Whilst rummaging through the archive of Killer Opening Songs for tonight's section, I came across an interview that K.O.S. conducted with Herr Johann Sebastian Bach for the German newspaper Critische Nachrichten aus dem Reiche der Gelehrsamkeit (Critical News from the Land of Erudition) at some point in the 1730s on the eve of the release of the famous composer's groundbreaking album 'Violin Concertos'. I herein reproduce verbatim the conversation between the German maestro and Our Regular Section of Lethal Introductory Tracks.
K.O.S: Many thanks, Herr Bach for kindly accepting our invitation to discuss your upcoming album.
Bach: Nein, nein, it's my pleasure. I read your publication avidly and I have become a member, too.
K.O.S.: Mr Bach, my first question is, why did it take you so long to put those violin pieces on record? After all, as in the case of our Killer Opening Song tonight, the Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004, they date from a decade ago, give or take a couple of years here and there.
B: Hmmm... that's a good question. I guess that my work in both Cöthen and Leipzig were geared more towards organ, clavicord and choral pieces. As you know, it was in the latter place where I achieved the distinction of Compositeur to the Royal Court Capelle. This position brought with it more responsibilities than the ones over which I had kept watch before and therefore my violin pieces were put on hold. And on top of that there was also my Clavierübung project to oversee.
K.O.S.: And yet, the public will probably wonder why you kept us waiting all these years for a set of solo numbers that demonstrate your command of performing techniques. Do you think that there was some trepidation on your part as to how this album would be received?
B: I wouldn't say trepidation, gar nicht. I would say that... meiner Meinung nach... erm... if I was to record an entire catalogue of previously unheard old pieces, I had to be sure that the fun and creative elements were both included in the final opus.
K.O.S: And your neverending desire to explore new sounds.
B: Genau so! Yes, that too. At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I must admit that the end result shows my ability to bring into play, without even an accompanying bass part, dense counterpoint and refined harmony with distinctive and well-articulated rhythmic designs.
K.O.S.: I would add to that that there's a joyful feeling to it, too.
B: The joy you hear comes from that exploration you mentioned before and which took me through every facet of violin technique, including multiple stoppings. At the same time I experimented a little bit with some chords and the ability to produce through them contrapuntal textures that extend even to what you might call a fugue.
K.O.S.: Is it true, then, that to you music comes first and your personality second? The reason why I am asking is that in allowing someone of Gidon Kremer's stature to perform your Partita No.2 in D minor, you're in a way ceding centre stage to someone else.
B: To me, music is the strongest link between God and us humans and I consider myself lucky enough to have served the Good Lord as his humble messenger so far. Gidon is to me another instrument through which to channel this divine blessing. Sometimes as I am playing at the St Thomas school, where I currently work, I look up and say to myself: Jesum, ich will hier bei dir stehen, which as you know is part of one of my most famous choral works included in the libretto of the St Matthew Passion BWV 244.
K.O.S.: Hence the austere expression on the album cover. Sorry, but I just had to get over that question. There you are, holding a sheet with three short lines of musical notation. Was there a statement in the choice of cover?
B: I didn't want the frontispiece to be a distraction from the record's main objective: to introduce the public to a set of hitherto lesser-known works. Besides of what use would it have been if I had posed with a paper roll like a conductor or a keyboard like a performer? Simplicity is an attribute hard to earn and easy to lose.
K.O.S.: Let's go back to the introductory track. A 'Sarabande'? What made you choose such controversial style for one of the partita's sections?
B: What do you mean by controversial?
K.O.S.: I'm sure that someone as knowledgeable as you are, will be acquainted with the history behind the Nsala-banda, to give this dance and music its proper African name.
B: Vielleicht you could elaborate further on that point, bitte. To me the Sarabande is an elegiac, meditative and noble rhythm.
K.O.S.: Herr Bach, according to the writer, producer and musician Ned Sublette, the Zarabanda was the rock and roll of Spain in the late sixteenth century, a good one hundred years before you were born. Originally from the Congo this dance travelled on a slave ship to the Americas, especially to Cuba, went back to Europe - through Havana -, reached its peak in Sevilla during the annual May festival of Corpus Christi and then was watered down and became part of the classical music canon. Obviously, the clergy in Spain were appalled when they first saw it. A mimetic performance that simulated sexual action, with hips swaying and breasts touching was not the sacred idea in which the Creator was usually celebrated. By the time it spread across Europe, first to Italy, then to England, later to France and finally to Germany, it had become a rather tamed rhythm.
B: And that's der Rhythmus you will be able to hear in the Killer Opening Song of the 'Violin Concertos' album.
K.O.S: Right, let me ask you another question. Is this album, maybe at a subconscious level, a riposte to Herr J. A. Scheibe's article in Der critische Musikus?
B: No, Herr Scheibe is entitled to his opinion of my music.
K.O.S.: But the column was little less than a poisonous attack on both your persona and oeuvre. He even dared to draw Handel into his critique, when he mentioned that you had, and I quote, 'insufficient agreeableness when compared to a great master of music in a foreign country'. Other charges included: turgid and confused manner, obscuring beauty by too much art and removing the beauty of harmony.
B: Danke schön, I am aware of his comments, you did not have to repeat them. I take it that you have also read what my friend J. A. Birnbaum, Leipzig resident and teacher of rethoric, had to say in my defense.
K.O.S.: Yes, I am. Still, to most music lovers the comparison with Handel will not have gone amiss. Have you ever met him?
B: Nein, niemals. There was an attempt, abortive unfortunately because of a fever I ran at the time, to meet him many years ago when he was still living in Halle but since he has spent most of his life in England, I have never had the pleasure of his company. Now, all this talk of competition between Handel and me, and the fact that his pieces are more 'natural' than mine, whatever that means, look, I would like to put all this behind me. I am just interested in making music and of course music that appeals to mein Gott. Because that's what I am, one of God's creations.
K.O.S.: Finally, Herr Bach, how would you like to be remembered? As a performer, composer, teacher, scholar...?
B: As a man who wrote mostly music for 'The Heaven's Castle'.
K.O.S: Danke schön, Herr Bach.
B: Bitte sehr.
This post could never have been written had I not consulted the following books and article:
'The Life of Bach' by Peter Williams, published by Cambridge University Press
'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician' by Christoph Wolff, published by Oxford University Press (my colon)
'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' by Ned Sublette, published by Chicago Review Press (my colon), more specifically, Part II, Chapter 6 'By Post from the Indies'
'Divine Inspiration', article written by JH Elliott and published in The Guardian's Saturday Review, 4th April, 2009.
'The Life of Bach' focuses mainly on his obituary and offers a snapshot of his life and character. 'Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician', on the other hand, is not only a detailed account of the composer's personality and his approach to work but also a fascinating insight into Germany's cultural, political, economic and social life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 'Cuba and its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo' is a thorough analysis of the genesis, development and influence of Cuban music. Having studied the works of Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera and Natalia Bolívar, I cannot recommend Ned's text enough, not just to those who are interested in finding out why Cuba has been making the world dance for so many years but also to those who are keen to explore the contribution of African rhythms to the canon of European classical music. At best this is an area that has been largely downplayed, at worst it has been completely ignored with the usual snobbish position that classical music is superior to African harmony. 'Divine Inspiration' gave me a sense of what the baroque world brought to 17th- and 18th-century Europe especially its sophisticated displays of religious images.
It is this last element to which I would like to refer briefly before wrapping up this post: religion. As a person who wears his atheism on his sleeve, I might have surprised some of my friends and acquaintances, mainly those who know me personally, in my use of religious terms and idolatry. But there was no way in which I could have written about Bach without including his pious devotion to God. Nor did I have any inclination to do so. To me religion is a phenomenon that existed before I was born and will continue to exist long after I am gone. That's why, for many years now, I have approached it from a cultural perspective. And this has given me the benefit of meeting people from various religios backgrounds (I line-manage a Muslim man, for instance) and learn from their lives, customs and traditions. In his final days, even when he knew he was about to die, Bach performed one of his most ambitious works, the cantata 'Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir' (We thank you, God, we thank you). With such strong faith like the one he displayed throughout his life it would have been puerile, not to mention immature, of me to edit that facet out of his life. Besides, Bach was a product of his time and as such was raised within the boundaries of the four main institutions of his time: church, court, town hall and school. Needless to say, he incorporated all of them in his exceptional body of work.
I hope you enjoy tonight's column, I had a lot of fun writing it. Many thanks.
Next Post: 'Britain, my Britain (Sawbridgeworth)', to be published on Thursday 25th June at 11:59pm (GMT)