Why read about Bach? Well, in recent years I find I’m playing his music more and more – and enjoying it. I was introduced to him some forty-five years ago by a teacher wise enough to believe that students should get to know great music even if it didn’t necessarily enthral them. The teacher recommended laying out good money on the two volumes of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and I did. I learned a few scattered pieces, sight-read those I could get away with (without the teacher knowing) and ignored the rest. But it was like puddling in Bach’s paddling pool, rather than swimming with him in the ocean.
The two volumes travelled with me to England and back, lost their covers, and occasionally got a dusting off - mostly to see if I could still get my fingers round their intricacies.
But now, in my grandfather years, I’ve begun some dedicated work on these astonishing compositions, and the effort’s been rewarded so mightily all I can do is enthuse about their creator.
There are passages in Bach when you feel as though you’re doing a kind of knitting – except Bach never bothers with plain and purl.There are places where you think the piece should finish, but the grand old genius frolics on for another dozen delectable bars. Sometimes he stops right in the middle of something and hives off in another direction, at a different tempo, and with different material. How unbaroque!
There are bars when the clashing chords are so twentieth-century you ask: did he know he was preempting Stravinsky or Messiaen? Sometimes he’s so intent of keeping the various ‘voices’ running that he’ll swap them back and forth between the hands until the brain goes into meltdown. (Eidam says Bach could effortlessly hold half a dozen different ‘voices’ in his head, being thoroughly aware of them at all times.)
Or he writes passages of astonishing mathematical structure, taking a subject and playing itself against itself, upside-down, back to front, slower, faster – and not just one voice against another, but several together. (He often improvised in such a way without blinking an eye.)
And then there are the sublime moments. In the middle of something that’s already taken wings he opens a window to heaven – just for a couple of bars. You wonder if God hadn’t elbowed him aside - ‘Excuse me, Jo!’ - and written those bars himself.
I recall one particular Bach orchestral concert in London. There was a moment in the evening when the musicians, the audience and the angels took off, skimming along Bach’s great river of joy in such a way that forty years later I still get emotional at the thought of it.
What a man!
This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,Taonga. It was written in 2005