In my current liminal state while my house is being renovated, apart from enjoying my local library, I’ve got back to playing Bach on the violin. One hopes it’ll be like riding a bicycle, and so it turns out (wobbly). Among several fine musos’ excuses, most apt is
It was in tune when I bought it!
All I need is the Bach cello suites; indeed, maybe they’re all we need in Life… I’m less tempted to return to the violin suites—apart from memories of struggling over them through my teens, they’re just harder! OK, one day I’ll get back to the Chaconne.
First stage is to refresh my memory. The cello and alto clefs are mostly under my fingers by now, though it can be a bit like driving in Birmingham, going round in circles till I find the right exit—so with my sheet music currently buried in boxes I occasionally resort to online scores.
I’m playing my modern violin at the moment, tuned down a tone, with a gut “E” string. I use my baroque bow occasionally, but it doesn’t feel quite right with the modern violin. A good rosin discipline makes all the difference HELLO, although it’s not so frequently applied as chalk in snooker…
I continue developing an arcane system of bowings, often designing slurs (and fingerings too) to reflect conjunct melodic movement, particularly semitone intervals. This varies according to my mood, as it should do, but I like to have a template. Arpeggiated passages are good practice for string crossings. And then, after all the nitty-gritty, it has to sound natural and organic… As opposed to writing or listening, what’s great about expressing such nuance is that it’s more of an immersive physical process than a mental exercise, potentially like the riaz of north Indian raga (see Neuman, chapter 2).
* * *
Apart from the cello suites, I’m also relearning the A minor flute Allemande. I greatly admire the hieratic feel of David Tayler’s metronomic lute version, allowing the note permutations to speak for themselves; but working out bowings and fingerings on the violin, this is the kind of thing that I’m internalising, without having to annotate it like this:
This may seem a bit, um, fiddly, even Irish—so having worked out these patterns, I try not to let them get in the way.
Anyway, it feels great to Become One with the instrument again [Again?—Ed.], getting it in tune, and indeed with myself. During the interval from playing I’ve been absorbing a lot of music of all kinds—more Bach, kemenche, dhrupad (which I’d love to learn to sing, but that seems too ambitious), and so on. Still, I find myself hampered by my classical upbringing, feeling little need to rework Bach’s old notes into my own—far from a young sax player, who might have a similar reverence for Coltrane but will always create something new. Indeed, Bach improvised on Bach, and so do organists today. Me, I’m just trying to remember how to play the violin…
Their programme at the Barbican last week (notes here) was intense right from the start, with Berio’s hieratic Contrapunctus XIX, an arrangement of the final unfinished work in Bach’s Art of fugue, completed with an enigmatic B-A-C-H chord. Then came Berg’s violin concerto (1935), mourning the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler—with another homage to Bach. Having been entranced by the piece through my teens, I was glad to hear it again, played by Veronika Eberle. Though this was the only piece requiring larger forces, the way she blended with the orchestral sonorities reflected the whole intimacy of the concert, reminiscent of chamber music.
Image: Mark Allen, via @londonsymphony.
After what is known as an “interval”, * Haydn’s Trauersinfonie, more Sturm und Drang than sombre, was delightful. Symphony orchestras venturing back into Early Music can sound ponderous and drab, but scaled down, in the hands of a tasteful director, they’re perfectly capable of bringing such works to life. Not an obvious choice, the symphony is full of the light and shade highlighted in the rest of the programme, and juxtaposing it with new works, Hannigan and the LSO reminded us of Haydn’s creative originality. The oboes and horns shone, the strings with some fine pianissimos between bursts of manic, angular noodling (1st and 2nd violins seated antiphonall, YAY!); and the Adagio (in E major!) was radiant (I couldn’t help imagining Haydn beating Henry Mancini to it with a minor-key variation on the Pink Panther theme).
And so to a most original finale: Lonely child (1980) (see e.g. here and here) by the Canadian Claude Vivier (1948–83) (wiki, and here)—yet another composer whose sound-world was enriched by Balinese gamelan. Without knowing of his traumatic, short life, his text may seem more dreamlike and reassuring, with its “great beams of colour”, stars, magicians, sumptuous palaces, and mauve monks. But Vivier’s music is “forever grasping at a place of security and eternity that is just beyond reach”, in the words of Jo Kirkbride’s programme notes. Hearing it live, I felt a certain remote Arctic chill—suggesting a link with Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, already a modern classic thanks to Hannigan.
Lonely child was first sung by Marie-Danielle Parent, for whom Vivier wrote it. Whereas Hannigan often combines singing and conducting, here she accompanied the evocatively singing of Aphrodite Patoulidou—here they are in 2019:
* At this point my keyboard was hijacked again by a Martian ethnographer, whose note I append here:
Interval: an interruption in the proceedings that appears to be widely accepted by the participants, when they take leave of the ritual building to partake further in the ingestion of mind-altering substances.
Assessing sentimentality in music seems to be rather subjective (more on wiki here and here). I offer these random jottings largely as a reflection of my personal tastes.
It’s hard to police taste. In our times the term “sentimental” has come to have pejorative connotations—as wiki suggests, “a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”; meretricious (and a Happy New Year), trite, even false. Other items on the word-cloud of sentimentality include maudlin, mawkish, tear-jerking, schmaltzy, manipulative, heart-on-sleeve, and self-indulgent—restraint being a virtue fraudulently claimed by the elite. Apparently emotions, and the declaration of sentiment, have to be earned (Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”).
Gender is a major element in the discussion, with the often-unpacked trope of rational/repressed men and emotional/communicative women. The “sentimental novel” (indeed, empathy itself) is often associated with the rise of female authors, although Dickens is a notable suspect, as well as some poetry of Wordsworth. In daily life, while objects of “sentimental value” seem exempt from censure, much-noted contexts include family, cute pets (the main content of social media, grr), teddy bears for Princess Diana, nature (the sentimental/pathetic fallacy; think sunsets), and Christmas cards. For a brilliant antidote, do listen to Bill Bailey’s Love song!
I note that my own playlist of songs is heavily weighted in favour of women singers, who seem most capable of emotional expression. By contrast with bubblegum/wallpaper music, at last the songs I’m considering are intense. Apart from the lyrics (even assuming we know or care what they mean!), much depends on the framing, the dramatic context. Irrespective of genre, one would suppose it difficult to “earn” the declaration of sentiment within the limits of a song lasting only a few minutes; but it’s perfectly legitimate to plunge right into a mood, as do many WAM songs. Performance is also crucial, the establishment of rapport: the vocal quality of the singer, the arrangement, harmonies, instrumentation (smoochy strings being a giveaway), and tempo. Some may find “the same song” sentimental (or not) according to such variables.
I’m not entirely fascinated by philosophical discussions, such as this from Charles Nussbaum (I’m somewhat thrown by his idea that “passion excludes sentimentality”—really?). He distinguishes sentimental music from the musical portrayal of sentimentality, which is OK, apparently. While critics defend such music by detecting layers of irony, detachment, and distance, isn’t it just those qualities that expose a song as false, a device for feigning passion? Surely we want sincerity; there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ironic detachment. It seems that a song can be both denigrated and excused for being fake.
I’m wary of Posh People claiming the cerebral high ground of lofty moral sentiments, trying to belittle the experience of the Plebs, moving the goalposts; as if their own emotions were noble, but those of the lower classes unworthy of expression. Corduroyed Oxbridge professors (and perhaps even the “tofu-eating wokerati”) pretend to more legitimacy in channelling feelings than a hairdresser from Scunthorpe, but if there was ever a time when this mattered, then fortunately it has receded. Responses to music can’t be policed (cf. What is serious music?!).
So the term is often used as a simple dismissal of a nuanced spectrum. WAM is a broad church, within which pundits make distinctions. Some more austere ideologues, still hooked on “autonomous music” (debunked by Small et al.), might claim to relegate emotion entirely, but WAM is full of it. Puccini is a classic case who appears to need defending (see e.g. here, and here), such as O mio babbino caro:
Predating anxieties over sentimentality, while I refrain from considering the courtly love of medieval ballads, we might now find sentimental some elements in the music of Bach (“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild!”)—set within a religious frame. In WAM (as in Sufism) the portrayal of divine love can be controversial; some critics shrink from the sumptuous string harmonies that are part of Messiaen‘s unique musical lexicon. Baroque arias such as Handel‘s Lascia ch’io pianga, or Purcell’s When I am laid in earth, are never rebuked for sentimentality. Mozart arias too are presumably “rescued” by dramatic irony—such as La ci darem la mano (cf. Holding Don Giovanni accountable), the Terzetto from Così, or the Countess’s aria:
But many audiences, even “high-brow”, are presumably moved by such arias irrespective of the dramatic context.
Moving on to the Romantic era (generally considered OK, you gather), the OTT pathos of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is clearly “earned”. For Mahler, the kitsch of popular folk music made an essential and utterly moving counterpoint to his more metaphysical strivings. But he weaves layers of “sentiment”, such as the slow melody that contrasts with the monumental opening of the 5th symphony (above). The Adagietto, of course, is easily co-opted to what we might consider sentimental ends—a not uncommon fate, like Rachmaninoff in Brief encounter. Again, a lot rests on interpretation: conductors are often praised for toning down the sentimentality in Mahler’s music—WAM pundits are dead keen on restraint (cf. Susan McClary on the denial of the body). Returning to gender, this article by Carolyn Sampson on performing Schumann songs may also be relevant.
Modern times (1936).
Just as in opera, music manipulates us strongly in film (e.g. “weepies”), such as The way we were or Cinema paradiso. Again, our dour WAM pundits tend to disdain the art of film composers such as Korngold.
Turning to popular musics, I revisit my (not to be missed!) playlist of songs. Again, in such pieces a certain dramatic distance seems to help. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived. The nuanced ballads of the Beatles seem sacrosanct—besides Yesterday and Michelle, She’s leaving home is a masterpiece of empathy. I’ve sung the praises of Dream a little dream (again, “elevated” by Mama Cass’s delivery, by contrast with that of Kate Smith). Am I “allowed” to relish Michel Legrand’s You must believe in spring? “Am I bothered?” Country music is more anguished than saccharine (indeed, the lyrics of the Countess’s aria could be from a Country song!)—I like the tone of this post. In jazz, the ballad was blown away by bebop, but survived despite recastings in a more edgy manner, like Coltrane‘s My favorite things. But while the modern reaction to sentimentality has been quite widespread, I can’t help wondering that it’s a handy slur used by the elite to denigrate popular culture.
While such concepts change over time, they clearly vary by region too. If WAM and popular musics share a considerable affinity in conceptual and musical language, the context broadens out widely with folk musicking around the world, where sentimentality doesn’t seem to be A Thing, confounding our narrow Western concepts. In the Noh drama of Japan, a transcendental message and austere sound-world pervade the common recognition scenes at the scenic site of an ancient tragedy. Conversely, the cante jondo of flamenco, its “brazen, overwrought, tortured, histrionic” style expressing “self-pity, posturing machismo, and hypersensitive adolescent egos”, doesn’t quite fit within the norms of sentimentality; nor does the heartache widely expressed in the anguished nostalgia of saudade and sevda. As in WAM or the sentimental pop song, the performance is exorcistic, cathartic.
So for some reason I seem to be requesting permission to be moved by certain songs—Pah! By contrast with some WAM-lite singers like Katherine Jenkins, Billie Holiday had a unique gift for singing sentimental lyrics without ever sounding remotely sentimental—such as Lover man, or You’re my thrill (“Here’s my heart on a silver platter”):
What knots we tie ourselves up in! In both WAM and popular genres, it’s worth positing all kinds of fine distinctions, and interrogating them; but pace the self-styled arbiters of taste, there’s little consensus on what is “legitimately” moving, and I’m reluctant to exclude any music along the spectrum of mood. Hmm, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”…
My fusty musical tastes then being largely conditioned by the violin, I suppose I responded to the song’s classicism, although Bach didn’t mean much more to me then than he did for most fans of the song. Along with the trippy lyrics, the blending of the Hammond organ (cf. Booker T. Jones in Memphis) with the blues/soul/rock vocal style is perfect:
We skipped the light fandango turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor I was feeling kinda seasick but the crowd called out for more The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away When we called out for another drink the waiter brought a tray.
And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.
She said, There is no reason and the truth is plain to see But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast and although my eyes were open they might have just as well’ve been close.
Here Procul Harum perform it live:
This 1967 film (banned from the BBC) captures the zeitgeist:
A whiter shade of pale is the subject of a programme in the BBC radio Soul music series. With its walking bass, it’s commonly supposed to be inspired by Bach, in particular the Air, but the connection is more generic. Other similarities seem oblique, like the organ prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, or the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s 1729 Leipzig cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (sadly not written for the BBC sitcom):
A more recent comparison is When a man loves a woman, sung by the splendidly-named Percy Sledge (1966):
While generally recreations of original versions are to be welcomed, I seem to regard A whiter shade of pale as sacrosanct, like Beatles songs, so I’m not susceptible to Annie Lennox’s cover. There’s a nice cameo in The commitments:
Meanwhile in 1967, great songs were still coming out of Detroit amidst social upheaval. Among other good years for music, try 1707!
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
Like Bach’s Air, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, Jesu, joy of man’s desiringis 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.
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.
Large 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…
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Bach made various settings of the 1661 Lutheran chorale Jesu, meiner SeelenWonne, 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:
His backhand was frankly ridiculous, overblown, hilariously good. This, one thought, watching that thing—the flex of the knee, the flourish of the wrist—is a kind of artefact, a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham, the kind of backhand a power-crazed Bond super villain might try to steal from its laser-guarded case and transport to the moon.
And he’s right, of course—while other players achieve greatness by sheer brute force, Federer’s grace as he glides around the court is supreme.
Felix Warnock’s fine memoir opens with a blow-by-blow story of Pierre Boulez subjecting his playing to a mercilessly forensic public examination in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This got me thinking about the conventions of orchestral rehearsal.
My remarks below refer to orchestral string players; I don’t know how much of it applies to wind players—who are more like soloists, each playing their own individual part. And all this changes over time, varying both in the UK and around the continent.
Indeed, rehearsal * has changed substantially since the 18th century; the original performers of Bach’s cantatas and Passions were confronted with challenging new music every week, yet rehearsal time was minimal; and after the service they might never play these pieces again. Modern performers are most unauthentic in knowing every corner of the Passions—as I wrote in my article on Bach and Daoist ritual,
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.
Aesthetics changed only gradually through the 19th century, further stimulated in the 20th century by the development of recording technology.
In the UK since at least the 1970s, for standard repertoire (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on) there may be just one single three-hour rehearsal on the day of the concert—although conductors with some clout may be in a position to demand lengthier preparation. Of necessity, British players are renowned for their sight-reading abilities—limited budgets meaning shortage of rehearsal time. There’s safety in numbers, and with any luck tricky string passages will be camouflaged beneath loud wind and brass chords; you can usually busk it (again, unless singled out in rehearsal, as in this story!). Indeed, it can be hard to tell which passages might be tricky until you hear the piece in context. Learning the dots is what rehearsals are for.
In all but the most exceptional cases, it’s considered uncool to take the parts home to practise between rehearsals. Having played a range of music in youth orchestras and then in college, students also prepare with collections of orchestral excerpts. Although most London musicians are freelance, and in many cases don’t have to audition, these collections are useful to help prepare for auditions for a regular job in a symphony orchestra—now they’re revolutionised by online collections, complete with recordings.
So by the time you get to sit in a professional orchestra, you will have played a lot of the repertoire; moreover, when you come across a piece you haven’t played before, you will be familiar enough with the style to be able to sight-read well.
A young violinist goes for an audition. The leader puts an orchestral excerpt on the stand for him, and he starts hacking away at it gamely. It seems to be going rather well, until reaching the foot of the page, he whips it over, looks up and exclaims breezily, “Good God, this is Brahms 3—I’d never have known!”.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly rehearsing (and often performing) in the Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a rather leisurely schedule. But for some other bands such as the RPO it was a matter of pride to cut it fine, ideally staggering in directly from the pub. Still, you could tell if people cared just a bit about a gig—and a conductor—when most of the band was already practising several minutes (!) before the conductor arrived to take the rehearsal.
Symphony musicians were most unlikely to take “the music” home to practise. Such “cheating” wouldn’t endear you to your peers—it made you a kind of teacher’s pet. Backstage before the gig itself, where you’re unlikely to have sheet music with you, practising snippets is just about OK; but wizz-kid violinists soon learn that it’s uncool to show off with their fancy concertos.
The line between the mild panic to which musicians are accustomed and the tedium of over-rehearsal with a pedantic uninspired conductor is illustrated by the diametrically opposite approaches of the great maestro Rozhdestvensky (“Noddy”) and Celibidache. For me, Noddy had an electrifying vision of spontaneous creation, whereas Celi’s espousal of Zen (he’s even cited in the wiki article on the Japanese aesthetic of transience) was surely refuted by his endless nit-picking in rehearsal. Even Carlos Kleiber achieved the magic of his concerts through lengthy rehearsal. The story of the rehearsal where the players asked Noddy if they could possibly just play the piece all the way through just once before the gig is all the more drôle precisely because musicians are always chafing about being subjected to too much rehearsal.
And anyway, the most stressful passages of all are slow, sustained pianissimo, which only become more difficult as the moment of truth approaches. Felix may have been sight-reading, but that wasn’t the problem; what was so excruciating was the exposure in front of everyone. For string players, there may be safety in numbers with the louder, more virtuosic passages, but not with hushed slow writing, where they are especially prone to attacks of the purlies. It’s often easier to play a solo than to play such slow passages in a section of fourteen violinists, when it can be agonising even to try getting the bow on the string, let alone keep it moving. That excerpt above from Mahler 5 may look fiendish, but fiddle players may be more anxious about the Adagietto.
Early music The world of early music bands since the 1970s is rather different. A keen leader, or conductor, would sometimes ask fixers to send out the parts in advance—which players who had experience of symphony orchestras might find amateurish.
We became accustomed to sectional rehearsals in the National Youth Orchestra, but I don’t recall any in professional symphony orchestras; I sometimes encountered them again in early music. Generally, early music bands get more rehearsal time than symphony orchestras—and for programmes that seem less challenging, at least technically.
In the 1980s’ heyday of the recording industry’s infatuation with early music, the opposite might happen too: at recording sessions for at least one band, you might turn up to play through some obscure Haydn symphony that no-one had ever played before, and the red light would be switched on at once; moreover, some of these takes even ended up on the CD. At least—like our counterparts in the symphonic world—we were immersed in the style, and prepared for eventualities.
World traditions The wiki article on rehearsal gives an inadvertently apposite list of some other types, such as “wedding guests and couples practising a wedding ceremony, paramedics practising responding to a simulated emergency, or troops practising for an attack using a mock-up of the building”.
The concept of “rehearsal” tends to be elusive in many musical traditions around the world. It adds another layer to the continuum from composition to performance, which the great Bruno Nettl pondered in his work on improvisation.
Rather than rehearsing, young students learn by imitating their masters, often within the family, soon going on to “perform” for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Household Daoists learn their trade from young, including the vocal liturgy and instrumental repertoire, but their skills are gradually consolidated on the job (see e.g. Li Manshan’s recollections in our film, from 9.50). They go through a process of “studying for three years, returning [the debt] for three years”, but from very early in their apprenticeship they are taking part in ritual performance. It’s not even easy to find musicians “practising” individually.
I absorb the fug of the “public house” in rehearsal, Gaoluo 1996.
I found a clearer case in Gaoluo village in the weeks leading up to the New Year rituals, when the large ensemble re-familiarised themselves with the shengguan instrumental repertoire by getting together to recite the gongche solfeggio of the score—partly because as an amateur group that was only in occasional demand for funerals, they might not have played for some time (see Plucking thewinds, pp.247–53).
There seems to be scope for research here; but in all, as Nettl too suggests, perhaps such traditions are not so far from the WAM scene: you learn from young, and then you start taking part in rituals/concerts. In WAM it’s complicated both by having to perform pieces that you might not know and by the chimera of perfection; but for the familiar standard repertoire, one might wonder where rehearsal might come into it. To adapt Laurel and Hardy, here’s another nice mess WAM has gotten itself into (for the Dance of the cuckoos, see here).
Still, WAM musos, for whom the artistic fulfilment of which they dreamed in their teens is often submerged under the pressure and routine of the profession (cf. Ecstasy and drudge), will find few things so satisfying as doing a series of performances on tour of a great work that they’ve been playing for a couple of decades, with an able and inspired conductor who esteems and trusts in the players’ experience—whether Mahler in a symphony orchestra or a HIP Bach Passion.
* As I noted here, in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. The German Probe is suggestively medical. In English, “re-hearse” may sound like putting back into a vehicle to transport the dead—and indeed, there is a connection. It comes from French hercier “to drag, trail along the ground; rake, harrow [land]; rip, tear, wound” [sic!]; 13th-century English borrowed hers from Old French: “a framework, like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin”, which by the 17th century became “hearse” in the modern sense.
Bach composed the six cantatas of hisChristmas Oratorio to be performed on six separate feast days, starting with the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, the final instalment on Epiphany on 6th January—which is today! We can relish the whole cycle in John Eliot Gardiner’s performance at Weimar at the start of the Bach cantata pilgrimage.
In Part Six, The Adoration of the Magi, I’ve been thinking of the exquisite aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen. Here’s an earlier performance from 1987, with Nancy Argenta:
For the musician, the inner parts are captivating to play.
And then the whole final sequence is astounding, with the tenor aria accompanied by oboes d’amore, with the following recitative by the vocal quartet, leading to the final chorale with vertiginous trumpet!!!
For more Epiphany cantatas, click here; and for the bluegrass fiddling at the opening of the Journey of the Magi, here. See also A Bach retrospective.
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?
And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,
The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοι, mágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίαν, oikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.
In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.
Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.
The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.
This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).
Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.
Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:
Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.
Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.
I’ve already praised Stephen Isserlis’s wonderful performances of Bach cello suites, and now, as if by magic, he’s written a definitive guide:
Stephen Isserlis, The Bach cello suites: a companion (2021).
Here’s a trailer for his complete recordings of the suites (2007):
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and indeed, Steven writes about them too—but his comments are glorious, leading one irresistibly to the music, and performance. The book is intended “for music-lovers of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the casual listener to the performing musician”; by contrast with the ponderous style of academics whose worthy, voluminous research he digests so well, his chatty style feels personal and communicative rather than twee, always informed by his insights as a performer. Do also consult his website, where he writes engagingly (e.g. his fine post on Harpo).
After a brief biography of Bach, in Part 2 (“The genesis of the suites”) Steven ponders some basic questions. In “Why did Bach write the suites?” he surveys earlier works—Italian pieces for unaccompanied cello, and a German repertoire for unaccompanied violin; and he often contrasts Bach’s own violin sonatas and partitas from around the same period. He explores for whom the cello suites might have been written, and for what instrument, introducing the various types of cello then played, as well as the bow—so important in animating the music. We can’t even date the suites precisely, though they were composed during Bach’s years at Köthen, before he settled in Leipzig.
His discussion of the four early sources, and their relationships, renders arcane scholarship accessible and relevant to performance—seemingly minor differences in the notes, in slurring, and so on—illustrating the latter with the Prelude of the first suite. While making a convincing case for informed readings of the research to illuminate performance, he is amused by scholarly spats:
I am a member of various societies devoted to composers—partly because I’m interested in those composers, and partly because I find it so funny to read such things as, for instance, Professor Y’s triumphant assertion that Professor Z is quite wrong to say that Liszt arrived in Bologna on 30 October, because here is a restaurant bill from a Bologna restaurant dated 28 October. The next newsletter is then likely to contain a furious letter from Professor Z, pointing out that the 28 October bill—as all the world (except Professor Y, evidently) knows—actually dates from the previous year, when Liszt was between Modena and Imola and stopped off for lunch in Bologna between 1pm and 3pm; with all due respect (i.e. very little), Professor Z suggests that Professor Y should have done her homework, and perhaps had her eyesight checked, before making such preposterous allegations.
Steven’s account of reception history is also fascinating. While Bach’s music was not completely forgotten after his death, the cello suites were. Several editions were published in the 1820s, but they still remained accessible only to a select few. At Schumann’s behest, they were performed complete in Düsseldorf over New Year 1853–54, but any other sporadic performances were mostly of single movements, sometimes with piano accompaniment (Shock Horror). In 1879 the suites were eventually published in the Bach Gesellschaft edition. But still, their modern rediscovery came only with Pablo Casals (1876–1973), who at the age of 13 came across a (dodgy) edition in a music shop near the harbour in Barcelona, and later went on to popularise the suites throughout the world. His complete recordings from 1936 to 1939 were made at a particularly traumatic time for both Spain and the world:
In Part 3 Steven stresses the nature of the works as collections of dance movements. After outlining the history of the suite, he explains the style of the individual genres, beginning with the Prelude, then a term for improvisation, “the highest peak of performance” (Mattheson). He gives a fine exposition of the varied tempi of the “challenging” Allemandes, which were already rather distant from social dancing. Following the Courante, “like majestically beating hearts at the centre of each suite, the Sarabandes are oases of poignant calm”, far from the risqué nature of the dance’s Central American origins. After Menuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte comes the final, exuberant Gigue.
In Part 4 Steven adroitly answers fourteen FAQs, including wise comments on style and thoughts on the baroque cello, strings, and bow. On playing from memory:
I do find a music stand somehow impedes contact with an audience in these pieces. […] I did play the fourth suite once with a page-turner; but he turned consistently one movement ahead of the one I was actually playing—so I had to play it from memory after all. I found, in fact, that I could do it—so I thanked him; he’d done me a favour.
He then suggests fourteen rules for the player, beginning with Rule 1: “There are NO rules for playing this music”. Other advice includes “Don’t demonstrate your ideas”, “Dance!”, and he offers wise words on the sparing, expressive use of vibrato, as well as stressing the (often invisible) bassline, and the harmonic structure. Finally he reminds us to enjoy playing the music, with all its joy and humour.
Part 5 makes an impressive case for an underlying sacred programme behind the suites—making them effectively a suite of suites depicting the life of Christ. Here, and throughout, Steven makes insightful comparisons with other Bach works, in particular the church cantatas. Citing Ruth Tatlow, he ponders Bach’s interest in the symbolism of numbers. He then offers rather detailed programmes:
1 Nativity (with a fine analysis of the Prelude)
2 The Agony in the Garden
3 The Holy Trinity—or the Ascension
4 Magnificat—or the Presentation in the Temple
For the second suite he thoughtfully discusses the puzzling chords at the end of the Prelude; while admitting the possibility of decorating them in the style of the rest of the movement, he also makes an analogy with the Five Holy Wounds.
By contrast with the C major “blaze of glory” of the third suite, the C minor tonality of the fifth suite, “perfect backdrop for the unfolding of tragedy”, is echoed in other “sombre masterpieces” (the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninoff: see here). At its heart is the Sarabande, “the epitome of loneliness, desolation, despair”.
For the sixth suite,
Having darkened the sound of the cello with the tuned-down A string in the fifth suite, Bach now reaches out to the sky with a fifth string, an E string a fifth above the A—rather like those medieval master builders who developed Gothic windows, with pointed arches reaching towards heaven, letting in more light.
He likens the opening to the pealing of bells—a more authentic simile than the equally evocative image of the Sicilian marranzanu jew’s harp (a post that also includes a complete live performance of the six suites by Yoyo Ma at the Proms).
Steven continues to sing the praises of this Prelude in Part 6, where he takes the suites movement by movement, pondering nuances. For the Courante of the first suite (“a bundle of fun”) he recalls his teacher-guru Jane Cowan describing it as “a portrait of a street entertainer performing an energetic dance to the accompaniment of his pet monkey banging on a drum”; she characterised the Gigue as “drunk”. He includes notes on bowings that (as ever) are not just technical but musical too—such as the Prelude of the third suite, where he explores a conundrum in the variant sources (“Anna Magdalena has been at the wine again”). For his comments on the Sarabande of the fifth suite, click here.
As to the wonderful Allemande of the sixth suite (another alap, I’d say),
If one is thinking in terms of the recitatives that the short note-values bring to mind, there must be a certain freedom within the beat; but it is at least equally important to remember that, even though the style may be vocal in nature, it is still an allemande. […] One has to breathe in expansive, unhurried spans, perhaps imagining a moving bassline controlling the flow of the melodic current.
“The greatest cycle ever to be written for a solo cello” is completed with a Gigue of “bounding, irresistible, unquenchable joy”, with “pedal-note passages, more folk instruments, more bells, impossibly huge leaps…”
And as Steven writes, having completed this glorious cycle, Bach probably just
put down his pen and went out to rehearse, or to repair his harpsichord quill plectrums; or perhaps he settled down to a convivial dinner involving singing with his family and friends, his next masterpieces already buzzing around in his head.
The book makes a fine companion, inviting a wide audience to immerse themselves in these miraculous suites.
To complement John Eliot Gardiner’s Prom last week (shown on BBC4: on i-Player)
with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists:
Both Bach and Handel were born in 1685, and this Prom featured two of their early works, composed when they were 22 years old—both for Easter, indeed. 1707 was a fine vintage.
Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden has long been among Gardiner’s signature pieces—it features in this post, where he also comments on his training with Nadia Boulanger.
Handel’s Dixit dominus has also been a regular showcase for Gardiner’s choir and orchestra over the decades. Amidst all the virtuosity, the heart of the piece is De torrente, the ravishing duet for two sopranos—repeated as an encore in the Prom, as in this performance from 2014:
For more on Gardiner’s early experiments with baroque style, see here, under “The world of early music”; his performances appear often in the posts under A Bach retrospective. For Handel arias, click here; for Rameau, born two years before of the “class of ’85”, here.
Fresco of Pharisee and tax collector, Basilika Ottobeuren (source: wiki).
Continuing to explore the riches of Bach cantatas (most recently in Cycles and seasons), I note that it was on 8th August 1723, the 11th Sunday after Trinity, that Bach first directed Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (“See to it that your fear of God be not hypocrisy”—a fine motto) for his new congregation at Leipzig (see here, and wiki).
The text (author unknown) is laden with sonorous rebukes:
Christianity today is in a bad way: most Christians in the world are lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees who make an outward show of being pious and like a reed bow their heads to earth […]
The appearance of false hypocrites can be called Sodom’s apples that are filled with filth and from outside glisten splendidly. Hypocrites, who are outwardly fine, cannot stand before God […]
Wretched man that I am, wretched sinner, I stand here before God’s face. Ah God, ah God, be gentle and do not enter into judgment with me! Have mercy, have mercy, God, my Forgiver, over me!
Just imagine the sermon (see here and here) (but don’t imagine Dudley Moore’s Psalm). The cantata might appeal to Alan Bennett, with his observations on hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English.
Here are John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir in a live performance during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, with the stellar Mark Padmore and Magdalena Kožená (singing another exquisite Erbarme dich, with two oboes da caccia; cf. Bach and the oboe), with Stephan Loges:
For more from Magdalena Kožená, see here, and here.
Portrait of Bach seated at the organ, 1725. Source.
Bach was renowned for his improvisations on the organ, and organists today still continue the tradition that has become attenuated in other branches of WAM (see Unpacking “improvisation”). So in an invigorating Sunday-morning Prom (on BBC i-Player until the end of August), Martin Baker alternated his own improvisations on organ works by Bach with the original pieces—which presumably had a life as improvisations before he committed them to paper.
Of course, whereas Bach himself improvised in the tradition of his time (in the style of… Bach!), today’s organists improvising on his music have the whole diverse soundscape since then as their palette, though Baker opted for a relatively traditional language (indeed, some modern players like Robert Levin on fortepiano even improvise in the style of Mozart). Baker ended with a stimulating improvisation on English melodies familiar to the Prommers.
Here he is with an earlier, um, medley on Bach themes:
He was standing in for Oliver Latry, for whose remarkable performances *do* refer to my post on French organ improvisation—which also includes his elaboration on the B-A-C-H motif, as well as a film of Messiaen himself at the age of 76 playing three resplendent improvisations!!!
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
Prelude—SJ The grand finale of this third trio of anagram tales, this wonderful fantasy is much informed by Nick’s own research on Bach, with plentiful allusions to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage among his typically diverse cast.
* * *
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH Series of concerts and recordings December 1999 –January 2001, 250th anniversary celebration of Bach through his church cantatas, performed each on the liturgical calendar day for which they were written, in places as closely as feasible linked with the original performances; or with the composer himself; or with places dear to or chosen by the director of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner. English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, multiple vocal and instrumental soloists.
J.S. Bach Denkmal, Arnstadt.
Impossible to encapsulate JSB in an anagram, and I didn’t think of doing so, I reckon, until some time into 2000. The letters were not inviting, as well as too many to control; but on one long bus journey Stephen Varcoe came up with the gem included below, and I understood I had to have a reciprocal try.
Compiling the anagrams took the whole of that year, on and off; the parallel story has taken a bit longer. A substantial part was in place by 2003, John Eliot Gardiner’s 60th birthday, when I submitted an early version of the finale. But the ‘story’ hadn’t been committed to any imperishable medium, and was lost in our 2009 fire. (The anagrams, such as they were, haphazardly survived in a disc I made when leaving the computer on which I’d typed them in London, in 2007, and miraculously had the nous to send to myself by e-mail before the fatal day).
The commentary, though substantially already imagined, has necessarily had to be re-derived, sometimes from scratch, over the subsequent two decades. It follows what I can remember of the original apprehensions, from the anagram matrix, and carrying on…
146 anagrams, in strict rotation. Here goes my 19-letter Passacaglia, followed by a Fantasia on the same ground:
“Abbot – Jenni – a Hans Sachs, an Aachen hobbit’s…” Jan: “Noh ! Banshei! a JSB cantata beano!” Nin has J.S. Bach in sash, Ecbatana john. B-Beth, John: “Anabasis? Can John B., a Sachsen Ta’iban, ban Nash Hanseatic job?” “Bach Iona’s best, Jan.” “Nah” – Jan. “Bach? Iona? SHAN’T!” EBS nab Bach, astonish Jane, bin John’s Sabata ache. N.J.: “I, the Hon. N., ban ACAS, as ban a snobbish Janet, ach.” Ban cane? John abstains: can’t bash a shinbone, ja. “Josh has a BBC antenna—I ban he in sonata.”
* * *
J.S. Bach: “Bassinet, banjo, ha ha, c’n-can sahib…” “The banjo’s an – a ! – Johann Schein sabbat…” Johann Sebastian: “Ah!…”
“Bless you!” – Johann has sneezed, perhaps. “Thanks. Makes me think that ‘praise’ is the root of it, yes.”
A musicologist writes: “I like Bach’s praise music best when it lines up with a non-violent pre-Christian ethical world-view.” “Practitioners of which used to be harried, a bit less now, I hope. But couldn’t we extend ‘Osanna’ –” “Excuse me, there’s an H in Hebrew: it’s Hosanna.” There’s no agreement, curse it; discussion of praise music founders.
* * *
“What? is that really so, Anna?” Sebastian exclaims. Anna, a bit sheepishly, has told Johann she’s pregnant. “Wow, what a girl!” Sebastian cries – and exits to take evensong. His cousin, another Johann, who’s with them today (the Bachs come and go between each other familiarly), reassures Anna, “He’s like the boss in the old Eisenach days!” Sebastian nips back in, looking for a rebus he’s made for the St John. “I like this small shift in harmony, could provide a laugh.” “But where do you get that B natural from?” Johann pleads. “Oh, it’s ok, just listen to the bass line”—Sebastian likes to tease the older Eisenach generation. Jan, whose connection is unclear but who’s obviously entitled to be there and equally obviously allies with the conservative faction, asks “Do you really have the qualifications to risk this?” Anna cuts this off with a cheery “A mad Cantor job, that’s what he has. But Sebastian’s not finished yet, ARE YOU?” Bach, who’s taken off his top to put on his cassock—looking touchingly informal, in his jute trousers—responds seriously, “Look, I’ve been making my way up, as if I were Christ without yet the New Testament. But, oh god, there does seem to be no end to the work that has to be done…” “Right, but you spend your time making fugues! Sod that…” Sebastian laughs, he’s above this, and turns to Anna, with an offer he knows she finds it hard to resist, “How about a game of chess before the service?” Anna’s all confused, thinking she’d been left out of the conversation, “Well, if you think there’s time – yes – thanks – ok –” Johann’s happy to know the two are on the same wavelength.
* * *
“I knew Herr Jahn,” the taxi driver confided, “he was a stalwart of the judiciary, but wasn’t averse to a joint or two, or a subsidy from the space programme. Speaking of which, can I tempt you, Herr Behan?” “As long as you don’t go on about free jazz. I’ve had enough of Lloyd Webber, fin-de-siècle musicals don’t make sense to me, any more than japonaiserie. Scare off African potentates, that’s what I’m here for.” Noting a coolish reception from the driver, Behan temporises, “that’s a joke I heard in South Africa…” but he couldn’t resist breaking into song, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’… He’s delivered safely to the British Council, where the staff ask if he’ll be referring to Bach, whose year it is. “You what? As far as I’m concerned, let the whole Bach family go and enjoy themselves in a Yugoslav thermal brothel.” Janet, an intern, asks “Oh, do you think Mrs Bach would go along with that? I wouldn’t accept it, sounds like dodgy Middle Eastern sanitation.” But Behan is imperturbable, and he spots a nun he recognises: “Join me in a joint, Hannah? Abbess and all?” An abbot across the room has heard this, and calls over with words echoing Lorenzo’s in The Merchant of Venice, “Go for it, lass!” (no one had ever heard the Abbess’s real first name before, Jessica) – “How sweetly sleeps…” Hannah/Jessica, liberated, cries “Bliss!”, and her ‘son’ (presumably an acolyte monk) echoes. The abbot, after veering inexplicably into Indian subcontinental politics (or can that be where he met Jessica, now Hannah, abbess?), launches “Do you remember that devilish monoplane, oh, how we laughed! Jess, ok Hannah, you’re the one who knew about plants, even got a degree for them!”
– across a few centuries, Johann in Leipzig wonders if Sebastian shouldn’t have got a qualification from the Greek academy, for a start
– but for the value of a university degree, I ask you to consider Joanna Hitchens (and I ask her indulgence).
* * *
Meanwhile, in Chichester, the cathedral organist, coolly sceptical, opines over sherry after Sunday Matins, “The US secret services have gone pear-shaped.” That’s what we would expect from the Hitchens brothers, vying with each other for conspiracies. “Wouldn’t you have liked to be a politician?”, JB is asked. Well, yes, he’d had his chance. There are some quite outspoken guests, among them associates of the Dean who’d served in the army in SE Asia. I already overhead Jessica mentioning an Indian spin bowler, plus Alan Ladd, and the Boston founding fathers (oh the bright new dawn long promised, those slave traders who spoke only with god) – “I remember when I told Helena Blavatsky that Jinnah wasn’t going to be content without a sea port.” “But Jinnah was one of us!” “Yes, British education, qualifications…” “One could buy them. And look how that’s turned into nationalist Hindu free-loading.” “Thinking of the Hinduists, I just ordered a beef skewer takeaway, image of the Taj Mahal, that National Trust signpost, in mind. But do you know what the man said? ‘You want a pork fry-up, with onions and chapati?’—what a twit!” “This is like infighting between freedom fighters,” interposed Jens, an old Indochina hand. “Netaji Bose thought it more important to oppose British colonialism than worry about alliances with the Third Reich or Japan—hero to Indian nationalists, ‘a common traitor’ to your father. Not sure how South African Gandhi supporters saw him, though.” “And what about another charismatic guru, Jens, my dear” – I hadn’t met this couple before, but they’re clearly keen to get out of the Vicars’ Close and enjoy their takeaway on the coast, they’ve booked a taxi—though they can’t bear to leave an argument, only had to because the taxi arrived. But as they go, a tantalising throwaway: “You know JSB sang at St John’s Cambridge, as a bass?” Annie Besant hears this, and to her credit can hardly believe it is so.
* * *
What you need to know about Bath Talk of Bath, and you talk first of John Nash, and Inigo Jones. But did Jones build more than a garden shed? While Nash, he saw Bath going up in the world, oh yes. (Still, I wouldn’t mind that shed, Jonathan, since you seem not to think much of it.) Neither of them planned a gambling resort, nor did the Oxford philosopher.
How fragile the past is! I remember a reception in the British Council home on the Île St Louis in Paris, where I and a colleague, our gestures becoming expansive with hospitality, knocked a crystal ashtray off a mantelpiece, which shattered distressingly around our feet. Our hostess was impeccable, she had it cleared up in no time, and told us, “Please don’t worry, the person who gave it to us is dead now anyway.”
This makes me think of memorable images, and how they can fade. Saab – who remembers those stylish cars? The Shah of Iran? The Indian restaurant in York where I saw Victor Lewis- Smith once successfully pay with a library card? Tony Benn’s memoirs tell (or would if they hadn’t been redacted) of a Jesuit having a high old time in Saigon, ignoring both Indian and South African politicians, of whom one was a boil on the body politic—
I must have been muttering aloud to myself, for “A boil? did you hear that, Johanna? – and in Bath!” Jonathan went pale, at least to the level of his foundation make-up: “Let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve digitalised one of the love poems, it’s got that Keatsian rhyme-scheme, nicht war? like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Snark’ – ” “That’s a pretty fundamentalist interpretation.” “But avant-garde at the same time! Or eerie, like Quatermass, dig up and pin down the old evil!” John Eliot says this is an old set-to: “It’s all in the Golden Fleece.” “OK, but this is actual: Johanna’s tied up with the Israeli nationalists, a historic second-generation fighter, ten commandments set in st—” “—yes, but it didn’t start there. Long before, an exogamous queen, after her own pleasure…” “Jan, can you give us an up-to-date secular run-down on this?” “Ok, if you can keep up, it’s a bit convoluted. Jesus Christ, who is deathless, is the metaphorical son of John the Baptist and Solomon’s mother. This transgression is compensated for by the fecundity of the fat bulls each brought to the union, right? It’s fair to say though that the prophet Jonah felt personally humbled by this deal.” “Till he was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.” “Not to speak of limitless supplies of peyotl, big boss.” “Fine, Jen, but I’d like you to know there are other virtues in plants:
Fava, runner, haricot bean, Makes a donkey an Indian Queen”
“Yevtushenko? A witch’s spell?” “A song for active meditation?” “Look at it this way. A Pakistani bowler once thrilled Cuban observers in the earthy olive groves of Andalusia (in those days when Cubans played cricket, not baseball). Anna, now living under another name, deliberately neglected to insist Jacob put on the condom. These are accidents, perhaps determinant, of history. Does that make Bacon, who predicated binary computing machines, a predeterminist? Did it have to be this way? Did you have to carry to the end your existential antagonism with the white whale? Was the story only ever you/it/he/she?”
Joanna, looking on aghast, sympathises with Gertrude Stein’s abdication, after much struggle and play, in the face of so many letters.
* * *
The final set of borrowed (burrowed?) images includes a small, rather sad, cricket vignette—as is apparently inevitable, my medium seems to have a predictable set of stand-bys. This one can be quite precisely situated: it’s the time of the infamous match-fixing scandals involving the South African cricket set-up and specifically the captain, Hanse Cronje, a fine upstanding batsman who went dismally wrong. I think there was a tournament in Arabia at about this time where for once the authorities showed their teeth—who knows if they bit all those responsible?
But JSB himself was not immune to unruly behaviour (though I don’t have reason to think corruption as such was ever attributed—hot temper and intolerance perhaps, and a tendency to collar the Thomas-Kirche’s calligraphy ink allowance). Perhaps he didn’t take it so well, when a colleague heard a theme he was working on—curiously redolent of the ‘Dies Irae’—and wondered whether there was enough substance in it. (Another sketch adumbrates a clearly Beethovenian motif, which just shows one can never know what may give fruit later, and furthermore that minimalism goes hand-in-hand with polyphony).
* * *
Sebastian and Anna are playing games with making up cantata titles—they’re both a bit fired up by absinthe. [We too used to do this: I recall, from Stephen Varcoe and/or Richard Savage, Mein Stimme ist mit Scheiss bedeckt, and Ach Gott, du stehts auf meinen Fuß.]
“How about Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?” “Brilliant! A bit over the top, but go for it!” There’s an apprentice with them, who can’t quite follow this, and wonders if they should keep off the anis. “Anna,” says Johann, “don’t you think that’ll put us on the best-seller lists, truly?” Nathan’s insulted by any suggestion of selling-out, and threatens who knows what sort of mayhem. Sebastian, calm, just says to Anna, “Don’t worry—he has this old idea of Indo-European hierarchy.” Though he then swore softly; but I won’t transcribe what he said, it sounded a bit crazy to me.
* * *
Somewhere, a little while before the Bach Pilgrimage, the office are discussing progress with the idea. They’ve got a highly placed cleric, a beloved singer, a small wizz-kid from Aix-la-Chapelle… Jan, who’s everywhere, says “Think of Japanese theatre! We’ll go down singing in glory! It’ll be a great Bach-fest!” Nin immediately imagines scenes with Sebastian dressed in exotic robes, in some sort of Persian latrine. Beth (I stammer as I address her, I’m so nervous, especially as John’s with her) questions the concept of ‘anabasis’, return to the source – “Do we think that Sebastian, who is by way of being a Thuringian fundamentalist, would accept a British makeover of a Baltic town?” We’re called back to the matter in hand. “I’m sure we should concentrate on Iona as a high point, Jan.” “Sorry, I personally won’t be doing Iona.” And so the English Baroque Soloists get the Iona gig, surprising Jane, and assuaging JEG’s problems with the recording. The Honourable representative intervenes to outlaw temporising views, ‘no industrial negotiation, and no smart-alecs either, phew’. Would she even rule out corporal punishment? JE keeps out of it, no knee-capping here. Most importantly, don’t let Radio 3 pirate this—I’ve spotted one of their mikes in the mix—watch out in the ‘Sancta Maria’!
* * *
“Do you know,” Sebastian murmured to Anna, “I can hear low clarinets, I can hear a strumming continuo instrument, wow, I can see the old masters dancing to our tune….” “That—guitar, is it?—can launch you and all your predecessors into a jamboree…” But JSB’s already hearing something else, is it birdsong, sounds from the future, from another country? “Ach, listen…”
“Johann? Sebastian? Hansi? Are you there? Oh…”
Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives of the Hunted (1902).
Nicolas Robertson, 2000 –2021.
 Anagram by Stephen Varcoe.  Anagram by Charles Pott.  The penultimate bar, violins: AAAA.  Amongst the stranded letters in the final anagram, I’d already realised that ETS could mean Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian nature writer I’d loved when young; but I had no idea what the still unattributed letters (CB CBB) could do until I looked him up in the British Library.
For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—
Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:
Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück, Seinen Gott verneinet Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick Bitterlichen weinet. Jesu, blicke mich auch an, Wenn ich nicht will büßen Wenn ich Böses hab getan, Rühre mein Gewissen!
And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:
Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty! Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress: Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!
I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:
In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.
Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.
Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).
On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *
Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):
Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.
Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.
Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.
Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000
was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.
Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:
There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]
One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.
As Gardiner notes,
The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.
Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:
As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.
After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.
Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.
For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:
But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:
Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.
Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:
The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott(BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:
Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen(BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes
high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:
Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.
* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.
I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.
The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:
The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.
The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.
Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.
In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.
Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).
Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.
Among Byzantine representations:
Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.
Russia, 14th century.
Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.
In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).
And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:
While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.
When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.
And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.
In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.
So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:
Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).
The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.
The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.
There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”
This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.
And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:
This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.
Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!
Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:
The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all
Don’t like to boast, but in this early photo I am preparing my review of the Sanskrit translation of the pop-up version of Wittgenstein’s Tractato logico-philosophicus.
Soon I would even learn to tie my own shoe-laces—which stood me in good stead for joining the Arsenal forward line-up for a record transfer fee of 4 guineas. My artistry is hard to make out in the grainy TV footage of the day, since I was so small, which made me tough for burly defenders to mark; in my own early version of the nutmeg, I kicked the ball between their legs and then crawled through myself.
Along with my veneration for the Matthew Passion, you may have noticed my cognitive dissonance in confessing to some, um, lighter moments that some musos associate with it—such as Mein Gott, with Always look on the bright side of life as a fantasy encore. Sorry, but here’s another one:
Rehearsing the Matthew Passion in the Albert Hall for an English Concert Prom, during a longueur while the conductor is busy sorting out some point with the continuo, my desk partner leans over to me. I guess she’s going to share some profound insight with me about phrasing, but she whispers me this joke:
What did the inflatable schoolmaster in the inflatable school say to the inflatable pupil?
“You’ve let me down, you’ve let the school down—but most of all you’ve let yourself down.”
Just the kind of thing to get us in the mood for the Crucifixion scene…
I continue to relish this joke—all the more because of the context in which I first heard it. It goes back a long time, and one still hears it regularly; but now I wonder if it still has the same resonance for the younger generation, or if it’s more popular among those educated in posh schools before the 1980s. Returning to The life of Brian, its tone calls to mind Michael Palin’s benign marshalling of crucifixion candidates.
One of the most exhilarating experiences, both to play and to listen to, is the final chorus (from 14.46), with joyous violins punctuated by trumpets and drums (cf. the 3rd orchestral suite).
Friede über Israel Peace upon Israel Dankt den höchsten Wunderhänden, Give thanks to the exalted wondrous hands, Dankt, Gott hat an euch gedacht. give thanks, God has been mindful of you. Ja, sein Segen wirkt mit Macht, Yea, His blessing is mighty in effect, Friede über Israel, in sending peace upon Israel, Friede über euch zu senden. and peace upon you.
First I warm up by seeing how much I can still recall of the movements of Bach cello suites that I learned some years ago—a remarkable amount, as it turns out (speaking as someone who doesn’t even know what day of the week it is at the moment). Then I devoutly set about learning the intense Sarabande from Bach’s 5th cello suite, inspired as I am by the great Steven Isserlis (for his rendition of the complete suite, click here; the Sarabande from 13.12).
Short as it looks on the page, this should be a manageable task, though here the usual challenge of transposing from cello to violin—the preliminary spadework—is further complicated both by its highly chromatic melodic lines and by the score, with its scordatura, the E string tuned down to D. The ear is the best guide: once the piece is in my heart and under my fingers, I can dispense with the notation (as one does). Playing it on the modern violin (I don’t quite know why), I soon adopt higher, more veiled positions; so in the end, ironically, I don’t require the top string at all.
Steven imagines the 5th suite as representing the Crucifixion—before the Resurrection of the 6th suite. As he writes:
The tragic atmosphere of the suite reaches its emotional peak in the desolate loneliness of the famous Sarabande. What an extraordinary movement this is: no discernible melody as such, no particular rhythmic interest, no obvious dynamic changes, no chords*—and yet, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever composed. One can point to such features as the pain-filled appoggiaturas, and the breathtakingly expressive intervals between the notes—not just adjacent notes, but also between the first and last notes of bars, intervals whose dissonance one can somehow feel across the beats separating them: the major seventh between the G and A flat at the beginning and end of the first bar, the minor ninth between the C and the B natural of the second bar, and so on. These are in effect semitone clashes, warring tones that will not let each other rest, their conflict piercing through the intervals heard between them.
To irritate Tweety McTangerine (cf. They come over ‘ere…), I note that the Sarabande was Latin in origin, with Arab influences; like many dances, it was once considered “so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. This one may seem remote from its dance ancestry (it’s hardly a track to get the kids onto the dance floor), but I find myself trying to convey a stately balletic rhythm alongside the anguish.
And now even the other movements aren’t safe: next, the Allemande. This beats household chores and gardening any day.
While I’d love to hear the Sarabande on the Uyghur satar (cf. the exquisite muqaddimehere), I’m also rising to the challenge of making it work on the ethereal Chinese erhu, like the Feuchtwang variations and the Allemande for flute. This requires yet more vertiginous positions. “They said it couldn’t be done—and they were right!”
The audio of their 2014 Prom isn’t currently available on BBC Radio 3, but do immerse yourself in the ritual drama of the filmed version from Berlin.
At its heart is the astounding Mark Padmore as the Evangelist (note his illuminating discussion with Peter Sellars). Also moving is the human role of the chorus, as well as the staging of the arias—such as Aus liebe and Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand. The entire “collective meditation” is overwhelming.
On “intersubjective tears” in 18th-century German religious music, see here. Further to “performative tears” (links here), for anyone who doesn’t know Bach’s two settings of the Evangelist’s cry of “und ging hinaus/heraus… und weinete bitterlich“, then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist—
in the Matthew Passion (Part 2, from 18.55), leading into Erbarme Dich (for which, also click here and here),
I’ve already mused on the list of countries that the Stats for this blog provide for me. For some obscure reason, the Stats also include a list of Search Terms that have somehow led readers to my site. This can be entertaining—recently I found
bread, and sauce, are two completely different things, aren’t they?
Still, now I’m keen to try some, liberally poured over my sausages. And like Haydn’s prophetic symphony (see link here), it deserves its own hashtag (#Bachgravy™)—could be the culinary hit of the new decade.
*For main page, click here!*
(in main menu, under WAM)
I’ve just added a lengthy article on the demotion of WAM, and the flawed concept of “serious music”. It’s based on the stimulating work of Richard Taruskin on the “classical music crisis” prompted by the defection of critics to pop music since the 1960s, as he challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” such as the myth of musical autonomy. This is typical of his bracing style:
The question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.
I go on to query his recourse to the term “serious music”, broadening the topic to musicking in other societies.
If there are so many “serious” genres all around the world, what seems exceptional about WAM is its apologists’ sense of mission, and their concomitant sense of embattlement. Without wishing to discourage ongoing research, perhaps we should just leave the WAMmies to get on with their arid defences of a waning prerogative. So we might simply ignore labels like “serious” as a nervous attempt by an impotent elite to claim that “our culture is superior to yours”.
That’s just a taster for the article—now click here!
Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).
In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. 
Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…
Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:
Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.
Themes Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).
Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.
Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:
It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.
Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.
Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.
Obscurity and obsession Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).
Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.
One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.
Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.
He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:
Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]
One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.
Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.
At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.
Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.
Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.
Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.
He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.
Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:
added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.
But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.
Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:
If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.
Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:
Venues The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:
The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.
aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.
Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.
He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:
After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…
In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:
For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.
Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had
a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.
In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,
the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”
Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.
By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.
The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote
Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,
describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.
For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:
Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]
The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.
As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:
While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”
Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléroat the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”
As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.
On film As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try
Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):
Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):
I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.
And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…
 Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include
David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).
Reception history is an important issue in all branches of the arts, including music, fiction, and visual culture.
For Renaissance painting, modern viewers inevitably bring to bear a wealth of visual and conceptual experience (later artistic movements, photos, film, and so on); by contrast, the world-view of audiences of the time was based on a far more detailed knowledge of scenes depicted. The social context of viewing has changed radically; such messages constantly change over time. In my post on visual culture I cite perceptive comments by Michael Baxandall, Marcia Pointon, Michael Jacobs, Alan Bennett, and (for China) Craig Clunas.
Even synchronically, Daoist ritual means very different things to local patrons, urban dwellers, young and old, local and central cadres, and scholars of Daoism—a theme I broached in Recreation.
I’ve touched on this issue in several posts on music, often relating to the HIP movement and changing styles of performance:
In Bach—and Daoist ritual I note the very different ears, eyes, minds, and bodies of 18th-century and modern audiences.
For a long time Bach and his music hardly ventured any further than Saxony. But here’s Erbarme Dich (cf. here and here) sung by Fadia el-Hage and Sarband, from their Arabian Passion (as ever, the BTL comments are worth reading):
And here’s a live version with Fadia el-Hage:
Further to Bach on the lute (such as this), you can also find several renditions on the oud, like this:
Instances where Bach’s Lutheran world-view comes into contact with Islam may be suggestive, but his music can also be attractive on other instruments, beyond mere novelty. Here you can find a Nordic version of the prelude of the 6th cello suite. Meanwhile, the sheng-player Wu Wei has ventured into baroque, as here:
Evidently I welcome all kinds of new versions of Bach, but perhaps here my Chinese snobbery comes into play. I just can’t hear the benefit of playing Bach on the sheng; the ethnic frisson seems spurious, as if mutual bandwagons are being jumped on. I can’t get used to the modern sheng used as a monophonic instrument, but I must be wrong about this. Just because an instrument has the capability of playing chords (traditionally in this case, fifths and octaves), it doesn’t always have to be, any more than the organ; but to me it deprives the sheng of its essential character. So however tasteful the playing, it seems kitsch, reminding me of Gheorghe Zamfir, yesteryear’s flavour of the month—although for some reason I don’t quite mind this:
Just be grateful we didn’t record our rendition on erhu and saz… See also the comment below this post, with the Polis ensemble playing the Air on instruments of the eastern Mediterranean. While the arrangement is beautiful and the playing sensitive, I wonder if they might transform it more by relishing the ethnic timbres, rather than conforming too reverently to Bach’s sound-world. I can imagine it being most moving within a concert of their core repertoire—just as it is most spellbinding in the context of the 3rd suite itself.
There’s lots of Bach on sax online. Some is rather straight, but I like this—live from Leipzig (just like Bach was!), what’s more:
I welcome further links to ethnic Bach—obviously we’re looking for genuine explorations here, rather than mere exotic orientalising.
All this contributes to my fantasy of a world-music version of the Matthew Passion, on which more anon.
Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.
He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:
“A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.
He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.
In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as
a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.
I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.
In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.
In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.
Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).
Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.
Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:
* * *
Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.
Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if Taruskin has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights.
Christ lag in Todesbandenhas remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated (see also here). Here’s a live performance:
For introductions to the cantata, see here, and wiki.
So: questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate interpretations from earlier in the 20th century with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.
The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):
The person who crystallised all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognised as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]
As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:
How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?
And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”
Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced, lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?
He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:
The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.
As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.
People were quick to realise that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”
In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.
Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.
Still, Busoni’s piano arrangement of the Bach solo violin Chaconne (included in this remarkable playlist), played by the astounding Hélène Grimaud, makes another chance to relish changing ways of interpreting the past anew.
Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.
I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.
To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.
I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including
I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as
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.
All four orchestral suites are wonderful. In the 3rd suite—like Mahler’s Adagietto in the context of his 5th symphony—Bach’s Air deserves to be heard in context, after the exhilarating overture. For a change, here’s Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (including some stars of the London scene) in 1989:
The 4th suite is astounding too:
Bill Evans would have loved those harmonies over a pedal (from 1.48/3.20, and again from 8.12):
And everyone gets in on the act—brass, woodwinds, strings, even the bassoon with its funky break (from 9.45). It beats me how anyone can possibly be expected to sit still through pieces like these.
* * *
I only noticed recently that the overture of the 4th suite is a version of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which Bach unleashed on his Leipzig congregation on Christmas Day 1725, in both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche (cf. the Christmas Oratorio).
the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvellous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music. When they are suddenly doubled, as here, by voices singing of laughter, instrumentalists have to re-think familiar lines and phrasing. Reciprocally, the singers need to adjust to the instrumental conventions of a French overture.
Unser Mund sei voll Lachens May our mouths be full of laughter
und unsre Zunge voll Rühmens. and our tongues full of praise. Denn der Herr hat Großes an uns getan. For the Lord has done great things for us.
And there’s another amazing solo for oboe d’amore (from 10.41).
The cantatas are an inexhaustible treasury.
* * *
I don’t think the Leipzig congregation would have heard the orchestral suite—it’s not even clear if Bach had written it by then. Nor did they have the luxury of hearing it on CD or online: they were lucky to hear any of his works more than once.
Still, they were blessed beyond measure. And just imagine being in Bach’s Big Band, playing dazzling new music every week…
Sure—their ears, teeth, bodies, sanitary arrangements, and whole life experiences were entirely different to ours when we perform or listen to Bach’s music (see here, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”). They hadn’t heard Duke Ellington or the Rite of Spring; and rather than having to take taxis to Heathrow for an early start or hurriedly checking into a hotel before trying to find a quick pre-rehearsal snack—they were there all the time, in a provincial town still recovering from traumatic warfare. All of which makes the constant aural bombardment from their kappellmeister–bandleader even more remarkable.
Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,
Bruno Nettl, The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions (3rd edition, 2015, augmenting his original 1983 version),
gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.
In Chapter 2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music” (cf. McAllester on the Navajo):
There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.
The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.
In Chapter 3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.
It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.
He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.
In Chapter 5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries. For more, see here.
* * *.
Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilisations(which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.
Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).
But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.
Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.
Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.
Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.
In his last programme,Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.
As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…
* * *.
Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are part of the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here—including advertisers’ debunking of the “universal language” myth.
While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private PassionsI mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:
East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.
Leon Buchholz (1904–97).
This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.
“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.
Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)
After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)
The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:
Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)
The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:
“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)
Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)
Otto von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:
“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)
Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.
As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,
I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that was family life.
As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)
While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:
Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.
In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)
Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).
The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who
launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)
Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.
“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”
He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.
* * *
Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation. For the book, see here.
I’ve just made a substantial update (click here) to one of the more theoretical posts in my long series (listed here) on the dreaded Heritage flapdoodle, citing not only Richard Kurin but also a new book on the Chinese system edited by Christina Maags and Marina Svensson.
After twice fleeing danger, by 1950 Hildi’s family had arrived in Detmold, in the British zone of occupation, where they found a more secure home as society slowly rebuilt.
Westphalia In both Russian and Allied zones after the war, many prisoners were still held in squalid conditions, often in former concentration camps. At Minden just north of Detmold there was a British-run displaced persons’ camp,  which by the time Hildi arrived had become a British army base.
For a whole year Hildi’s family lived in a garden hut belonging to a friend, which had previously served to accommodate two other refugee families. The authorities, who had to find adequate housing for all of them, threatened to nail the door shut to put an end to this.
But in spite of the cramped conditions, living in freedom, enjoying the garden with its bench and table under the opulent cherry tree, listening to the chirping birds hopping on the roof of the hut—all this seemed bliss. In the morning the postman would shout from the bottom of the garden: “Dornröschen, wach auf!” [Sleeping Beauty, awake!]. Inside the hut there were three bunk beds on top of each other with not much room to manoeuvre; my father slept on a narrow bench under the window, but occasionally there would even be a place for a visitor on a field bed, with just a head peering out from underneath the table! A special treat for Sunday was one of the delicious loaves baked with yeast and full of juicy raisins.
We had lovely Sunday walks in the Teutoburger forest, taking picnic lunches. On Christmas Eve 1950, as my parents prepared for a festive celebration, decorating a tiny Christmas tree in a flower pot, my brother and I walked down the snow-covered street looking into the lit-up windows. Some of the houses were occupied by British families. Since their decorations were rather different from most German ones, we wondered if perhaps these colourful garlands meant some kind of carnival?
As the schooling system was different from that in the GDR, Hildi had to jump two classes to start her high-school education. In most subjects this didn’t seem to be a problem, but although her mother had tried to prepare her, she didn’t find English so easy at first—especially as she had to tackle the second language French as well. It was music classes that gave Hildi most pleasure, above all her violin lessons with Erwin Kershbaumer.
The following spring they were moved into a flat on a newly-built housing estate, which felt something of a luxury. They now had to find some furniture. When a professor from the local music academy, who was leaving to take up the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, posted an advertisement offering a table, six chairs, and a small sideboard of solid oak, Hildi’s mother agreed to the sale at once.
With money still very tight, both parents gave private lessons, often walking long distances to nearby villages to coach children who had difficulties at school. Still, given their lucky escapes, Hildi remembers it as a happy time:
We were content and made do with what we could afford without feeling deprived, although people around us seemed to be better off, and the choice in the shops was plentiful and perhaps tempting.
[This is neither here nor there, but I note that similar comments have been made by people recalling life in the GDR! People’s modern sense of entitlement to instant gratification was still some way off.]
Only later in my life did I fully appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in order to provide us with a good education and comfortable life. As long as my brother and I were studying they never took a holiday, and even afterwards they were there for the whole family whenever financial help was needed.
In August 1951 they all travelled back to Thuringia to attend the wedding of Hildi’s sister. This would be the last time they were all able to go together: by 1952 the GDR had closed its borders. Until 1963, when Hildi’s father became a pensioner, only she and her mother were able to make occasional visits—his profession in education made him immediately suspect to the authorities, so he felt it would be unwise to go.
Heimat In 1951 Hildi’s father, with his pre-war experience as Rektor, was appointed headmaster of a school just further north in Minden. Whatever their wartime backgrounds, qualified employees were desperately needed in the new Germany.
During the 1952 summer holidays, Hildi and her mother went to join him. Hildi’s brother stayed at boarding school in Detmold to finish his last year before the final high-school examination. Hildi, now 15, attended the high school for girls in Minden. By this time she was also a promising violinist.
Their flat in Minden was again a newly-built one, and Hildi was delighted to have a little room to herself for the first time. Another excitement was to acquire a second-hand piano, on which she immediately tried out some tunes with a few fingers—having just joined a local choir, she liked attempting the Hallelujah chorus. Quite soon a piano teacher was found and she began learning properly.
In 1950 the GDR had signed documents officially recognizing the Oder–Neiße border as permanent boundary between Germany and Poland, a gesture which in 1970 was followed by the western part of Germany at the Treaty of Warsaw, signed by the West German chancellor Willy Brandt. For the older generation of refugees from the east, like Hildi’s parents and grandparents, this meant a conclusive end to their hopes for a return to their Heimat. At the time such refugees made up about a quarter of the population of the GDR—who had to keep quiet about their past (socialism looks forward, not back, as Hildi observes!). They were officially called “resettlers” (Umsiedler); “expulsion” (Vertreibung) was now to be known as “evacuation” (Aussiedlung).
Traditional Silesian costume.
While the complexities of Silesia’s ethnic history were being erased under the GDR and Polish regimes, Hildi´s parents, uprooted from their “Heimat” to Minden, and living with the realization that there was never to be a return, joined the local Silesian Association (Schlesier Verein),  where they found friends amongst people who shared a similar past, exchanging cherished memories, reciting poems in dialect and singing. Once a year there would be a festive occasion when everyone dressed up in traditional costume.  Such Heimat-Nostalgie was common—though their own nostalgia was not for Weißwasser but their ancestral home further east in Silesia, now part of Communist Poland. 
At the time Hildi was busy growing up, finding her own friends and activities. While her parents took comfort from celebrating the past, for her all this was slightly embarrassing and sentimental. Looking back now, she realizes her lack of enthusiasm for the family’s Silesian heritage must have disappointed her parents, but they never pushed her.
Studying and teaching Hildi was firmly rooted in the present, looking to the future and enjoying her fortnightly trips back to Detmold at weekends for violin lessons, staying with her teacher.
When the British left in 1955, the houses they had occupied in Minden became vacant, and the British cinema closed, but people hardly noticed any change.
After matriculating in March 1957 Hildi began her studies at the NWD Musikademie in Detmold, resolving to become a teacher of music and German. Her brother was just finishing his studies in art and German.
Hildi was full of enthusiasm, not just working hard but enjoying her time with friends. She received a monthly allowance from her parents, and if she ever overspent her friends would share their second helping at the Mensa. Still, by the end of each term they had generally lost weight, and were looking forward to proper meals at home. In April 1960 Hildi graduated in German, and in July she qualified as a music teacher.
For the summer of 1961 I was awarded a scholarship for the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. I was given two tickets, one for Parsifal and one for The flying dutchman. As my violin professor was in the orchestra he managed to sneak me into the covered pit for a performance of Tannhäuser, conducted by Sawallisch, where I perched amongst the musicians of the first violin and could briefly stand up when they were not playing. This gave me the occasional glimpse of my idol Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, Victoria de los Angeles as Elisabeth, and Wolfgang Windgassen in the title-role. The production of the Béjart Ballet in the Venusberg Scene and the first black Venus, the fabulous Grace Bumbry, caused quite a stir in the press. I was also able to get into the dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger. This was my introduction into the world of opera, in which I would be involved myself at a much later stage of my life.
My first employment was at a primary school in a small town a short bus ride from Detmold. This first year in my teaching career proved to be demanding, as I had to cover all the subjects and do a lot of reading—sometimes I was just a few pages ahead of my pupils! Every lesson had to be prepared in writing, available for the supervisor who appeared, unannounced, on a number of occasions.
I was waiting for a position teaching music and German to become available in Lemgo nearby, which was to become vacant in 1961. There I was the first and only music teacher of the school, and I now had a modest budget to buy the necessary equipment. I promptly bought six violins and music stands and started teaching my violin pupils in the afternoons. This was the humble beginning of a little school orchestra later on. I also formed a small choir to perform for special occasions. In the beginning these were always a bit stressful for me, as I felt responsible for each of my singers and could not be sure how they would react under pressure. In my teaching I was always very careful not to have any “favourite” pupils in my class. When we prepared a play for parents’ day I was just guiding the children. The children wrote the play, they decided who should get the individual parts, they made the costumes, and as there were a number not directly involved in the play, I made sure they had other duties and thereby did not feel left out.
In the early days of the GDR Hildi’s sister (now married with two small children) could visit occasionally—always without her husband. Hildi’s parents regularly sent food parcels; their finances still stretched, her mother resumed teaching.
It was a terrible shock when the Berlin Wall (“Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”) was built in August 1961. As it happened, just beforehand Hildi’s sister managed to visit her family in Minden, with her little boy and a daughter still not one year old. Of course they wanted her to stay—but despite the GDR’s escalating problems, they understood her decision to return again to her husband and home.
From now on, visits from East to West were only granted under exceptional circumstances. It became increasingly difficult for Hildi’s family to visit her sister too: after filling in elaborate forms, they faced uncomfortable checks at the border, with guards watching on both sides of the train, Kalashnikovs poised. Visitors were invited to attend the political “welcome meetings” to extol the praises of the GDR; though not compulsory, any absence would have been noted down. Hildi’s mother had returned from a previous visit seething and debilitated; later, afraid that her mother would be unable to sit through the propaganda without exploding, Hildi’s sister discouraged her from going.
1963–66: Zurich and the world In 1963 Hildi’s life took yet another new course.By now the violin was playing an increasingly important role in her life. She pursued her studies further by continuing her lessons with Prof. Otto Schad at the Akademie in Detmold, and she enjoyed the chamber-music tuition with Prof. Günther Weißenhorn. She received her violin-teaching diploma at Münster in May 1962, and began getting occasional engagements for concerts.
Inheriting an attraction to Switzerland from her mother, she now boarded her first aeroplane (alone and terrified) to audition for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. Wanting to keep it a secret, she took a flight from Hanover directly after school finished on a Saturday. After the audition on Sunday she took the sleeper back home, and went straight back to work at her school. The following week she received a letter offering her the Zurich job. She was overjoyed, but now she had to break the news to her parents, and (right in the middle of term) to the headmaster of the school where she was teaching. But of course they were pleased for her, even if they assumed she would come back one day.
However, saying farewell to my class was more difficult and caused quite a few tears from my pupils. I was deeply touched by their affection. They had prepared a moving little ceremony for me, presenting a booklet in which they had recorded in writing, accompanied by some photos, events in the course of our time together. At the end each of the girls gave me a beautiful pink rose before they waved me off and ran after the bus which finally parted us. When they were all out of sight and I sat holding my huge bunch of thirty-six roses, I too felt sad, realizing how much I had enjoyed my teaching. Little did I know then that much much later on I would indeed return to this profession when coaching singers in the performance of German repertoire.
Although the pay was low and Swiss prices high, these three years with the orchestra were a happy time for Hildi, unimaginable after the hardships of her early years of refugee displacement.
I loved the playing, and I am still grateful that I had the privilege of rehearsing with many world-famous soloists in the rather small room in the villa of the founder and conductor Edmund de Stoutz. In this intimate environment we experienced these wonderful musicians in a way that is hardly possible on the big stage—they were so close, this was chamber music at its very best! There would be Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters Hepzhibah and Yalta, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, André Gertler, Erica Morini, Maurice Gendron, Pierre Fournier, Gaspar Cassadó and many others—forever treasured encounters!
I bought a really good violin and studied with Ulrich Lehmann in Bern. Apart from concerts in Switzerland, I loved going on tour to places like Italy and the USA. Touring was a great way of visiting places I might otherwise never have seen.
My first trip to Venice was unforgettable. The orchestra had a tradition that every newcomer would be taken blindfolded to the middle of Piazza San Marco—as the scarf was removed, imagine the breathtaking impact of finding myself surrounded by all the stunning architectural beauty!
Also unforgettable was my first tour of the USA, with forty-nine concerts, travelling for two months by Greyhound bus through the eastern states! We did not get any subsistence (meals were pre-ordered for the whole group), and we shared rooms—but I loved it. However a shocking experience for us all was to be confronted with the rigid segregation of blacks in the southern states. Seeing signs: “No blacks admitted!” in many public places gave us a guilty and very uncomfortable feeling. One saw blacks working in the kitchen, but none inside the restaurant. Only when we played in Atlanta did we notice black people in the audience.
In November 1963 news of the assassination of JFK spread like wildfire during the interval of our concert in the Tonhalle in Zurich. We were stunned—only a few months earlier he had been the focus of international news when he made his famous speech in Berlin. As soon as the concert ended we rushed off to the Bahnhofsplatz to join the throng of people staring in shock and disbelief at the news bulletin projected on a screen high up on a building. On our US tour the following April we visited Kennedy’s grave and the Eternal Flame at the Arlington Cemetery.
I was very conscious of the fact that I was privileged to experience this freedom while my sister’s family in the East was living under severe travel restrictions. To let them take part in my excursions, at least visually, I sent them as many picture postcards as I could, which they collected and have kept to this day.
Meanwhile in Germany, Christmas 1963 marked a temporary pause in the complete segregation of East and West Berlin: West Berliners could now get a 24-hour visa to visit relatives in the East. Of course it was a one-way deal, and the concession only lasted for eighteen days, but still it gave a glimmer of hope to all those families had been forced to live apart. As a sign of solidarity Hildi’s family always put a candle on the window-sill on Christmas Eve.
1966–68: from Hanover to London Much as Hildi loved working with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, after three years she began to feel it was time for a change. Wanting to experience the big romantic sound of a symphony orchestra, in late summer 1966 she applied for positions in various German orchestras. Meanwhile in Zurich she did some freelancing with the Radio Orchestra, where she met her future husband, viola player Andrew Williams, who had just finished his studies with Max Rostal in Bern.
While Hildi waited to find out which direction her life would take, she returned to Germany, taking further lessons with her teacher Otto Schad in Detmold. In January 1967 she started work with the Niedersächsisches Symphonieorchester in Hanover—experience that stood her in good stead for her later career.
In 1968 Hildi married Andrew and they came to live in London—this time a willing migration for her. Her parents were happy to come and see her there, and they had a wonderful holiday in Scotland while she was performing there with Scottish Opera.
With her basic English learned at school in Germany, she often sank into bed exhausted from trying to communicate. Her ear now attuned to the nuances of German and English, she appreciates my bemusement at some of the mouthfuls cited here, but observes:
The English ear can be quite overwhelmed by all the composite nouns of German, like Brückenbauingeneuranwärter, “engineer apprentice for building bridges”! Of course, it sounds absurd out of context; but German poetry also has some exquisite creations that touch me every time I hear them, such as Richard Strauss’s Morgen:
… inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden (sun-breathing) zu dem Strand, dem weiten wogenblauen (wave-blue).
Sometimes I would try and invent such words in English, only to be told, “You can’t say that—it’s not in the dictionary!”
Hildi continued her studies of the violin with Manny Hurwitz, but having to make connections all over again, freelancing in London was hard for her at first. For the first year, as a German citizen Hildi was unable to join the Musicians’ Union. So after marrying she applied for British citizenship—seemingly a sensible step, since she had made London her home. She didn’t realize at the time that German didn’t accept dual nationality, which later caused her considerable problems. In Hildi’s poetically succinct evocation,
Sitting in an office among the clatter of typewriters, swearing allegiance to the Queen, I lost the nationality of my birth.
As to freelancing, the immediate problem was that Hildi’s musical training on the continent was very different. Since most continental orchestras have plenty of rehearsal time to get familiar with a work, she found herself ill-equipped with the sight-reading skills of British musicians, who might not even know what was on the programme before they showed up for the one rehearsal on the day of the concert. Further, the freelance scene depended largely on introductions and recommendations. Lacking such connections, she was a foreigner who hadn’t studied in Britain.
My first engagements were mainly out-of-town dates. I remember playing in stunning but freezing cathedrals, welcoming the breaks when I could cup my cold hands around a warming mug of tea served with home-baked goodies provided by dedicated elderly ladies. Sometimes I ventured out with my new friends in search of some affordable sustenance. Money was always tight. Andrew had bought a new viola, so from each payslip a deduction was made to pay for it in instalments. We were also saving up to buy a home. Between us we managed on £10 a week for housekeeping. Sometimes my parents would help out, but in those days the exchange rate was low—11 Deutschmarks to the pound!
We can’t erase memories of the “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” posters of the day (Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of blood” speech in 1968), but there was also an enduring undercurrent of anti-German sentiment, both in the media and in society. Hildi was shocked when a well-meaning colleague took her aside and said, “Don’t tell anyone you’re German! Pretend you’re Swiss.” And in a fatuous tradition marginalized until the sinister rise of “the UKIPs”, even her new neighbours told her, “Go back to your Cologne, or wherever you come from”—their relationship remained frosty throughout her first decade in London. Since living in Swizerland had felt no different from being in Germany, such remarks felt hurtful. After the caricatures of British comedy, latterly—with Germany’s image improving constantly (I suspect the Apollonian Joachim Löw‘s rebranding of the national football team may be an element)—the legacy of such racism now resides mainly in odious tabloid headlines.
Of course, it is quite understandable that having endured such hardships as a result of standing against Hitler, many British people would feel long-lasting animosity—but as time went by, the personal consequences were unsettling. Since Hildi was still not two years old at the outbreak of the war, she gradually came to feel that she shouldn’t have to go on bearing the taint of being German; she hoped to be taken as an individual, to be judged by how she conducted herself and related to people.
Indeed, this was soon the case in the musical world where Hildi now found herself. As time went on she began to find work with leading chamber groups like the English Chamber Orchestra and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Orchestra; other formative experiences were playing for Kent Opera, the London Classical Players, and the Academy of Ancient Music. She sometimes came across Hugh Maguire, who was soon to teach me
This was the swinging sixties—Beatles, Stones, Hendrix… Even the more staid classical music scene was still seasoned by dalliances with pop—the session scene was burgeoning, with Hildi’s colleagues playing in the string quartet accompanying Yesterday and She’s leaving home.
In 1969 Hildi was also playing in the run of the musical Anne of Green Gables, doubling on violin and viola. As the music became grindingly familiar, some players in the pit replaced the score on their stand with a magazine; during the dialogues Hildi managed to read through the whole of War and peace and Anna Karenina. (Blair Tindall’s fine book on the New York freelancing scene also encompasses life in the pit.)
Meanwhile I was a teenager in suburban London, playing violin and surreptitiously listening to the Beatles on my little transistor radio.
While refugees played a major role in British cultural life, a painful blanket of silence reigned. There was no sharing of reflections. Of course, those orchestras also contained a substantial quorum of Jewish refugee musicians, who had endured far worse sufferings than Hildi’s family; later their children were also among our colleagues.
So throughout the post-war period, in all walks of life (service, industry, the arts, including music), refugees were ubiquitous yet unacknowledged. Survivors of the war, both victors and vanquished, were relieved to tend their begonias, go shopping, and bring up their families without raking up the past.
Still, within Germany, films like Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Die Brücke (1959) were hotly discussed, especially among the younger generation. Among myriad discussions, conflicting moods among Germans in the early 1960s are movingly evoked by Gitta Sereny. 
Life in the GDR Meanwhile, the life of Hildi’s sister was taking a very different course.  She and her husband were teachers. Their lives under the GDR remained private; this isn’t the place to try and fill in the gaps, so I can only imagine her story through the prism of major events.
After the trials that immediately followed the war, West Germany as yet largely preferred to bury the ghosts of the recent past. In the GDR, despite some more perfunctory show-trials, there was still less soul-searching: the topic of its citizens’ relationship with Nazism was even more verboten.
My mother and I visited my sister at least once a year, mainly during the summer holidays. In the early years one would be confronted with red banners everywhere as soon as one reached the border—self-congratulatory slogans praising the achievements of the State, the fulfilment of the Five-Year Plan, and exhortations to strive hard for the socialist ideal. Photos of individual workers were displayed on a board in front of the factory, with captions giving their names and accomplishments. As time went on, fewer of these displays were evident.
In June 1953 there was widespread unrest. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 added to people’s moral dilemmas. Hearing of these upheavals on the radio, Hildi was disturbed by the crushing of popular dissent while worrying for her sister. By 1968 the GDR authorities decided to destroy the ancient Paulinerkirche in Leipzig, where Bach had directed services. On 4th April the university choir performed the Matthew Passion there. But the church’s heavy student traffic was causing suspicion, and on 30th May, “the darkest day in the history of the city”, it was dynamited “to make way for a redevelopment of the university”; many of the protestors against the blasting operation were to spend years in prison. Similar protests accompanied the demolition of the Garrison Church in Potsdam.
Destruction of the Paulinerkirche, 4th April 1968.
At this very moment, the Prague spring and its repression by Soviet tanks were also causing difficult moral decisions in the GDR.
By the 1960s, along with the nationalizing of industrial and trade sectors, most land had been expropriated into collective farms called Landwirtschaftliche Produktiongenossenschaften, mercifully known as LPG. Dispossessed farmers would often find themselves laboring on their own land. A rigid work-to-rule atttitude came to prevail. Schools were often recruited at harvest time to help out “in solidarity with the workers to further the socialist ideal”. A friend told Hildi how on one such mission they had to gather potatoes after the plough had dug them up. By 5pm there was only one row left to gather, and the children were perfectly prepared to finish the job—but the order came to down tools, so they had to return the next day.
A distinct lack of individual commitment was evident. Reminding me of China, Hildi notes how the lack of a product in a shop would be acknowledged by a bored shrug from the assistant. Shopping was a lottery. Whenever word got round that an unusual item was in stock, it would sell out fast—even if it was of no particular use at the time, people snapped it up “just in case”.
For those who could afford to pay a bit more, there were Exquisit shops with higher-priced clothing and shoes, and Delikat shops for more “luxury” foodstuffs—mostly made in the GDR, but not generally available. In December 1962 Intershops were introduced, state-run stores stocked with goods from West Germany and elsewhere. Mainly intended for foreign tourists, they only accepted hard currency, at first mainly West German marks. For Hildi and her mother it was a welcome opportunity to purchase items that couldn’t easily be posted—including Nutella, which remains her sister’s favourite spread to this day.
Still, just as in China, it’s unsatisfactory to describe people’s lives solely in terms of deprivation, repression, or national crises, confrontation, and compromise; alongside “Stasiland” paranoia, one wants to reflect the normality of life under a paternalistic welfare state. Housing, and basic provisions like bread, potatoes, and milk, were cheap.
While the more adventurous GDR youth had long managed to gain clandestine access to popular culture from the West, by the late sixties the leadership was reluctantly allowing society to open up, and alternative underground scenes began to thrive—under close scrutiny. Nina Hagen (b.1955), who continued the anti-establishment stance of her mother and stepfather, eventually left for the West in 1976.
When their father lay dying in 1981, Hildi’s sister, restricted to a single visit, could come only for the funeral.
The world of early music Back in London, Hildi was shocked whenever there were reports of GDR citizens being shot trying to escape. In her freelance work, Hildi had begun working for John Eliot Gardiner in his Monteverdi Orchestra from 1968. She was in the vanguard of his pivotal move to early instruments in 1977, going on to play in his new English Baroque Soloists—as she still does today. In a Guardian report on the extraordinary 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage that was just unfolding, we find:
Hildburg Williams, a German violinist, was among those who made the leap with Gardiner in 1977. Gardiner had realised, after a particular performance of Rameau that year, that he simply couldn’t get the colour he wanted from modern instruments. So for a short time the orchestra used baroque bows on modern instruments. “We all struggled a bit,” she says, “and John Eliot soon realised that this halfway approach was unsatisfactory.” So, the following year, Gardiner switched to period instruments. Several regular players refused to follow him, and the split effectively led to the creation of the English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner’s instrumentalists ever since. Williams, though, remembers it as the most exciting time of her career: “The instruments and bows dictated a complete rethink of playing technique. It became possible to achieve absolute clarity in texture, to articulate, to speak with the instrument.”
As I suggested, Richard Taruskin thus seems to do something of a disservice to the genuine explorations of the time—as does Norman Lebrecht, in a soundbite that bears no scrutiny at all:
The early music movement has won an elective majority in the market place. The cult has claimed the centreground, homeopathy has defeated the BMA.
After her divorce in 1974, Hildi fended for herself, developing impressive DIY skills. As she gained in confidence she gradually came to feel less alien. In Paris she met the diplomat, Francophile, musician, and translator John Sidgwick, who became a soulmate, joining her in London when he retired from the British Embassy in 1984. They married in 1999.
With her vivacious personality and utter integrity, Hildi has always been a popular musician. In 1985 we did Israel in Egypt with John Eliot at the Handel Festival in Halle, and in 1987 we performed the Matthew Passion in East Berlin. For me, these trips (one on the eve of my first six-month stay in China in 1986, the other just after my second) made a niche variation on our tours to Spain, Japan, or wherever; it didn’t occur to me how deeply personal they were for Hildi. But it was wonderful for her to see her sister and family again.
A slight easing of travel restrictions for GDR citizens had taken place in 1982. More usefully, a GDR regulation that people over 60 could visit relatives in the West enabled Hildi’s sister to join their mother for a holiday in London in 1988—though her children were kept behind. Still no-one had any inkling of the imminent convulsion.
But by the autumn of 1989, following Gorbachev’s dramatic rolling back of restrictions—and, in Beijing, the abortive Tiananmen protests of the summer—unrest was suddenly rife throughout Eastern Europe. Hildi’s niece was working in Leipzig for the celebrated music publishers Peters—which we had all raided for scores on our 1985 and 1987 visits (I heard a story about Karajan’s visit to the shop: casting an eye over the stock, he simply declared, “I’ll take the lot.”).
By September Hildi’s sister was anxious whenever her daughter joined the growing crowds of demonstrators setting off every Monday in peaceful protest marches from the Nikolaikirche, where Bach had directed his John Passion. The conductor Kurt Masur joined the demonstrations, going on to play a leading role. As the Wall fell on the 9th November—almost as suddenly as it had been built in 1961—Hildi watched the TV broadcasts in London with excitement.
Since 1989 The fall of the Wall was momentous, allowing long-separated families to be reunited. It’s easy to celebrate “freedom”, but we should at least hint at the complexity of people’s feelings in the East. People now “just wanted a life”, as Hildi observes. Hildi’s sister and her husband didn’t want to enquire about their Stasi files—and nor does Hildi, who must have one too.
But as throughout East Europe and Russia, people now had to adapt to harsh and bewildering new economic realities. In China too, the dismantling of the commune system from the late 70s had led to great uncertainty; Li Manshan’s Daoist band were now thriving once again, though it was still to be over a decade before life became significantly more bearable.
After unification Hildi’s niece lost her job at Peters. Their precious stock was destroyed when its partner in Frankfurt decided it should be pulped: they couldn’t even sell it off cheaply.
The building of a modern church on the site of the Paulinerkirche, dynamited in 1968, was now on the agenda, and in 2009 the first service was held in the imaginative new buildings. Leipzig is now full of thoughtful commemorations of its troubled GDR past.
In 2000 Hildi and I were part of the pool of musicians taking part in weekly concerts throughout the year for John Eliot Gardiner’s extraordinary Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While I was naively relishing the music, Hildi’s enjoyment would have been mixed with her personal history. She reflects with a certain irony how the poverty of the GDR had enabled towns there to preserve dilapidated old architecture that was being dismantled with abandon in West Germany (although it has been observed that in the East they compensated by ravaging the environment).
By 1994 Hildi’s life was taking a new course, as she found herself in demand as a German language coach for singers. She has gone on to work mainly at Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Academy of Music. She dearly loves this work, combining her early teaching experience (in the family tradition) with her later career as orchestral musician—even if she sometimes has to bring into play the skills of diplomacy that she has honed in playing for conductors.
Hildi (right), with Bach and John Eliot, Leipzig 2015.
As Hildi tells me the story of the 2015 return to Leipzig of the famous 1748 painting of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, she clearly takes it to heart. The portrait had itself been on a lengthy odyssey (see also here)—from Leipzig to Berlin, Hamburg, Breslau (Wroclaw), London, Fontmell Magna, Princeton. Its final return to Leipzig in 2015 was a kind of homecoming for Hildi too. Bach’s generation, of course, also had to live in the shadow of the devastating trauma of the Thirty Years’ War.
Walter Jenke, whose Jewish family had bought the portrait in a curiosity shop in Breslau in the early 19th century, fled Germany for England in 1936. Remarkably, to protect it from air raids, he kept it at the Dorset country home of his friends the Gardiners; so John Eliot grew up with it, as he describes in his wonderful book on Bach.
But after the war, Jenke had to sell the portrait at auction in 1951, when it was bought by the American philanthropist William Scheide. It then hung in his living room for over sixty years. When he died, aged 100, in 2014, he bequeathed it to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, where it now welcomes visitors. It was fitting that Hildi took part in the Leipzig ceremony in 2015 with John Eliot and assembled luminaries.
Meanwhile she continued playing violin right until Covid—here she is in November 2022 at a celebration in honour of her long career with the English Baroque Soloists:
Photo: Sarah Bealby-Wright.
* * *
Before making her home in London, Hildi lived under the Reich, the American Military Government, the Soviets, the GDR, the British zone of occupied Germany, and the Federal Republic.
Just recently, “hopping mad over Brexit”, Hildi—with great difficulty—has managed to reclaim her German nationality alongside her British passport.
Meanwhile in Germany, a vast and laudable reckoning has taken place for both the Nazi and GDR periods. For all the valiant attempts there to reckon for the past, the vast majority preferred to forget; but all our diverse societies continue to bear the scars of trauma. Indeed, such scars form an essential part of my fieldwork on ritual groups in rural China—and while I have documented the story of Li Manshan’s family with him in a certain detail, writing this account with Hildi reminds me that we always need to evoke Chinese lives more profoundly.
Like many, growing up absorbed with everyday problems amidst social reconstruction, Hildi later came to reflect, learning more and finding her own way of digesting and coming to terms with her country’s history. The pain of the mid-20th century is unimaginable to our pampered later generations; yet it needs to be remembered. Merely to survive was some kind of blessing—as evoked in Chinese films; and aware of her sister’s constrained situation, Hildi was moved by German films like The lives of others.
So the point is not that Hildi’s story is exceptional. Rather, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all surrounded by such memories—in an office, on the bus next to us, or me naively sharing a desk with Hildi in the violin section of an orchestra. And with refugees—and their contributions—ever more common, we urgently need to take them to heart. So this whole story is not just about Hildi’s early life, but about our whole relationship with our past, present, and future—in Germany, Britain, and worldwide.
 MacDonogh, p.413. Hildi notes that the connection of Minden with the House of Hanover and the British crown has made it a popular theme of British history books.  For such groups, also known as “clubs for the Silesian homeland” (Schlesischer Heimat Bund), see e.g. Andrew Demshuk, The lost German East: forced migration and the politics of memory, 1945–1970 (Cambridge UP, 2012); Gregor Feindt, “From ‘flight and expulsion’ to migration: contextualizing German victims of forced migration”. For the ongoing conflicts over Upper Silesia, see e.g. this recent article. For narratives from Germans in Silesia, see also Johannes Kaps ed., The tragedy of Silesia 1945–46. Stephan Feuchtwang (a refugee from Berlin, later to become a masterly anthropologist of China), reflects on “the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan” with pertinent comments on Heimat, in After the event, p.157, 172, 196–8, 201–4.  While kitsch traditionalist sentimentality was less politically manipulated in the West than behind the Iron Curtain, a related feeling of manipulation and alienation is brilliantly dissected in Milan Kundera’s The joke.  Echoes of an uncomfortable past have persisted. Another native of Weißwasser, Werner Schubert (85 in 2010) had served in the Wehrmacht, and went on to become a teacher. After retiring, he learned that the notorious SS commander Rudolf Lange, responsible for the mass murder of Jews in Latvia, came from his hometown. Schubert then set about exposing Lange’s biography, naming other local Nazi criminals. The German trauma, pp.59–86.  In my post on the GDR I listed a few basic sources, not least Maxim Leo’s Red Love, a detailed and moving account of three generations in one family; and (for lives of those born under the regime) Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR. For subversive behaviour, clothing, jokes, and so on, see also Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain, ch.17. For the whole period in China, see here.
Hildburg Williams is a long-serving and popular violinist in London chamber and early-music orchestras, who has latterly added a major string to her bow  by becoming a distinguished German-language coach for singers in opera, lieder, and oratorio repertoires.
I’ve known Hildi since 1982, when we were playing a Handel opera in Lyon with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. Though I worked with her on and off for the next eighteen years (mostly in EBS), somehow we never managed to have a proper chat. As is the way with orchestral life, we moved in different circles, different groups going off in search of restaurants, and she was rarely to be seen in the bars that my mates frequented after gigs.
So I knew nothing of Hildi’s early years, fleeing twice from war and trauma; or the tale of her sister, who stayed behind in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Their stories are just a drop in the ocean of the continent-wide migrations in the period immediately following World War Two, not to mention more recent ones from farther afield—many such accounts have been published. But only very recently have I realized how important it is to tell the stories of such “migrants”; and this also bears on the post-traumatic amnesia that took hold not only on both sides of the German divide, but throughout Europe (including the UK)—and indeed China. All these lives are precious. 
After a couple of long sessions together, and some background reading, I produced a preliminary draft. Meanwhile, as Hildi was stimulated to reflect further on her life, more and more memories came to the surface, prompting her to give a more comprehensive account of her life—for her own sake, not merely at my behest. This, the first of two instalments, is my own adaptation of her story.
Chatting belatedly with Hildi has made an intriguing contrast with my main experience of fieldwork since 1986—making notes while hanging out with chain-smoking Chinese peasants between ritual segments at funerals. But the principle is rather similar: to document and empathize with people’s experiences through troubled times. Still, whereas in China my clear outsider-status somehow makes such talks quite smooth (though note my comments on “stranger value”), in this case, being somewhat closer I sometimes feel more impertinent. So it reminds me that we foreign fieldworkers intrude too blithely into the personal lives of our subjects—a privilege that is hardly earned.
Thankyou, Hildi—and a belated happy 80th birthday! Having boldly offered Stephan Feuchtwang some Bach for his own 80th, this tribute will at least be less aurally challenging.
Early years: Silesia Hildburg was born in November 1937, the youngest of three siblings, in the town of Weißwasser in the Sorbian enclave of Upper Lausitz, east of Dresden—right by what is now the Polish border. The family ancestry can be traced back to Lower Silesia—her grandparents and parents originally lived in Bunzlau (now Bolesławiec, in Poland).
Both of Hildi’s elder siblings were born there, but by the time she was born the family had moved west to Weißwasser, where her father had been appointed as Rektor, school headmaster.
Hildi’s mother was also a teacher, but had to resign when she got married, as was the ruling in those days. However, when the war broke out she was reinstated. A young woman lived with the family, looking after the children.
Germans had made up the great majority in Silesia for many centuries. Weißwasser was just west of the Oder–Neiße line, which was to remain German even after 1945.
Through the 1930s the Jewish populations of such communities were ever more vulnerable. When Hildi was barely a year old, anti-semitic violence escalated with Kristallnacht; near Weißwasser, the Jewish population of Görlitz was among those targeted. In October 1939 a camp just south of Görlitz, originally for Hitler Youth, was modified into a PoW camp and began to receive inmates. Indeed, it was at this very camp that Messiaen, captured at Verdun in 1940, was interned—soon to compose and perform his amazing Quatuor pour la fin du temps there, as if untouched by human society.
By 1939 Hildi’s father was in his forties; in August, as the war started, he was called up by the Wehrmacht, going on to serve in the army administration in Poland, Russia, and France. Hildi reflects:
I can only remember one short visit when he was on leave. Apart from this, I only knew him from photographs and his letters home, which would often include little paragraphs to us children, with some drawings. 
But after the war he hardly talked about his experiences, so Hildi knows very little of this period in his life.
When she began attending school in 1943, her mother was her first teacher there (“a fact she enjoyed more than I”)—Hildi remembers addressing her in the third person like all the other pupils in class, anxious to fit in and not be treated differently from her classmates.
Up to the summer of 1943 the family spent the holidays at Hildi’s grandparents’ home in a little village just outside Bunzlau—they owned the former village school, with its large garden and a wooded area known as The Park. For the children it was an idyllic setting.
First flight As we chat over coffee and cake in Hildi’s gemütlich little house in north London, I struggle to imagine the utter devastation of Germany by that time, evoking the most appalling images we have seen from Syria in recent years—and refugees then were just as vulnerable as Syrians today, desperately trying to survive by fleeing. Keith Lowe tellingly sums up the devastation of post-war Europe: 
Imagine a world without institutions. It is a world where border between countries seem to have been dissolved, leaving a single, endless landscape over which people travel in search for communities that no longer exist. There are no governments any more, on either a national scale or even a local one. There are no schools or universities, no libraries or archives, no access to any information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theatre, and certainly no television. The radio occasionally works, but the signal is distant, and almost always in a foreign language. No one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth.
There are no banks, but that is no great hardship since money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. The great factories and businesses that used to exist have all been destroyed or dismantled, as have most of the other buildings. There are no tools, save what can be dug out of the rubble. There is no food.
Law and order are virtually non-existent, because there is no police force and no judiciary. In some areas there no longer seems to be any clear sense or what is right and what is wrong. People help themselves to whatever they want without regard to ownership—indeed, the sense of ownership itself has largely disappeared. Goods belong only to those who are strong enough to hold onto them, and those who are willing to guard them with their lives. Men with weapons roam the streets, taking what they want and threatening anyone who gets in their way. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection. There is no shame. There is no morality. There is only survival.
For modern generations it is difficult to imagine such a world existing outside the imaginations of Hollywood script-writers. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of people alive today who experienced exactly these conditions—not in far-flung corners of the globe, but at the heart of what has for many decades been considered one of the most stable and developed regions on earth.
By 1945, Silesia was ever more lawless. As German defeat was imminent, and with zones of occupation constantly shifting, the American and British inmates of the Görlitz PoW camp were marched westward in advance of the Soviet offensive.
On 17th January 1945 what was left of Warsaw was “liberated”; Krakow and Lodz soon followed. Budapest fell to the Soviet forces on 13th February; and as they were closing in on Berlin, Dresden was obliterated by RAF bombs on 13th–15th February.
There was still desperate fighting (see also here) around the Silesian region in April. The 1st Ukrainian Front captured Forst on the 18th. As Hildi recalls:
I remember our last days in Weißwasser vividly—the food shortages, the frequent air raids, the sound of fighting, the endless treks of refugees fleeing westward passing along our street. Every night my mother would take a family in to give them food and a bed before they continued their journey the next morning. The raids intensified daily and on the 13th February the light from the burning Dresden was clearly visible. As the fighting drew nearer, we could hear the bombardments coming from Forst just north.
During these anxious days there was a young woman briefly lodging in the flat who was betrothed to a German lieutenant. He told her she should urge Hildi’s mother to leave. The last military train going west was due on the 19th February from Hoyerswerda, 7 kilometres from Weißwasser. So along with a throng of desperate people (mainly women, children, and the elderly, since most men were either dead or away fighting), they now fled their home. Hildi, then seven, vividly remembers the chaos, with refugees panicking as they fled in all directions.
The most essential items were hastily packed, and I still remember gratefully that I was allowed to take both my beloved dolls. The lieutenant sent his orderly with an open lorry for us to catch the train—which turned out to be already overcrowded with hardly any room. My sister was precariously perched on top of several suitcases, resting her feet on the handle of a pram.
The train eventually left the next morning, but even on the night before there was an air-raid. Some people panicked and fled, but luckily the train was not hit. The journey was agonizingly slow, with the train frequently grinding to a halt. At some stations it was possible to get some soup and a hot drink, but these were dangerous moments, as nobody knew how long these stops would last and people were afraid the train might set off without them.
Planning to get to the small town of Kahla, near Jena in Thuringia, to stay with the family of an uncle, Hildi’s family finally climbed out of the military train in Zwickau, embarking on several complicated train changes. Again the carriages were packed with huge numbers of other refugees and luggage, so sometimes people could only get off the train by clambering out of a window. It was snowing and the ground was covered with dirty slush.
Thuringia, 1945: brief US occupation When after three days they at last reached their destination, Hildi’s aunt gave them the use of one room in her flat, with the children sleeping in a little attic room. But even here they found that far from being safe, escalating air raids meant spending anxious hours in the cellar huddled together with the other occupants of the house.
Communication was sporadic: there were disruptions everywhere, with large sections of the railway lines destroyed (at the end of the bombardment only 650 of 8,000 miles of track were operating), and so any letters that made it through were long delayed. With millions on the move, tracing the whereabouts of family and friends proved arduous.
The family did at least have a little radio, and Hildi was delighted when a broadcast of a classical concert came on. Meanwhile, news broadcasts were less instructive than rumours of the allied troops’ advance, which created great anxiety.
American forces began occupying the province of Thuringia from 1st April; Patton’s forces entered Buchenwald on the 11th (for my post on Ravensbrück, see here).
Dresden in ruins.
On 20th April the Russians reached Berlin. As agreed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin as early as 1944, and confirmed at the Yalta conference in February 1945, the defeated Germany (including Berlin) was to be divided into four zones of Allied occupation. Thuringia was to belong to the Soviet zone, but the Americans arrived there first before the fighting ended. Hildi’s family had no inkling of all this until later.
In Kahla, the situation deteriorated dramatically early in April, just after Easter, with frequent air raids. In a last-ditch effort, the German forces blew up the bridge over the river Saale. Warplanes were flying low over the town, with bombs exploding alarmingly close.
We seemed to spend most of our time in the cellar, anxiously listening and waiting for the all-clear signal, and then, climbing upstairs again, being thankful that, for now at least, we had been spared.
Then the day came when, with a roar of heavy motorcars and tanks, the Americans announced their arrival. Cautiously peeping through the windows, we saw the whole street full of cars and jeeps, which were constantly washed and polished.
The GIs went from house to house to find accommodation for their people. Nearly all the houses in our street had to be evacuated, but ours was spared. When the GIs came to investigate it was lunchtime, and our large family was sitting around the kitchen table—my mother, my aunt, my grandparents (who had recently arrived from Silesia by trek), and we children. When one man in uniform asked: “How many children?”, my mother answered in English “Five”, whereupon they left.
We mainly stayed indoors—there was a curfew in place, and at first only two hours were allowed daily for people to try and get provisions from shops, where there were long queues. On 2nd May ration cards were introduced, and the electricity supply seemed to be becoming more stable, but sadly, one day our radio was confiscated. From now on we could only get snippets of news while queueing for food. News of Hitler’s suicide on 1st May, and the signing of the act of surrender on the 7th, was anxiously passed around. We children picked up the atmosphere of doom and desolation.
Hildi recalls the GIs:
It was the first time in my life I saw a black person. I had heard that these were the people who were kind to children and were known to give them sweets and chocolate. So one day I plucked up my courage and gingerly approached one of them, uttering my first English words—“Have you chocolate?” I had never tasted chocolate—whenever I asked about it I would always get the answer: “When the war will be over”, to which I would wearily reply: “This is always your excuse!” Now the war really was over, this seemed to be the moment—but the soldier, somewhat bewildered, just shook his head.
At first the officials of the American Military Government were under strict orders to treat the defeated population with stern discipline. Rations began to shrink, often to under 1,000 calories per day. My mother lost so much weight that one day she was blown over by a gust of wind, spilling the precious thin broth she had just acquired from the butcher after queueing for ages. The black market flourished, but as refugees neither my mother nor my grandparents had anything of value to offer. Food shortage was a constant problem, but somehow they managed to put something on the table.
Under Soviet occupation, 1945–49 However, Thuringia was only to be very briefly within the US zone; in a deal unbeknown to locals, as the Allies had agreed with the Soviets for part of Berlin, the American troops began withdrawing on 1st July, ceding it to the Soviet forces—precisely those that Hildi’s family had fled from the east to evade.
Then on 2nd July, without forewarning—almost overnight—the scene changed. The US jeeps disappeared, followed by an eerie, foreboding silence; and finally, as we all peeked anxiously through a small gap under the closed jalousie, Russian pony-driven carts arrived. What a change from the smart vehicles of the Americans! What a shock! What would become of us now?
Russian troops passing GIs into Weimar, 4th July 1945.
For the time being, having only just escaped the east with such difficulty, Hildi’s family stayed put. They were now to live under the Russian regime until 1948, when the administration began to transfer to what in 1949 became the GDR.
Still, Hildi’s family had done well to flee early from the east. Over three million people had fled west before the organized expulsions began, mainly driven by fear of the advancing Soviet Army; and another three million Germans were expelled in 1946 and 1947. For many, the formal end of the war was not an end to their suffering but a beginning; vast numbers died in the process.
As a post on armaments in the Kahla region comments,
The population’s fear of retaliation at the hands of the incoming Red Army resulted in a gigantic wave of German refugees. […] All through May, the American military witnessed the panicked streams of refugees heading west. In addition, there were masses of people from further east fleeing before the advancing Soviet troops.
Hildi reflects on my impertinent queries asking if they now considered taking flight from the Russians once again in July 1945:
In July 1945 the whole of Germany was in total chaos. Everyone was solely occupied with survival—there was no time for reflection, still less for coming to terms with the past. While travel was still possible, not only were journeys arduous and complicated, with the rail network still in disarray, but where should we go?
The housing situation was dire. Apart from the millions of refugees from the East, there were all the survivors of the bombings, now homeless, who had to find a roof over their heads as most cities lay in ruins. One couldn’t just turn up anywhere—one had to know someone who could guarantee at least some sort of accommodation. My mother’s youngest sister lived in the northwest, but she only had one room for herself—though she became an important point of contact for our entire family, at a time when so many people were desperately trying to locate their loved ones and friends, or simply to find out if they were still alive.
Above all, in 1945, apart from the zones of occupation, one was not yet conscious of a divide within Germany into “East” and “West”. The whole of Germany faced the same chaos of devastation, having to deal with the aftermath of war. Mountains of rubble had to be cleared—a task mainly performed by women, since their men were either still prisoners of war or too old and infirm to take part.  Everyone was living from one day to the next. With our large family including aged grandparents, there was no hope of resettlement in the near future. Besides, there was no indication then that life was any easier anywhere else.
Were we worried? I am sure the adults were. Were we safe? I think, on the whole, we were. Following the departure of the American forces, the Soviet soldiers were now on strict orders to behave accordingly, and were severely punished, often beaten, when they transgressed. Fraternization was strictly forbidden—there was a definite “them” and “us”. The hegemony of the occupying forces was never in question.
Considering the widespread punitive measures against Germans in these first few years after the war, and many horror stories, they were relatively unscathed. But as Hildi observes, hunger was still a constant companion, especially for city dwellers. In the villages, in the early days before farms were confiscated by the state, there was still enough produce; townspeople brought anything they could find of any value to exchange for food. It was said that the only thing missing at the farms were the Persian carpets in the cowshed!
Although we were given ration cards, the shops did not have enough supply, so wherever there happened to be a queue people would join, even if it was unclear what was for sale.
I remember our excursions to pick mushrooms in the woods nearby. We became quite knowledgeable about them. At home we would clean and slice them, threading the slices on a pieces of string to dry for the winter. We did that with apples too. Eventually we were given a small plot of garden, and my grandfather worked hard growing vegetables and salad. As living standards improved in the Allied zone, the highlights were occasional food parcels from relatives there with essential provisions—and to our delight they would sometimes even reveal a chocolate!
My older sister, now 17, helped enormously, working for a farmer in a village 7 kilometres away—not only could she now get enough to eat, but we had one less mouth to feed. On many weekends she would walk this long distance, carrying back as much food as she could manage.
After the harvest the townspeople were allowed to glean the fields. They would all line up at the edge of the field and only after the farmer had raked it over thoroughly was the sign given to enter. The stalks were gathered like a bunch of flowers before the heads were cut into a sack. Back home my grandfather would beat the sack until the husks separated, then blow them away carefully until he had just the grains in his palm. They were worth their weight in gold; some would be ground in an old coffee grinder to make porridge, and if there were enough then the local mill would exchange them for flour, a welcome supplement.
Occasionally slices of bark and pieces of wood were available from the local sawmill, which we piled up high on our rickety wooden cart. My grandfather then used an axe or a saw to cut them for our stove and wrought-iron oven. He also built a rabbit hut. We children loved these cuddly animals, and got quite upset whenever one suddenly went missing—my grandfather made sure we were not around when he sacrificed it for the pot.
Women had to be inventive with their dishes. I remember a brownish bread spread, ambitiously called Leberwurst, made from a flour mixture and spiced with marjoram, as well as Schlagsahne (whipped cream) made from whey, a thin greenish liquid that was available for free at the local dairy. For some time these recipes were carefully stored in a box, but, thankfully, never used later on! We children could not be choosy— we ate everything.
For cooking we had enormous pots in the kitchen, as the food lacked the necessary substance. Later they were adopted for boiling the washing.
Looking back now it seems amazing how we adapted to the deprivations of our daily life. Power cuts were frequent, and with candles in short supply we just stuck a piece of resin-wood into an earth-filled flowerpot and set it alight—a sooty affair! At other times we just sat in the dark and sang.
In 1945 Hildi’s father had been captured and interned in a PoW camp;  by June he was able to rejoin his family in Kahla. He must have known that his wife would try to get them away from Weißwasser, but with no means of telephoning, and only a sporadic postal service, Hildi doesn’t know how he found out where they had escaped to.
As Hildi’s father approached, pushing a bicycle, she was standing at the gate; recognizing him as he called out her name, she was so excited to see him that she jumped up to greet him and chipped a corner out of one of her front teeth.
Now at last we were a real family! My father immediately applied for a job. At a time when numerous factories were dismantled and their machinery taken away, he was lucky to find a job at the still-functioning sawmill. For a man who had never had done any physical work in his life, this was hard for him. There was no other footwear but heavy wooden clogs, and my mother spent hours sewing patches onto his torn gloves.
My brother and I spent the summer holidays of 1946 with our former help and her family in a village near Bautzen, east of Dresden. For my parents this was a godsend, since they could be sure we would be properly fed there; for us children it meant an exciting long train journey and a wonderful time in the country. But the journey confronted us with images that remain ingrained in my memory even today. Passing through Leipzig we witnessed with horror the devastation on both sides of the track—ruins everywhere, eerie monuments of gruesome battles, tall buildings sliced through the middle, with the occasional lone piece of furniture precariously balancing on the edge.
Just opposite their house was a school that served as a barracks; during this time another building was used for some teaching. So Hildi’s grandfather (himself a former teacher) gave her additional lessons, with daily reciting of maths tables. When the troops finally moved out, the barracks became a school again, which Hildi now attended. Among the subjects there was Russian, which she learned reluctantly. But she was much keener on learning the violin, taking lessons along with her brother from elderly local musician Emil Wittig—Hildi’s brother became his star pupil, and to this day she still treasures a copy of the Kreutzer violin studies with a dedication to him from their teacher.
If their radio hadn’t been confiscated, Hildi would have loved to hear broadcasts of the classics with conductors like Furtwängler. Here he is in 1948, rehearsing Brahms 4 in London—where his visits were still sensitive, since though acquitted of collaboration late in 1946 it would still be some time before he was entirely rehabilitated abroad:
Like Chinese people, Hildi’s father never discussed his war experiences—which, apart from perhaps being politically uncomfortable, must have been deeply traumatic.
Although we children seemed to find our own way through this period of deprivation, we could not help picking up the general atmosphere of resignation, uncertainty, and fear. Outside the home people did not engage in conversation before making sure no-one was nearby who could possibly listen. At school it was not uncommon for a teacher to use children as tools to gain vital information from them about their elders’ opinions. My brother and I were instructed never to mention any sensitive topics we might have heard at home.
By October 1949 Hildi’s family found themselves part of the new German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Apart from the major trials of the worst culprits, de-nazification was pursued patchily even in the first couple of years after the war, as the occupiers soon discovered it was both impracticable and undesirable; in the Allied zones, reconstruction took priority over principles as Cold War loomed. People heard about the war-crimes trials, but they were little discussed, and never part of the school curriculum.
Discretion became still more important when in 1949 Hildi’s father planned to cross the border to Westphalia in the British zone, hoping to find a new life in the West so the family could join him eventually. His parents-in-law had already made the journey earlier without too many problems, since “old people” were considered not just unproductive but a burden on the state.
Sure enough, after a long trek northwest Hildi’s father managed to reach Detmold, where he was offered the use of a hut in a large garden belonging to a friend of a friend. At once he found work as a gardener, later getting an office job with the British authorities.
With the de-nazification process now inevitably something of a formality, it was formally abolished in 1951 with the ponderously-named Entnazifierungsslußgesetz law (expanding my acquaintance with German polysyllables). Meanwhile, senior German conductors jumped through the requisite hoops as the new authorities pored over their careers under Hitler. The search for culprits still continues even today, but there was no call for repentance, and nothing resembling Truth and Reconciliation—either here or later in China.
In Kahla, Hildi’s mother was questioned twice about her husband’s whereabouts by two officials knocking on the door. She simply replied, “He has abandoned us. I have no idea where he is.”
In March 1950 Hildi, with her mother and brother, managed to flee the new GDR to join her father. But this time her sister made the choice to stay behind. Her life had changed for the better in 1947, when she was accepted for the pedagogic school for mathematics and natural science in Gera, east of Kahla. In what Hildi observes was a strange way of beginning one’s studies, all the students had to take part in clearing the Thuringian forest, sawing and stacking felled tree trunks—at least they were allowed to take some wood home.
By 1948 Hildi’s sister had a diploma, and soon found a teaching post. She realized her qualifications would count for nothing in the Allied zones, and she couldn’t face having to retrain; and besides, she had fallen in love with her future husband. The family parting was difficult.
After the trauma of their original flight as part of a mass exodus west in 1945, this second journey posed different challenges.
Our preparations for escape were complicated. The few belongings that we had gradually accumulated needed to be sent ahead in parcels. This was not officially allowed, but we had found one guard at the station who would turn a blind eye and post them. If he was not on duty, which was often the case, we just had to turn back home again with our wooden cart laden with parcels, and try our luck another day.
Finally we set off on the hazardous journey across the Harz mountains, by the same route that my father had taken. I was now 13. With the help of a guide, a woman who knew which route to take and was familiar with the schedules of the border guards, we made our way with rucksacks on our backs, my brother and I clutching our violins. At the time there was still movement in both directions, but since trains were rigorously searched at the border, a whole family travelling west would have aroused suspicion. So we got off one stop before the terminus and climbed down the railway embankment. Crouching at the bottom of it, we waited anxiously until the train set off again. It was already dark. Then started a long and difficult walk. Our nerves at breaking point, no-one spoke. We watched our footsteps, carefully avoiding the dry leaves on the ground. Occasionally there would be a rustle—our heartbeats racing, we all stopped and held our breath. But often it was just someone returning from the West, going in the opposite direction. The journey seemed endless, but at last we made it!
So after a trek of two days they once again found refuge, reunited with Hildi’s father in Detmold.
Given Hildi’s later immersion in Bach, her trek has an interesting parallel with Bach’s Long March from Thuringia to Lübeck in 1705 to seek his hero Buxtehude—in very different circumstances, and even further, over several months.
Meanwhile in rural China, the Li family Daoists, having mostly survived the Japanese occupation, were soon plunged into civil war and the turmoil and violence of “Liberation”—somehow continuing to provide ritual services for their local community throughout the whole period. All over the world convulsions continued in the wake of war, with over a million dying in the Partition of India.
Nearly four decades later, as we sat together in orchestras playing Bach and Handel, I had no inkling how very stressful Hildi’s early experiences were. In the next instalment we follow her from Westphalia to Zurich, and then on to London, as she embarks on a life of music; and we reflect further on refuge and memory.
Sic: the metaphor is from archery, not fiddles, of course.  Whatever the Daily Mail, or the Putrid Tang Emanating from the White House, may tell us. Among many documentaries on the current plight of refugees, the BBC series Exodus is remarkable.  Cf. Hester Vaizey, Surviving Hitler’s war: family life in Germany, 1939–48. Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp.xiii–xiv; I find this book a most instructive and sobering introduction to the period right across Europe. I can barely scratch the surface of the vast literature on the immediate post-war period. Other accessible books include Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich, and Frederick Taylor, Exorcizing Hitler—where the appalling situations in Silesia and Thuringia can also be pursued. Moving and detailed is Gitta Sereny, The German trauma.  For the desperate conditions of the PoWs, see MacDonogh, ch.15; Taylor, pp.173–87; Lowe, ch.11.  See also MacGregor, Germany: memories of a nation, ch.27.  MacDonogh, pp.344–57; Taylor, chs. 10–12, and Epilogue (for the Soviet zone, see pp.323–31, 360–61).
The work of Susan McClary, both for its ideas and its lively language, has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).
McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).
Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).
She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:
At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.
Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.
She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”
The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.
McClary concludes provocatively:
The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.
McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).
With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.
And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:
Reception history and performance practice are always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:
And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:
But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.
Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 6.30ish):
Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.
Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.
Following the riches of Bach on Radio 3 and my recent survey:
Bach’s letters to his patrons are a sad vignette on the sordid realities of working for them. Along with his unsolicited gift of the Brandenburg concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg [“What does that even mean?”], he wrote this covering letter (in French, courtly language of the time), dated 24th March 1721:
As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him. For the rest, Sire, I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly to have the goodness to continue Your Highness’s greatest favours towards me, and to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service—I who, without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.
Sure, we have to read such a letter in the context of the day, but it’s hard to beat for brown-nosing. Servants indeed— to cite Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
… exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society… We’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy, in which the working classes…
Didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
And there’s no evidence that the Margrave even wrote back. Pah! I hope Bach told him where to stick it. He might have well as sent the concertos to Tweety McTangerine.
Bach had been happy at Cöthen, where Prince Leopold was an exceptionally musical patron—Bach’s need to seek new employment has been blamed on the Prince’s “airhead” new wife (typical). With the Margrave deaf to his appeal, Bach was soon to find a permanent haven in Leipzig—and the rest is geography. Even there his struggles with patrons continued.
Thing is, despite all such routine tedious scramblings, Bach never stopped creating a wealth of music that stands as a rebuke to all mundane concerns.
And so in imperial China—right down to today, as a chain of fawning operates from grass-roots performers to regional cadres to central pundits. Only with less magical results.
I trust I shall have the honour to remain your faithful and humble servant
Dr S. Jones (available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and screenings of my filmLi Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist)
Some might say that the only good thing about Christmas is that one can bask in Bach. Whatever your reasons for exploring this blog, I can’t help regarding his music as an essential basis of our cultural experience!
Apart from all the musical riches to be found elsewhere online (not lest Radio 3, like here), I’m revisiting my blogposts, so here are some highlights from the extensive Bach tag in the sidebar—mediated by my, um, eccentric take:
In 1705 the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach set off from his home in Arnstadt to walk 250 miles to Lübeck, there to meet his hero, the composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude.
Bach is compulsory Radio 3 listening over Christmas, and apart from yet another excursion on Composer of the week, Horatio Clare’s series Bach walks makes fine slow listening, taking the walk in five episodes, punctuated by musical snippets that seem all the more miraculous. And it stands in tranquil contrast to the hectic claustrophic life that he was to lead through the years of his greatest creativity in Leipzig.
What makes such a modern retracing of Bach’s steps so thoughtful is all the social detail that can be incorporated, along with Clare’s reflections on the present landscape. Bach had actually walked a similar distance when he was 15 to enroll in St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg.
By now you won’t be surprised to learn that this reminds me of the Li family Daoists.
Early-18th-century Germany was more advanced in transportation than rural China in the 1930s, or even the 1980s. And by contrast with many more adventurous composers of the day, Bach spent most of his career employed in a rather small radius within Thuringia and Saxony.
Since ancient times, elite Daoists travelled widely over China to famous temples and religious mountains, seeking the wisdom of other sages and propagating new revelations. One such master was Kou Qianzhi (365–448), who served the court of the Northern Wei dynasty at their capital Pingcheng (modern Datong), and who is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. Still today, temple Daoist priests commonly spend periods “cloud wandering” around the main urban and mountain temples.
By contrast, household Daoists are active within a small radius (see map here). Even those who spent their youth as priests in temples before the 1949 Liberation did so only locally—like several boys in Upper Yinshan village in nearby Tianzhen county, who learned their ritual skills in a temple just further east. Occasionally the Li band is invited to do rituals further afield—just east in Hebei or north in Inner Mongolia. Li Qing and the elders used to walk for a whole day to do Thanking the Earth rituals for patrons in Inner Mongolia, because around eighty percent of the Han Chinese population there had migrated from Yanggao, some of whom were quite affluent. But the main area of their work is defined both by walking distances and by the availability of Daoists elsewhere—north around the county-town, west in Datong county, and east in Tianzhen. So even now, with motor-bikes and cars, most of their ritual business is still in the districts of Shizitun, Houying, Baideng, and Pansi. They work quite often just further south in the districts of Gucheng and Lower Shenyu, and sometimes in Dongxiaocun district and in the west of Tianzhen county. But they rarely perform rituals in west Yanggao, or further north in North Xutun district or around the county-town where other groups of Daoists are available.
Until bicycles became generally available from around 1980, people had to walk everywhere, or go by ox-cart, equally slow. Li Manshan recalls wryly, “We didn’t even have Chinese carts (tuche), let alone foreign ones (yangche)!” Occasional visits to the county-town on foot took over three hours. Li Manshan went occasionally before the Cultural Revolution; he recalls walking there with his aunt in 1954 to watch the grand Offering Tribute (xiangong) parade on the 24th of the 6th moon, which was by then a purely secular event.
Horse-cart on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.
For a funeral twenty-five Chinese li away, walking at roughly ten li an hour, the Daoists had to set off at 4am. The hill villages to the east were not so far, but the climb took longer—when Wu Mei was learning with Li Qing in the late 1980s it took him a whole hour to walk from his home in Renjiayao, only five li away. Most gigs might be in the nearby villages, but for longer journeys the more elderly Daoists might send their fitter younger sons and disciples. When the Daoists were invited for funerals a long walk away, there was no need to get the Lis to determine the date on the death, or decorate the coffin—there were men available locally for such tasks.
Until the 1980s when there was a death, the son would walk to Li Qing’s house to invite him to do the funeral—and was then quite likely to learn that he was doing a funeral in another village and to have to make another trek by foot there. From 1980 to 1990 he could make this search by bicycle, and then perhaps by motor-bike; since around 2002 he can just call up Li Manshan on his mobile.
I was amazed to read that bicycles were already common in some central Shanxi villages by the 1930s  —perhaps a hint of how much poorer Yanggao was than areas further south. In the countryside here, most people only began riding bicycles around 1978; before that only some village cadres had them. Li Qing rode a Red Flag bike from around 1981. With a bike costing around 150 kuai, and a Daoist earning 6 kuai per gig, or over 70 kuai a month, one bike cost at least two months’ earnings. In Baideng town, Daoist Wang Xin set up a little stall mending bicycles.
Actually, bicycles speeded up mobility only slightly; in the countryside there was still nothing quite resembling a road, the tracks being deeply rutted until transport arteries began to improve significantly since around 2003. And neither bicycles nor motor-bikes have significantly expanded their radius of activity; they continue to work mainly within a small area.
I also reflect on walking within a funeral (pp.27–8):
In order to allow for a suitably lengthy and imposing procession, the house chosen for the scripture hall should be at a considerable distance from the soul hall where the rituals are performed. Indeed, since the scripture hall is on average around half a kilometer away, they potentially have to walk—playing all the while—seven kilometres a day for the seven routine visits alone, let alone other processions from the scripture hall to the soul hall before leading the kin to the sites for the other public rituals, and again next day for the procession towards the grave. Apart from anything else, this is good exercise.
Over the day the Daoists make seven processions from scripture hall to soul hall and back, as well as processions to the other ritual sites.
But once at a funeral in nearby Yangyuan county I was surprised to find the scripture hall very near the soul hall—and this turns out to be an older custom, so that the Daoists would be on hand to respond promptly for the many rituals once needed. Since the 1980s there is less need for this, and Li Manshan observes that the recent distance also serves to marginalize them. But it is also welcome so they can escape from the din of pop and get some peace.
 Harrison, The man awakened from dreams, p.156. Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, reform, and resistance in village China, p.228; Harrison, The missionary’s curse, p.145.
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? Rowan: No.
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 soundtrack 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].
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).
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 occasional 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.
And OMG, how about this (for the theremin, click here):
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.
Among many fine harpsichord versions, here’s Scott Ross:
Returning briefly to the modern piano—Bach was of course performing and composing modern music, and maybe what appeals to me in Joanna MacGregor’s version is that it seems tastefully rooted in her whole experience of our own contemporary piano sounds. Here’s the hallucinatory final repeat of the Aria:
Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:
All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!
 For missionaries at the Qing court, see here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…”  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 (see also here, and here)—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?] seems rather similar to the final movement of the A minor 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. As to the flute partita, a baroque instrument trumps the usual virtuosity of modern flautists:
I like this performance on recorder, with additional Prelude and Gigue:
This version on archlute has an introspection quite typical of the Allemande:
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 my long experience of 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 (for John Eliot Gardiner’s ambitious connections with world shawms, see under The ritual calendar).
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. For more, see under The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons.