After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.
Typical exchange during rehearsal:
Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.
It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:
27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation. Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.
Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.
The wise and infinitely supportive Stephan Feuchtwang continues to inspire generations of anthropologists in China and worldwide (see also here) with his work on Chinese popular religion. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday—and so do we all!
Design: Lotte van Hulst.
For the party at the Tabernacle (a great venue, and, um, marker of the changing territorial identities of West London religious life!) his wonderful family played some popular and moving musical items, with the assembled guests on kazoos (anyone have a funky collective noun for kazoos in English, or measure word in Chinese?). And following my little foray into a world-music version of Bach earlier this year, we did a warmup act as a heartfelt tribute to Stephan, essaying a little medley from the Goldberg Variations—with me on erhu fiddle and Rowan Pease (unsung Lucy Worsley of East Asian popular culture, currently embroiled in the China Quarterly struggle for academic freedom) on sanxian banjo (or should I say friction chordophone and plucked lute?) [Nah, give it a rest—The Plain People of Ireland].
Neither Rowan nor me (honest), not playing Bach—beggars at Baiyunshan temple complex, Shaanbei, 4th-moon fair 2001.
That makes a total of five strings—and all without a safety net. Since Bach never wrote for either piano or sax (shades of WWJD), if his music can sound great (to us) on those instruments, then why not erhu and sanxian, eh. We haven’t tried adding a kazoo yet, though. As I said in my intro:
Just imagine that the Italian missionaries, like Pedrini,  at the court of the Qianlong emperor in 18th-century Beijing had invited Bach for a sabbatical—and indeed Stephan, although that was perhaps a little before even his time… So we’re going to essay a little medley from what should now be known as The Feuchtwang Variations. 
Since among Stephan’s many talents he is also a viola player (“Not a Lot of People Know That”), I can avail myself of a couple of the muso’s classic excuses:
[studiously] After intensive research on the performance practice of both Leipzig and Beijing in the 1740s, I can now say with some certainty that… it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
[Cf. John Wilbraham’s remark.]
If you enjoy this half as much as we do, then we will have enjoyed it twice as much as you.
Framed by the Aria (itself infinitely enchanting—molten, ethereal, suspended in time), we played the first variation (blimey), then numbers 18 and 25—a perfect selection, eh. Short of recording daily until Steph’s 90th birthday, we’re never going to play it to our satisfaction (editing this is a similar challenge to editing one of my voiceovers), so meanwhile here’s an almost-recognizable attempt, just to give you a flavour—It’s the Thought that Counts. Just think yourselves lucky we didn’t do the repeats. Take It Away (and don’t bring it back):
Stephen Jones (erhu), Rowan Pease (sanxian, vocals).
Recorded in Maidenhead, 14th November 2017.
“They said it couldn’t be done”—and they were right! (Cf. Bob Monkhouse).
Just to make our chinoiserie version sound a little less banal, here’s the opening of the Aria on Lego harpischord—differently charming…
Li Qishan’s family shawm band, Shaanbei 2001.
Never having played the Goldberg Variations on a keyboard, I (like millions of others) am deeply familiar with it through recordings—notably that of the iconic Glenn Gould, of course. So at the age of 286 I’m almost in the position of a young player in a Chinese family shawm band, who begins to play the melodies on shawm after many years of aural experience (and let’s just be grateful I didn’t do an arrangement for large Shaanbei shawms—yet). Similarly, I hardly needed to consult Bach’s notation, except out of curiosity. At the same time, anyone playing the piece is inevitably conditioned by the experience of hearing Glenn Gould’s version.
We played the medley in F rather than G—less as a result of all my erudite research into 1740s’ pitch standards (not), but just because I like a lower tuning on the erhu.
Blending with invisible singers to left of picture. Stephan in red on left. Photo: Cordelia Pegge.
For the ecstatic Variation 18 we recruited a backing band consisting of Stephan’s daughters Rachel and Anna, along with Harriet Evans (outstanding scholar of the status of women in China). I arranged some personal lyrics, often in a kind of verbal hocket, incorporating (in stave 3) anthropology (with a little jest on the challenge, for some of us, of mastering the abstruse nature of Stephan’s theory!), (in stave 4) his dear wife Miranda, and his love of cycling:
For the recording, without vocal backup, Rowan and I take the upper parts wordlessly, in more ethereal vein. Do feel free to sing along with a partner of your choice (cf. the karaoke versions of Daoist ritual percussion in my film, from 24.09).
And then the slow and intense minor-key Variation 25 is just amazing. Here Rowan’s singing supplies further harmonic intensity, evoking Glenn Gould’s own ocassional inadvertent vocals.  And with the sustained sound of the erhu, and all my one-finger chromatic slides (1st finger on the way up, 4th finger on the way down), it sounds even better—or rather, it could do in the right hands. Not unlike a Chinese ondes martenot—trad keyboards just can’t compete with the vocal quality of bowed instruments. ButOMG, how about this:
Sure, our version goes a tad faster—again, not resulting from any holier-than-thou baroque authenticity, but because it helps the whole harmonic logic.
Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:
It can also sound wonderful as a string trio:
All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!
 For Pedrini’s sonatas, click here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…” I’d better write a separate post about the court music of the Qing dynasty…  Maybe I can concoct a couple of Chinese musicians in 1740s’ Leipzig from the Bach archives. If north African wind players were active at European courts of the day, then why not… International cultural exchange, eh. Note also Bach and Daoist ritual—not least Li Manshan’s classic remark.  This encomium could come in handy for Rowan’s CV:
“Less irritating than Glenn Gould”—Dr S. Jones.
I’ve noted instrumental versatility in Bach’s day, and my own delight in playing the cello suites on violin—when some of the solo violin suites and partitas are either over-familiar or lastingly and ridiculously unplayable, unless you’re Andrew Manze or Rachel Podger. Which I’m not.
While Bach didn’t specify the solo instrument for the Benedictus of the B minor mass, it’s more often played on flute than on violin. Anyway, I’m thrilled to find a new Bach solo piece to play on violin—the exquisite flute partita, whose original function (despite the usual splendid musicological sleuthing—good old watermarks, eh!) seems unclear (like I care). Its opening Allemande [note to self: blimey, “Allemande“ seems to subsume a range of styles?] is rather similar to the final movement of the violin sonata, which I’ve been playing with varying degrees of ineptitude for fifty years. Whereas some pieces have a lasting association with the ideals of our teenage years, novelty can also go a long way: never mind ridding ourselves of the patina of romantic performance practice, it’s hard enough divesting myself of my own personal history of playing Bach as a teenager.
So up to now, whenever I need a preludial solo in A minor (and let’s face it, who doesn’t, sometimes?), then I love playing the opening of the second cello suite—which comes out in A minor on the fiddle. I even played it for my father’s funeral, which was virtually the only thing I ever did for him [bit late—Ed.].
Such instrumental borrowings would have been routine in Bach’s time, but I haven’t heard any fiddlers trying it out—although this is lovely:
I don’t think my erhu technique is quite up to it, though—though after performing the “Air on a G string“, watch this space for my current rash project to render more Bach on the erhu. You have been warned…
My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.
In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.
Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player.
Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):
Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:
And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).
Quia respexit from the Magnificat:
But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:
Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.
I’ve already offered one Crucifixion joke, and you can find more online. The devout may wish to look away now.
Musos often tell this one, a true story about a performance of the Matthew Passionin Bristol, and an extreme instance of corpsing.I’ll refrain from naming the performers, though I do rather feel they deserve to be immortalized rather than crucified (not a choice vouchsafed to Our Lord).
As the Jesus du jour (fortunately this was a scratch gig) wailed an anguished cry to his Father:
Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?
on declaiming the first cry of “E–li“, he spontaneously essayed an extra dramatic flourish by giving a resounding stamp with his foot. Finding the effect rather pleasing, he followed it up with another stamp on the second “E–li“.
This already had the other soloists, seated nearby, struggling to hold it together— it was even funnier considering that Jesus, up there on the cross, wasn’t exactly in a position to stamp his foot. But when it came to the evangelist’s turn to translate Jesus’s words (That is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)to the same melody, for scrupulous accuracy of live reportage what else could he do except stamp again in his two equivalent cries of “MeinGott“? The performers now totally lost it.
It strikes me that this may be even funnier the more deeply we engage with the anguish of the scene.
Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, ENO, Sellars–Rattle, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special.
Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.
Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).
As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”
The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.
Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).
Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.
By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.
Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:
What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.
This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:
This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).
Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.
In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.
Further to “performative tears”, for anyone who doesn’t know the John Passion equivalent of the Matthew setting of “und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich” (from 39.15; or Mark Padmore from 33.47) then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist.
While I rejoice in the intensity and economical language of much popular music, generally I’m underwhelmed by the upright Victorian simplicity of Christian hymns—although of course Bach’s chorales are in another league.
Glorious is the Earth Glorious is the Earth, glorious is God’s heaven, Beautiful is the pilgrimage of souls Through the fair kingdoms of the Earth We go to paradise with song
Ages come, ages go Generation follows generation Never is the sound from Heaven silenced Of the soul’s glad pilgrim-song
The angels sang it first for shepherds of the land Beautifully it rang out from soul to soul People, rejoice, the Saviour has come The Lord bids peace upon the Earth
BTW, notwithstanding the critiques of Alan Lomax’s ambitious Cantometrics project, this does seem to illustrate one of his notable insights:
that sexually restrictive and highly punitive societies correlated with degree of vocal tension. The tendency to sing together in groups, tonal cohesiveness, and the likelihood of polyphonic singing were all associated with fewer restrictions on women. Multipart singing occurs in societies where the sexes have a complementary relationship.
The Real Group sings the psalm divinely, but it can be just as moving in less polished amateur versions. This is nothing to do with our recent British penchant for Scandi-noir. Of course, not being Swedish, I can’t assess what layers of association it may have for various strata of Swedish society today. For me, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, another likely image of religious purity (and another of those changing traditions à la Hobsbawm), is highly conflicted—Dudley Moore expressed this well, if not entirely reverently. I doubt if all young Russian liberals are so entranced by Orthodox liturgy as I was on Mount Athos.
So as with Bach, there is no “correct” way to experience a piece like this: it will vary by class, time, region, and so on.
While we’re relishing the singing of the Real Group, I can never resist a bit of Bill Evans: