Bach and the oboe

My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.

In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.

Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player.

Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):

Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:

And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).

Quia respexit from the Magnificat:

But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.

Mein Gott

I’ve already offered one Crucifixion joke, and you can find more online. The devout may wish to look away now.

Musos often tell this one, a true story about a performance of the Matthew Passion in Bristol, and an extreme instance of corpsing. I’ll refrain from naming the performers, though I do rather feel they deserve to be immortalized rather than crucified (not a choice vouchsafed to Our Lord).

As the Jesus du jour (fortunately this was a scratch gig) wailed an anguished cry to his Father:

Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?

on declaiming the first cry of “Eli“, he spontaneously essayed an extra dramatic flourish by giving a resounding stamp with his foot. Finding the effect rather pleasing, he followed it up with another stamp on the second “Eli“.

This already had the other soloists, seated nearby, struggling to hold it together— it was even funnier considering that Jesus, up there on the cross, wasn’t exactly in a position to stamp his foot. But when it came to the evangelist’s turn to translate Jesus’s words (That is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to the same melody, for scrupulous accuracy of live reportage what else could he do except stamp again in his two equivalent cries of “Mein Gott“? The performers now totally lost it.
Lama 1




Lama 2

It strikes me that this may be even funnier the more deeply we engage with the anguish of the scene.

For good (or bad) measure, an encore of Always look on the bright side of life seems appropriate:

At such moments, it behoves me to stress that the Bach Passions are among the great monuments of Western civilization…

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, ENO, Sellars–Rattle, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special.

The “concert” is here for the next 27 days:

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

Further to “performative tears”, for anyone who doesn’t know the John Passion equivalent of the Matthew setting of “und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich” (from 39.15; or Mark Padmore from 33.47) then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist.

A Swedish psalm

Following my thoughts on musical complexity, and the taxonomy of singing:

While I rejoice in the intensity and economical language of much popular music, generally I’m underwhelmed by the upright Victorian simplicity of Christian hymns—although of course Bach’s chorales are in another league.

The Swedish psalm Härlig Är Jorden, sung a cappella, is Complete Perfection, Pure Simplicity:

Glorious is the Earth
Glorious is the Earth, glorious is God’s heaven,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of souls
Through the fair kingdoms of the Earth
We go to paradise with song

 Ages come, ages go
Generation follows generation
Never is the sound from Heaven silenced
Of the soul’s glad pilgrim-song

 The angels sang it first for shepherds of the land
Beautifully it rang out from soul to soul
People, rejoice, the Saviour has come
The Lord bids peace upon the Earth

BTW, notwithstanding the critiques of Alan Lomax’s ambitious Cantometrics project, this does seem to illustrate one of his notable insights:

that sexually restrictive and highly punitive societies correlated with degree of vocal tension. The tendency to sing together in groups, tonal cohesiveness, and the likelihood of polyphonic singing were all associated with fewer restrictions on women. Multipart singing occurs in societies where the sexes have a complementary relationship.

The Real Group sings the psalm divinely, but it can be just as moving in less polished amateur versions. This is nothing to do with our recent British penchant for Scandi-noir. Of course, not being Swedish, I can’t assess what layers of association it may have for various strata of Swedish society today. For me, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, another likely image of religious purity (and another of those changing traditions à la Hobsbawm), is highly conflicted—Dudley Moore expressed this well, if not entirely reverently. I doubt if all young Russian liberals are so entranced by Orthodox liturgy as I was on Mount Athos.

So as with Bach, there is no “correct” way to experience a piece like this: it will vary by class, time, region, and so on.

While we’re relishing the singing of the Real Group, I can never resist a bit of Bill Evans:

Taruskin on early music

***Link to this page!***

I’ve finally got round to reading the great Richard Taruskin properly. Among his wide-ranging themes, in this page (under WAM in Menu), I discuss his seminal comments on early music, informed by my own humble experiences of the scene.

As he links it with modernism, placing it firmly within the context of our contemporary culture, this is no mere niche topic, it’s profound, essential reading on culture in modern society— and with maestro-baiting galore!

Even if one disagreed with every word of the book, the writing is always a joy to read.

Bach and Stravinsky

Useless musicological sleuthing of the day…

I like to think that I discovered this—on tour in Spain with the Sixteen, early 1990s:

The numinous opening bassoon solo of The rite of spring, rather than deriving from a folk melody on the elusive dudka, may instead be borrowed ingeniously from the Matthew Passion, 1st violin part in the 2nd orchestra (no.43, not long before Erbarme dich):


with Stravinsky varying Bach’s pitch and rhythms to his taste. Amidst the fray of the crowd scene, investing the phrase with inexplicable care, I always chuckle to myself, “Not a lot of people know that…” [Weirdo—Ed.].