A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Bach, Bernstein, Dracula & A Goodfellow Persists
Monday, March 17, 2008

How we listen to Bach is a problem more of our own circumstances than of his. We must, for example, learn to accept the instrumental sounds of the eighteenth century: the small orchestra, the high trumpets, the Baroque organ, the harpsichord, the clavichord. Bach (late in his life, to be sure) knew the piano, but it does not follow that we may listen to his keyboard works exclusively on the piano; the special characteristics of the other keyboards are too intrinsically a part of his music. And we must scale down our hearing (our ears have been stretched by too much sound) to hear his music in proper sonic perspective.
James Goodfellow, Stereo Review, December 1971

Sometime in the late 70s I read a short story in Penthouse Magazine in which an LA music honcho producer is able to bring, with the help of a time machine, composer Domenico Scarlatti into the 20th century. The whole idea is that the producer will then feature live concerts with the famous virtuoso harpsichordist and make a killing. To the producer's dismay Scarlatti soon tunes in and drops out from the "classical" scene and adopts the wonders of the Moog synthesizer and branches into heavy metal and forms a band.

While I never cut out the story and I have not been able to find it since, I did keep an article on Bach from the December 1971 Stereo Review Magazine. The writer of the fine article is the oddly named James Goodfriend, a musicologist of note at the time who has been almost swallowed into anonimity, courtesy of the Google algorithms which do not have much stuff "up" to find. It is as if the man never existed. The essay included the interesting woodcut by Jacques Hnizdovsky that you see here. Goodfriend was my first help in appreciating composers that seemed remote and difficult.

By 1970 I was convinced that Johann Sebastian Bach was God. My mother had convinced me of this. There must have been few opportunities for my mother to listen to Bach's music being played live. Her exposure to Bach came from being taught to play the piano as a small girl. Until a few weeks before she died she would sit at the piano to play Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Her opinion of Bach's genius must have come from her ability to read his music.

I don't seriously play any instrument. I abandoned the alto saxophone after I left high school. My ability to read music has faded away. But unlike my mother I have gone to many live concerts featuring Bach music and I have heard countless records and CDs and concerts on the radio. I would believe that I have heard more of Bach's works than my mother. This has helped me not dampen my enthusiasm for the man and his music. I have been attempting to transfer it to my granddaughter Rebecca.

Rebecca and I have listened to many many baroque concerts and I have made the mistake of thinking she knew a bit about Bach from simply going to them. I was entirely wrong. But it was not all a lost case. Recently I took her to the Vancouver East Cultural Centre to see theSatchmo Suite which features a cellist playing Bach's first suite for unaccompanied cello. A day before we went I played a Casals recording of the work. She was familiar with it when it was played live at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre performance.

A couple of weeks ago we watched a lively VHS film featuring a little boy and Handel set in Dublin. It is called Handel's Last Chance. The film was so popular not only with Rebecca but with her mother Hilary and my Rosemary. We sat this Saturday evening to watch Bach's Fight for Freedom which is part of the Composers' Specials distributed by Sony.

Ted Dykstra plays Johann Sebastian Bach, working at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Sachsen-Weimer. Before we even see Bach he is painted as a terrible monster and we were all ready for it. We were pleasantly surprised when Dykstra appears. He is young and handsome (and does not wear that wig all the time!) and soon not only charms the little boy who helps him escape the Duke's clutches but also charmed us.

As soon as the film finished Rebecca asked me, "Do you have any of his music?" I immediately put on one of the featured pieces from the film, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in d-minor for the organ. Rebecca was impressed and asked me, "Would Dracula have played that?" She then asked, "He was the composer who wrote those cello pieces we heard at the Cultch?"

I now know more than ever how important association can be to learning and appreciating music. The film helped Rebecca connect the Satchmo Suite, Bach, Pablo Casals and the next time she accompanies me to a concert she will know a bit about the composer.

And both of us, thanks to Bach's Fight For Freedom will see the composer who loved life, loved his family (a picnic scene helped us understand this) with new eyes. The wood cut and the other pictures circulating of Bach don't help us appreciate him. But it is all not fun and games. Leonard Bernstein in my little music bible The Joy Of Music writes of Bach:

...For Bach, all music was religion; writing it was an act of faith; and performing it was an act of worship. Every note was dedicated to God and to nothing else. And this was true of all his music, no matter how secular its purpose. The six Brandenburg Concertos for orchestra were technically dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, but the notes praised God, not the Margrave. Every last cello suite or violin sonata, every prelude and fugue from The Well Tempered Clavier praises God.

This is the spine of Bach's work: simple faith. Otherwise, how could he have ever turned out all that glorious stuff to order, meeting deadlines, and carrying on so many simultaneous activities? He played the organ, directed the choir, taught school, instructed his army of children, attended board meetings, kept his eye ot for better-paying jobs. Bach was a man, after all, not a god; but he was a man of God, and his godliness informs his music from first to last.

My mother would have agreed with the above even if I would have not considering that I thought Bach was God! For those who may be reading this I would suggest sampling Bach in an intimate surrounding - a church. The following all-Bach concert will be performed this April 11 at St Jude Catholic church on Renfrew. A couple of the performers are Paul Luchkow and Michael Jarvis. And there is Glenys Webster and Nan Mackie.

For many years even though the first ever version of the Brandenburg Concertos that I ever heard were some early long playing recordings by the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, my favourite has been a 60s recording, Pablo Casals - Marlboro Festival Orchestra - Bach Brandenburg Concertos. This recording directed by Casals is lively and spirited and it has a version of the No 2 Brandenburg played in quick time (the trumpet player must have clamoured for oxygen) as if there were no tomorrow. But the No 5 in D Major which features the flute, violin and keyboard is played, (alas!) with a piano. To be able to listen to Michael Jarvis on his harpsichord with a small orchestra in a church should be sublime.


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