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.

Philipp Spitta Johann Sebastian Bach

Books written in the 19th century, no matter the topic, have a fascinating aura about them which books today have lost to cynicism and practicality.  When you opened one of those old books, you could not be completely sure what you were getting into and there was a sense of adventure and defiance around every corner.  It was a time of revolutions of the mind, a brief interlude between open ecclesiastic oppression of thought and the more subtle yet equally destructive materialist hubris.  Science was daring and cared not for what was deemed politically correct and, in that true scientific spirit, serious exploration of the occult was not considered out of the question even by the most respectable minds.  Fiction and poetry were dangerous, but not in the modern vulgar sense prone to excesses of the senses alone, but as mental poison that acted through bewitching and enchanting of the minds, raising readers’ eyes to unseen horizons.

A possible reason for this fall from grace may be the rampant utilitarianism that has finally taken hold of the population as a whole.  While the atheism that Nietzsche decried was a rising tide among educated people of his time, today the majority of the people are brought up under standardized education systems which at the moment care only for the most immediate of material satisfactions.  Changes through time depend wholly on who is in control at the time and what their own ideological inclinations are.  This has always been, and it will always be, no matter how free and open Western liberal societies imagine themselves to be.  Human inventiveness needs some liberty, yes, but it must be attained through struggle – actual struggle at that, and not minor challenges within artificial safe spaces.  A spark is needed to ignite the flame, and it must be understood that life and death are intertwined.

Philipp Spitta’s Johann Sebastian Bach, a biography, is much more than just that.  It is an ode to the master’s spirit, a quaint and detailed recount continually interrupted by the most passionate of musical descriptions that wander between European classical music technical analysis and flights of poetic fancy.  Extensive narrations mostly uninterrupted by headers or divisions of any kind, demarcations between specific topics are delightfully blurred and new ideas are delivered without any sort of warning, however without any perceived feeling of brusqueness.  Spitta’s is the ideal biography from the point of view of someone who Is enamoured with his subject and consequently knows it in detail, making him aware of his exalted one’s gravest faults and mistakes without it stopping him from loving the hero.

Is the book hard to follow? It is, though mostly because we are not used to the way it builds and progresses. Is it inconvenient for study? Definitely, especially if what you are looking for is a textbook with facts to be memorized for a test.  Nonetheless it is a most delightful way to start a long-term acquaintance with Johann Sebastian Bach’s story.  This is a long biography written to swallow the reader, being complete devotion and knowledge in depth which teaches one more than just the ideas it presents directly, but achieves an aural effect that exerts a magical force over the mind through an esoteric construction which Spitta himself was perhaps unaware of.