Bach in an empty forest

Forest 1

Like Bach’s Air, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, ,Jesu, joy of man’s desiring is another of those pieces to which we may have become somewhat inured by media  recyclings—but here it’s magically transformed on a mile-long hand-carved xylophone in an empty Japanese forest:

The video, made in the unlikely service of a 2011 advertisement for the “Touch Wood” phone of a telecom company (see e.g. here), enjoys an occasional vogue on social media, but I’ve only just clocked it.

The installation, directed by Morihiro Harano, was created by a team led by carpenter Mitsuo Tsuda and sound engineer Kenjiro Matsuo in the Daisetsu Mori-no garden, Hokkaido.

Forest 5

What makes it even more exquisite is the rubato caused by little imperfections in the design. I’d also like to hear more of the tremolo effect (from 1.04), another feat of engineering.

Forest 4

Perhaps this will lead you to the wonders of Takemitsu, the aesthetic of ma 間 “empty space”, and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture).

* * *

Nat GallLarge queues formed for the National Gallery concerts. Source.

For senior British generations, the piano arrangement by Myra Hess remains deeply meaningful, epitomising Londoners’ spirit in maintaining morale during World War Two, with the remarkable daily weekday lunchtime concerts which she organised at the National Gallery throughout the whole war (instructive material here).

The series featured many of the leading musicians of the day, such as the Griller quartet and Dennis Brain, in a variety of repertoire that included Bach’s great keyboard works and the Brandenburg concertos; the complete chamber works of Beethoven and Brahms; Hess played the twenty-one Mozart piano concertos, and Beethoven sonatas.

That much of this “great music” was German in origin says much about the ethos of the concerts and their organiser—who came herself from Jewish stock.

As Kenneth Clark, Director of the Gallery, recalled:

What sort of people were these who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches? All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.

Hess’s renditions of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring may seem a minor aspect of the repertoire, but as we listen it’s worth imagining the effect it must have had on Londoners, anxiously awaiting letters from loved ones at the front while bombs were reducing their city to rubble:

So Hess’s performances of the piece have become part of modern British mythology; but as tastes changed the style was largely submerged beneath pop music (see Desert Island Discs).

While for the wartime British Jesu, joy of man’s desiring made a microcosm of civilised values and the valiant resistance to fascism, in postwar Japan it took time for Takemitsu to overcome his alienation from musical traditions there, associating them (not incorrectly) with militaristic nationalism. Such a sub-text may be intriguing, but it’s hardly legible in the forest xylophone…

* * *

Jesu joy

Bach made various settings of the 1661 Lutheran chorale Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne, such as in the Matthew Passion. The pastoral triplets familiar today are from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, part of his magnificent first cycle of cantatas upon becoming Kantor at Leipzig in 1723; stanzas of the chorale conclude both parts of the cantata.

Just as Western Art Music was losing prestige, in post-war western Europe the niche of the early music movement brought a new aesthetic to Bach (see e.g. Taruskin, Butt, and Gardiner)—here’s the final movement directed by Ton Koopman:

Closing stanza of Part 1:

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,
o wie feste halt ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe,
wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet
Und sich mir zu eigen gibet;
Ach drum laß ich Jesum nicht,
Wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

Happy am I, to have my Jesus,
oh how firmly I hold on to him
so that he may refresh my heart
when I am sick and sorrowful.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives himself to me.
Ah therefore I shall not abandon Jesus
even if my heart breaks.

Closing stanza of Part 2:

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
Er ist meines Lebens Kraft,
Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
Darum laß ich Jesum nicht
Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.

Jesus remains my joy,
my heart’s consolation and sap,
Jesus protects me from all suffering,
he is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and bliss of my soul;
therefore I do not abandon Jesus
from my heart and face.

The whole cantata is glorious. Here’s John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, nearing the end of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000:

The exhilarating trumpet of the opening chorale, the aria for counter-tenor (Michael Chance!) with oboe d’amore, the soprano aria with violin, the recitative with oboes da caccia leading into the bass aria with trumpet… Yet again I reflect that Bach’s musicians and congregation at Leipzig can hardly have realised how blessed they were—even if they had to sit through a sermon between the two parts of the cantata (see under Bach—and Daoist ritual; cf. Passion at the Proms). For some other wondrous Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective—also including Bach and the oboe.

So we’ve just heard some moments in the life of a melody as aesthetics have changed—1661, 1723, 1926, 1940, 2011 (cf. Reception history).

2 thoughts on “Bach in an empty forest

  1. Wonderful (the xylophone) – kept waiting for a gust of air (or a squirrel) to sabotage the whole thing. Would have liked more of the tremolo too…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Life of a melody…1661, 1723, 1940, 2010” – and your typically wide perspective, ‘grosser Bogen’!
    Great documentation in the National Gallery link!

    Liked by 1 person

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