists, nor does he flatten everything in order to present a monolithic face as a testament to the greater whole.

Herreweghe seems to accomplish this feat of uniting an apparent duality through a dynamic approach that does not require the performance of discrete switches between modes, or at least he does not order these to be done in an overt manner; instead of clearly defined areas where main voices are chosen to lead, and others where the tutti is executed, the potential of the thread-weaving embedded in J.S. Bach’s masterful composition is allowed to shine through and assume organic form in this interpretation.

The result is a constant cooperation amongst the instruments that allows for a alternation and tagging, breaking with static functions and rather allowing for a limited kind of mobility within hierarchical functions; spontaneity works by changes being organically allowed to enter on a continuous rather than step-like manner which may also allow for the deeper impact of digressions while at the same time sustaining them with grace.

Leading voices are clear, but they are joined, rather than merely supported by the other instruments; and though not all can be prominent at once, nor in the same manner, the presented dynamic answers to the needs for an organic whole that may coalesce into an elemental force of its own, as true musick must of necessity become when properly performed.

Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil

§ An inscrutable thinker

To begin with, and despite the title of the section under which this article is posted, this is not a review, and perhaps not even a commentary on this great work, but rather a series of thoughts around impressions of it held by several groups, in contrast to what may be a more accurate consideration of the man in question and his work. It seems that all that is needed to claim Nietzsche’s ideas as support for an ideological stance is to have somewhat of a thick skin or simply be alright with blunt criticism of anything one disagrees with. The interesting thing about Nietzsche is that he is at once glorified and vilified by people with widely differing ideologies across the full spectrum, with the exception of those explicitly following a Judeo-Christian kind defense of the weak, the mediocre and anything “human, all too human”.

Atheists claim him as one of their own, as they superficially read his words and take them to mean that Nietzsche was the highest kind of independent mind there was. In truth, Nietzsche can be seen criticizing both the dogmatic religious and the modern hubris of the modern atheist, even if he does not name each specifically and in quite such words. The attention of his sledge hammer is directed most of all to the flowering atheism and scientism that was taking Europe by storm at the time of his writing Beyond Good and Evil, and which atheism (or at least crypto-atheism disguised as a kind of philosophical pantheism) and scientism has since become the norm among the educated, and especially among the liberal-minded. Nietzsche dispenses as much injury upon the religious as upon the anti-religious. What he argued for was not the absence of a morality or a tradition, but the distinction between qualities of it, and their origin.

There is MASTER-MORALITY and SLAVE-MORALITY,—I would at once add, however, that in all higher and mixed civilizations, there are also attempts at the reconciliation of the two moralities, but one finds still oftener the confusion and mutual misunderstanding of them, indeed sometimes their close juxtaposition—even in the same man, within one soul.

Aristocrats claim him, even though he devotes large portions of his thought to demolishing any claims of nobility that modern aristocrats might still hold on to. The nobility to which Nietzsche so often alludes is one that is proven through spirit and resulting action thereof: that is, the Will; the Will to Life and Power (alluded to here in the sense that Gwendolyn Taunton has exposed in the past1). His is a nobility that self-creates through this Will, and whose decisions are based upon results and high aims with a vision of centuries, and which does not rest upon vainglorious pride, but rather the question of how to improve. This nobility, however, does reserve a right to determine notions of what should be or what should not be, and there lies the difference between literal nobility, of which Nietzsche speaks, and the allegorical nobility which the humanist modern man would like to believe in.

Purists, and National Socialist types would cringe if they would have actually studied Nietzsche. For, while he deals a significant amount of damage to the Jew, enough to actually garner enough merit to be awarded the title of “anti-semite” he also gives them credit where it is deserved in a manner not unlike Hitler in Mein Kampf, actually, though with different aims and perhaps coming to different practical conclusions. The nobility of action, which was that of a created spirit, could perhaps be better aligned with Julius Evola’s nobility of the spirit, which was not independent of blood but rather worked through and above it in a supra-eugenic manner.

It stands to reason that the more powerful and strongly marked types of new Germanism could enter into relation with the Jews with the least hesitation, for instance, the nobleman officer from the Prussian border: it would be interesting in many ways to see whether the genius for money and patience (and especially some intellect and intellectuality — sadly lacking in the place referred to) could not in addition be annexed and trained to the hereditary art of commanding and obeying — for both of which the country in question has now a classic reputation.

Anarchists claim him, even though he clearly believes only an incredibly small percentage of the population can be truly free, as a result of innate abilities that not all possess and the opportunities to develop them. Rather than push towards the idea of a world where every individual is completely independent, a natural hierarchy is deemed by Nietzsche as inevitable, whatever social constructs humans might like to dream on about. The roots for these lie deep in our nature and in Nature, and attempting to change them is usually a path towards self-annihilation, and an overall sentiment that is anathema to Life itself.

“We truthful ones”—the nobility in ancient Greece called themselves. It is obvious that everywhere the designations of moral value were at first applied to MEN; and were only derivatively and at a later period applied to ACTIONS.

It is then also common to hear people who in their youth upheld Nietzsche as a pillar of their own ideology, only to later reject what they thought his philosophy consisted of, on the basis of them changing the emphasis and focus of their own narrow-minded understanding. The former anti-religious communist becomes a progressive advocate of combinatorics chaos theory and real politik in an attempt to out-intellectualize the philosopher, while of course, distancing himself from the word ‘intellectual’, even as he poses as one. The former modern aristocrat finds the truth about the depth of corrupt modernity and so turns against the philosopher as if he were part of this, and as if tradition as the answer were wholly incompatible with the ideas of Nietzsche. Each of them have only moved from one misapprehension into another, without ever actually having captured the essence of Nietzsche’s thought.

What is he really about, then? Nietzsche was, in fact, terribly honest and direct, even though people seem to insist upon reading him in the most cryptic of ways, perhaps in an attempt to validate themselves and avoid what he was actually urging humanity towards. In truth, it is quite difficult to finish creating a personal picture of Nietzsche, because one has to read his particular takes on so many things before one can even begin to glimpse what his stated proposal of the Übermensch actually entails. The statement “beyond good and evil” entails precisely what it seems to state, rather than an allegorical turn of phrase, a state in which the superior individual does not concern itself with dichotomies and labels, and rather finds the reality of self-determined action beyond them. Since the great majority of humanity functions through and lives by these symbols, faiths and abstractions, the immediate reality, and more importantly, the patterns and not the appearances that constitute this reality2, to which Nietzsche constantly refers eludes them every time as they refuse to see what is in front of them in favor of their own construct thereof.


1 “To Nietzsche, the figure of Dionysus is the supreme affirmation of life, the instinct and the Will to Power, with the Will to Power being an expression of the Will to Life and Truth at its highest exaltation.” —Gwendolyn Taunton, ‘The Black Sun’, Primordial Traditions, Vol I.

2 A notion elegantly and concisely explained by Brett Stevens in his book Nihilism, as a condensation of Nietzsche, Spinoza and Plato, perhaps even through the digestion of others.