When you feel the urge to be straight up about something in script, it can be tempting to relax into an over-colloquial style. I remember once opening a paragraph in an essay at school with the words ‘Let’s face it…’, to find that its marker was of a different view. ‘Let’s not.’ were the words in the margin. But, let’s face it – we must – we cannot let the Lent and Easter season pass without reference to Bach.
For some, Bach is the greatest of them all. It was not always thus: he had to struggle to be appreciated in his own lifetime, not helped by an ill-tempered, stubborn personality, and his monumental output can only serve to conjure up the image of a workaholic, who probably would have done well to take the odd day off. He was a gifted organist, but an awkward employee, constantly in disputes and moaning about the general lack of quality singers for his work. He could hardly have been more different to the outgoing Handel, born only 81 miles away just a few days before, and whom he never even met. A serious boy from the outset, he might reasonably be regarded as the personification of the claim that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ In short, he was. It may explain why Bernard Levin once commented that Bach’s music all sounds as if it is written in the minor (sad) key, even when it isn’t.
It is almost unbelievable that his colossal output of cantatas, organ works, chamber music, concertos, chorales and much more, did not come to be recognized properly until some fifty years after his death (1750) at 65 (a ripe age in the mid seventeenth century, when the average demise was under 30); and it was not until later in the nineteenth century that Wagner declared him ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’. Today, 11th April 2017, marks the 290th anniversary of the first performance of his ‘St Matthew Passion‘, conducted by Mendelssohn, surely one of, if not the, most sublime pieces of all choral music ever written.
Bach was a deeply religious man, all of his works being dedicated to the greater glory of God. Do you need to be a Christian to appreciate this piece? Undoubtedly not. But will you be more greatly moved if you are? Yes, I believe so: I have attended the annual performance by the Bach Choir on many occasions. Despite my love of music, I have only once choked, (I am much more likely to shed a tear in some sloppy rom-com) and it was during this piece several years ago. At the point when Jesus yields up the ghost, there is a pause, and on this particular occasion, the conductor, David Hill, seemed to me to delay the re-start by the tiniest of moments. I have no idea if it was deliberate or not; I just know that in that one unguarded instant, the enormity of this story was made clear.
At some three hours in length, there is plenty to draw on. For those who know the piece well, I hope you forgive me for selecting one of the most famous passages; because for those of you who are not familiar with it, these few minutes go a long way to summarizing the meaning of the whole work: a lament, ‘Erbarme dich‘, not for one man alone, but for mankind itself. This weeping melody, sung here by Andreas Scholl, tugs and tugs, and with the help of a solo violin, goes on tugging. It is the most exquisite music.