Bach—and Daoist ritual


From my notes on the Li band’s 2013 visit to Leipzig (my book, p.339):

Apart from the GDR legacy, I feel as if I am taking the Daoists to a holy site. I have played Bach here myself, even before the fall of the Wall, and have been banging on about him to the Daoists for years. On our visit to the fine new Bach museum they are as spellbound as I am, finally getting what I have been on about all this time. As I stand with Li Manshan at the urinals in the posh new loo there, he muses, “Wow, so this is where old Bach used to take a piss, eh!”

Even before we venture into comparative studies of world ritual (what would a West African griot, or a ritual specialist in Nepal, make of the Li family?), we might consider one instance from “home” that is also close to my heart as a performer.

Some aspects of the early music movement may be of little relevance to Daoist studies. But since scholars of Daois ritual study historical change, it’s worth outlining the kinds of ideas pondered by people in the early music scene—itself long subject to ethnomusicological scrutiny, from Taruskin to Shelemay. Much of this hinges on the discrediting of the romantic concept of “autonomous music”, unpacked by Christopher Small in his book Musicking, along with his fine dissection of the concert-going experience.

To be sure, for Daoist ritual a somewhat less distant comparison than Bach (for both social and musical features) might be Gregorian chant, in all its widespread geographical manifestations over time (see Chant)—again, far from its reified, sanitized, popular image.

My thoughts here don’t even scratch the surface of Bach studies. Whereas much of the material on Daoist ritual consists of liturgical texts (despite inroads being made by Vincent Goossaert et al. in social aspects of late imperial–Republican eras), the varied social material that can be unearthed from European archives is vast too. If only we could do all the kinds of detailed research for local traditions like that of the Li family that is available to us with Bach studies.

On the Bach Passions in Leipzig, this is great stuff:

  • Melamed, Daniel R. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005) Hearing Bach’s Passions, Introduction, 3–15.

And John Eliot Gardiner blends ethnography and musical analysis in his fine book

  • Music in the castle of heaven: a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Penguin, 2013),

informed by a lifetime of “participant observation”, not least the amazing 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, in which I played a minor role.

Of course the differences between Bach and the Li family are vast—in society, history, belief, and so on. Western art cultures, with their faster pace of change, have long placed value on novelty; and in this case there has been a clear change of function over the two centuries since Bach’s day, from church liturgy to secular concerts.

True, it may be startling to realize that “concerts”, while then a recent invention, still formed a substantial part of Bach’s musical life (Gardiner p.259). Anyway, we should always marvel at Bach’s cantata cycles, and indeed those of his peers like Telemann—all the more since their infinite riches have only been explored in recent years. It’s hard to imagine how busy these guys were, composing new cantatas for the busy liturgical year, week in week out for years. Over 209 Bach cantatas survive; for Telemann, 46 oratorio Passions, 5 Passion oratorios, and 1,500 other cantata works! Such creativity bears comparison with the constant stream of invention that poured from the sax of Charlie Parker over his short life…

Hereditary transmission
Like the Li family, the Bachs were an occupational hereditary lineage of six generations serving liturgy over some two centuries, coming to an end soon after the Li family got going.

But whereas the Li family have always been “freelance”, European composers were employed for lengthy periods by church, court, and municipality. In my book I made so bold as to call the Bach family “ritual specialists”, but I must admit that, despite substantial reliance on the church, they were more like what we would call “musicians” (hold the front page!). Like household Daoists, they were considered “artisans”. And of course Bach called on various types of musicians, whereas the Li family have always provided all the services themselves.

And whereas lengthy hereditary transmission was the norm in Daoism, it was exceptional in Europe. Gardiner (p.51) cites Christoph Wolff:

Thus even in the Bach family a robust mediocrity held sway. Only a few of them achieved anything out of the ordinary … The unusual concentration of musical talent within an area so narrowly enclosed (in family as well as geographically), with Johann Sebastian as a culminating point in an ever-increasing and then suddenly ebbing flood of talent, remains a unique phenomenon.

Adducing the Scarlattis, Couperins, and Bendas, Gardiner notes, “Such a coincidence of parallel musical dynasties across late 17th-century Europe is odd; and maybe it is no more than that—a coincidence.” … Somehow one would need to trace the lineal descent of artisans in related trades or crafts to gauge whether the endemic political instability and precariousness of existence might account for the somewhat covert, guild-like passing on of craft-master skills from father to son in the wake of the Thirty Years War.”

Bach studies are far from the hagiography of “great men” from which we now seek to expand (cf. Goossaert on “ordinary Daoists”, my book p.364). They encompass the daily life of the whole community, and Bach’s own human foibles and struggles—internal, as well as with patrons and colleagues. As do good ethnographers…

As Small reminds us, neither ritual nor music are autonomous “things” for disembodied spiritual contemplation, but social activities.

Gardiner (p.272, cf. p.276):

Our modern habits of concert listening and of church service decorum inherited from 19th-century conventions are of no help in evaluating how Bach’s music was received at the time. They give us a false perspective on the customs of Bach’s Leipzig congregation, for whom neither punctuality nor silent listening was considered de rigueur.

Melamed reminds us how the Passions were experienced in Bach’s day, as part of liturgy; and all the differences between performance practice then and later. I’m not suggesting this might be a template for the study of Daoist ritual—as I show in ch.19, concert performances of the Li band are only a tiny and fleeting recent addition to their annual dependence on funerals.

Citing Helmuth Rilling’s reported remark that it is all very well that we have original instruments and original performance practices but unfortunate that we have no original listeners, Melamed asks,

Is it ever possible for us to hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed?

While asserting the importance of such historical research, both he and Gardiner recognize the legitimacy of later renditions. “Reception history” has become important in music studies, as for Biblical studies, but one hardly finds it in Daoist scholarship. One might also think of early religious painting, whose meanings are very different for us today than for people at the time (for a random example, see Alexander Lee, The ugly Renaissance: sex, disease and excess in an age of beauty).

Performance practice
A driving force behind the early music movement is change in performance practice. Describing Bach’s church forces, Melamed lists smaller choruses, different voices (only male singers, affecting color, strength, and balance), different training and ideals of vocal production; different balance between voices and instruments, different instruments (strings, wind, organs, brass) and playing technique (phrasing, articulation, bowing, breathing, ornamentation, vibrato, fingering, tuning, temperament, and so on); smaller forces, involving different balance between strings and winds; pitch standards; players standing, rather than sitting; use of dialect; personnel and limited rehearsal. Regional churches used different dialects—again, one thinks of Daoist ritual (Shanxi dialect, Hokkien, and so on). The buildings, even the churches, have changed too, further affecting spatial disposition of performers and audience, as well as sound.

It is no coincidence that some of the leading specialists in early music have been just as enthusiastically involved in contemporary music (for England: Barry Guy, Tim Mason, Tony Pay, almost any York University graduate you care to mention, the list is endless). Bach’s colleagues were mainly performing new music on new instruments; we perform old music on old instruments, but we can’t substitute our new ears.

Performance context
Melamed again: Such points are physical and practical, and most may be overcome, if one cares to do so. But

the real obstacles to hearing as Bach’s listeners did have nothing to do with instruments of performance practices or buildings. Instead, they concern the music’s liturgical context and significance and the experience, knowledge, and assumptions, and conventions that listeners brought to a performance.

Bach’s Passions were not performed in “concert” but during Vespers on Good Friday, including hymns, prayers, and a sermon lasting over an hour preached between Parts One and Two (Melamed p.135):

Hymn “Da Jesus am die Kreuze stund”
Passion (Part 1)
Hymn: “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend”
Passion (Part 2)
Motet: “Ecce, quomodo moritur iustus” [Gallus]
Collect prayer
Biblical verse: “Die strafe liegt auf ihm” (Isiah 53:5)
Hymn: “Nun danket alle Gott”

—whereas in modern concert performances of the Passions alone, “audiences might stretch their legs, use the rest room, or eat M&Ms for fortification between the two parts of a passion.”

Ears, eyes, minds, bodies
Discussing the psychological effects of the war-scarred landscape of central Germany after the Thirty Years War, Gardiner comments (p.26),

Our modern compartmentalized ways of thinking, looking, and hearing can shut us off from observing these inner workings of the past.” […] There is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that the German heartlands remained in a state of trauma long after the invading armies had retreated from the bloody religious wars, and that an intensely rural area like Thuringia, rich in the archaeology of its landscape—sacred sites, rivers, forests, and hills—retreated into a kind of self-imposed provinciality.

Performing Bach in Leipzig today, one can’t help evoking the different traumas of its 20th-century history (while there, apart from the Bach museum, do visit the Forum of Contemporary History).

By contrast with our modern habit of attending the Passions, 1720s’ Leipzig was a socially stratified provincial urban society, seated on hard wooden benches in an unheated church in late March—this latter feature, I note, being the sole vestige of “authenticity” at some Passions I’ve done for local choral societies! And the performers were largely invisible to the congregation (though not in the way that Daoists may be for their “inner altar” rituals!).

We have descriptions of church ambience and behaviour for Leipzig in the 1730s. (Again, the ritual context in China has changed less, but such accounts are rare enough for contemporary China, let alone earlier periods.) Gardiner (pp.265–70) summarizes detailed research:

The church in Bach’s day was still the focal point of Leipzig society. For its citizens it was a meeting place: with God, but also with their neighbour, week in, week out. The three decades following the Thirty Years War had seen a sharp increase in church attendance.

Bach’s weekly services were attended by “up to 2,500 congregants seated in pews with additional seats and standing room for a further 500, and “common women” seated on the stairwell that led up to the balconies and galleries. (These numbers do not include servants and other workers whose choices for attendance were limited to a shorter midday service, since “they were prevented from attending the earlier service either because of lack of sitting-or standing-room or because of necessary and permissible work)” […]

The two main churches in Leipzig were laid out like opera theatres, according to social rank. … There was separation by class, profession, and gender—with women on the ground floor, the most coveted seats being closest to the preacher in his pulpit, and the men mostly in the balconies (exactly the opposite to synagogues).

For hoi polloi there was standing room only at the back. … Prominent citizens could disrupt a sermon by talking at the tops of their voices or even laughing out loud from their secluded positions in their Capellen.

Congregants arrived late and left early.

Von Rohr scolds the young bucks for the way they parade their ill manners: they too arrive late, talk, sleep, disturb their neighbours by groaning and sighing during prayers, reading their letters or newspapers… Congregants were in the habit of talking during the music, with the large population of soldiers and day labourers standing at the back of the church taking most of the blame…. There are visual parallels here in the paintings by Dutch artists such as Emanuel de Witte and Hendrick van Vliet, who portrayed dogs urinating on the whitewashed Oude Kerk in Delft. Against the background of people-gazing and running commentary, paper darts and other objects being thrown from the gallery on to the women seated below, the ogling of eligible young ladies and even the presence of dogs running amok in church, one might think that the music stood little chance of being heard.

Physical and mental conditions interlocked. On one hand dentistry, sanitation, malnutrition, low life expectancy, trauma after the Thirty Years’ War; on the other, familiarity with the texts and belief system.

Apart from the basic physical conditions of church-going in Leipzig,

the Passion was also the first concerted music the congregation had heard in a long time because the Leipzig churches observed a so-called tempus clausum during Lent. […] Today, in contrast, some listeners prepare for a performance by listening to a recording of it beforehand, not to mention all the other music (liturgical or nonliturgical, live or recorded) they probably encounter in the weeks before. In fact, it is difficult if not impossible in modern society to go a day—never mind weeks—without being exposed to musical performances.

The theologically well-informed listener would also have been far more aware than today’s typical listener of the interpretative themes that Bach and his librettists emphasized in their text and music.

Melamed notes changes in taste regarding the language of liturgy—which indeed soon led to the Bach Passions falling out of use. Bach’s congregation would have experienced the chorales differently from later audiences.

Even the listener who approaches the passions today from the standpoint of faith has a modern, not 18th-century, theological perspective.

Bach’s listeners had points of reference and comparison most of us do not. […] We can never hear as Bach’s listeners did because we have heard not only Bach and Handel and Vivaldi but also Mozart and Beethoven and Wagner and Stravinsky and Cage, to say nothing of popular and vernacular music of this culture and others. We bring completely different ears to this music.

So what kind of pious or romantic time-roaming do we indulge ourselves in when we listen to “old” music, or attend a ritual?

However moved I am every time I perform or listen to a Passion, I cannot unhear Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (or undo the image of using it as an encore….)

Bach’s “audience” was certainly more steeped in Lutheranism than modern listeners, but belief was not homogeneous. Apart from disputes within the church over orthodoxy, the congregation were not unanimous in their “faith”, responding to wider social change.

Events, indeed “things”, have different meanings for different people. Coming back to ears, eyes, minds, and bodies, performance events will be heard, seen, and experienced in different ways by different people, and even over the lifetime of one individual. Bach’s passions would be experienced differently by Leipzig dwellers (of various classes) over time, or someone from Hamburg at the time, or—notionally—someone from Sicily, and indeed by the same person over various stages of their life; and today we can’t help hearing Bach with ears soaked in film music, pop, Mahler, and so on—ears that continue to change. Our accumulated baggage is very different from theirs.

And Daoist ritual in Yanggao will be experienced, even today, in different ways by young and old, male and female, Yanggao peasants, Yanggao migrants, a Beijing temple priest, Chinese urban pundits, Western scholars of Daoism, and so on; so how might various groups of “audiences” have experienced it in the 1940s, or the 18th century? Among such variations in ideology, we might start from the ways in which Yanggao people have experienced it since the 1930s.

The performers
These new “pieces” never became familiar to either listeners or performers in the way they are today (cf. Butt, cited in Gardiner p.399). Even Bach’s performers never got the chance to get to know them nearly as intimately as Mark Padmore when he sings the Evangelist. Even I have performed both the John and Matthew Passions more in a single week than Bach did in his whole lifetime. And of course we have recordings, which affects not just availability but our expectations of technical “perfection”. When we sight-read an unfamiliar cantata we are being more “authentic” than our own saturation in the Passions. However rigorous our training in baroque style, and however lengthy our experience, they are utterly different from those of Bach’s performers.

We can assume less long-term change in Yanggao, in performance style at least—and even, until the 1950s, in the social conditions of a poor rural society far less literate than that of 18th-century Leipzig. The Li family’s patrons would have belonged more to the local gentry than since the 1950s—the Daoists’ rituals reinforcing their status and power. Those patrons, at least, would have been literate as very few of the local population were. Performance style has perhaps changed rather little, although I show modifications in the content of their rituals since the 1930s—albeit not with such a conscious mission for novelty.

If today we can’t expect to respond to Bach in the same way as Leipzig audiences in the 1730s—or even at all—then what set of expectations should we bring to Daoist ritual today? Of course, Daoist ritual is still needed, whereas the context for Bach’s Passions has radically altered. But why should we not acknowledge that Yanggao audiences today might feel conflicted? Are we to imagine their response in the 1930s—or the 1830s, or the 1230s? Are we prescribing such a notional response?

I suspect that for minor counties like Yanggao (even for the town, let alone the surrounding villages), there is rather little detailed original material for the imperial period to attract scholars in the way that they have been drawn to Bach studies for many decades. The nearest I can think of is Wang Mingming’s studies of Quanzhou.

One possible stance is to take the eve of Liberation as a one-size-fits-all template for Chinese rural dwellers’ belief system—before public education, road transport, pop music, and the whole equipment of “modernity” began to take hold. This is all very well, although historians’ focus on change throughout the early imperial period would seem to contradict it. And it can’t be very detailed. So I argue against it.

As I commented in my book (p.203):

“This Pardon document does not belong to our method for doing the fast. It is the invention of later people. Given the fact, however, that it has been used far and wide for some time, it would not do to eliminate it.”

Even in their texts alone, rituals as performed rarely make a close fit with ritual manuals—apart from the fact that the latter are silent. Sinologists may merely adduce this as evidence that rituals are now practiced in a way reduced from some supposed former grandeur, but it can’t be so simple. The above comment from the 13th-century Daoist priest Wang Qizhen [1] reminds us that ritual practice has long been mutable. Whereas Wang reluctantly documented the way the texts of ritual as actually performed in his day (a hint to later scholars?), Li Qing seems to have been more conservative when he rewrote his manuals in the 1980s; however actual practice might be in flux, he sought to reproduce the family’s earlier texts faithfully.

One wants more.

Eternal truths?
Scholars of Daoism may merely shrug at all this. Their argument (or that of the hardcore Lutheran?) against our “changing ears” might be that the mortal audience is secondary, that the texts are eternal, the “meaning” contained solely in the transformed body of the chief liturgist and his communion with the gods. This will only impress a certain group of people; it needs noting as an ideal among some echelons, but shouldn’t obscure the ethnographic view. Still, in Daoist ritual studies, ancient texts remain dominant.

More from my book (pp.366–7):

Perhaps most germane here is Catherine Bell’s work on ritual. In her early article on the Numinous Treasure scriptures and rituals of the 5th-century Daoist master Lu Xiujing, she encapsulates the “text-in-context imperative”:[2]

“Historians of religions began to argue, not so long ago, for the importance of a “contextual” study of religious literature. That is, a text should not be approached in isolation or abstraction from the historical milieu in which it was written. This position was, of course, an attempt to shake free of what was perceived as a lingering “theological” agenda underlying the phenomenological, morphological, or perennial philosophical approaches to religious texts, and it sought to ground a comparative study of religions in specific social histories. […] Since then historians of religions have rarely wavered in their service to the “text-in-context” imperative.”

But it is precisely context, whether ancient or modern, that is in short supply in Daoist ritual studies. All the laborious spadework of documenting texts is admirable and necessary, but it is only one aspect of the task confronting us. Indeed, the ethnographer and even the historian might go further. Context doesn’t have to be subsidiary to written or even oral text; one might consider it as the main topic, the text merely one of its subsidiary manifestations.

We have all that in Bach studies—all the theological analysis—but we have so much more than that. Luther might not have been so broad-minded as to countenance ethnography, but even he “unequivocally sanctified the listening process: the Word of God was not text, he insisted, but sound, or rather, voice—to be heard and listened to” (Gardiner p.272). Against the disembodied image of Daoist ritual, or Bach, where the sound of ritual, or the behavior and ideologies of patrons and “congregants”, would be an irrelevance, the crux is performance, and the changing experiences of performers and audiences over time.

While there are many different perspectives here, not all of which relate to Daoist studies, yet from an instance that may appear to relate rather closely to our own world but really doesn’t at all, it’s clear that experiencing Daoist ritual (or any performance anywhere at any time) is highly contingent on all kinds of subjective factors—by class, background, and over time. Whose appraisal of Daoist ritual is valid? Or can we at least recognize that different appraisals are possible?

Li Manshan’s terse and casual remark at the museum sounds all the more wise…


[1] Cited in Lagerwey 1987: 209.
[2] “Ritualization of texts and textualization of ritual in the codification of Taoist liturgy,” History of religions 27.4 (1988).