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JS Bach Part II: A Pilgrimage to Leipzig

June 11, 2010

Image by Morn the gorn via wikimedia commons

In December I visited my younger son in Berlin, where he was living on an art grant. He’s a painter, perhaps in part thanks to my having dragged him through art galleries when he was young. We took the train to Leipzig, on a joint pilgrimage. He’d come to see the art museum, which filled with the works of a remarkable 20th century painting movement of which I hadn’t been aware.  Now he was showing me a museum, though I didn’t have to be dragged. It was great stuff.

My chief destination was the St. Thomas church, where Bach was choirmaster and organist for the last 23 years of his life, a period of unprecedented musical productivity for him, or for anyone before or since. He’s buried there. The boy’s choir Bach ran has sung continuously since 1212, and they still sing Bach every Saturday afternoon.

The church was bigger than I expected. The fee for the concert was smaller – 2 Euros. Which perhaps explains why it was almost full when I got there, with at least several thousand people.

I stopped at Bach’s grave, a black stone with just his name carved in it, and tears came to my eyes. I remembered what I’d read in a guidebook, that his bones had been moved there in 1950, 200 years after his death, after the church they were originally buried in was bombed by the allies during World War II. I was born in 1950, and entertained a fleeting thought of mystical connection, a habit of mine since even before the supernatural days of 1968.

Image by Furfur via Wikimedia commons

Feeling the crowd streaming in past me, I rushed to look for a seat. The pews downstairs looked full, so I climbed to the balcony overlooking a little stage, high up under the massive pipes of the organ – not the one Bach had played, but where the organ had been that he played.

The pre-concert action was pleasantly informal. Fiddlers sat conversing in the seats below me, and players wandered on and off stage. I choked up again as the members of the choir approached their places under the organ– though different faces, this was the same group that premiered five years of cycles of Bach’s Cantatas and the St. Matthews Passion. I expected young boys – though not the unruly bunch that sometimes gave Bach such trouble. These singers looked to be in their twenties. And half of them were girls.

The orchestra was tiny, similar to what Bach would have worked with. The chorus was bigger than Bach’s group of boys, and easily filled the large church with their clear, sweet voices.

Bach had been a master organist. I looked at the guy who now sat at the organ and wondered at how he must feel trying to fill such enormous shoes. And I wondered about the conductor, because when Bach was not at the organ he had stood conducting on that very spot. But both men looked quite relaxed, enjoying making the music.

The concert opened with a number of short works by composers other than Bach, including a lovely piece by Orlando Lassus, an earlier composer, who I realized I hadn’t heard since that basement at Wesleyan, a month or so before I heard the Mass. Here he was again warming me up for Bach.

It was the advent concert – and I again felt a connection with distant Christmases. They sang the Magnificat, one of the few Bach pieces I don’t own on CD, and thus don’t know well. That added novelty to the experience. The eight or so strings were now joined by winds and those D trumpets, which in Bach always sound like they’re blasting from the lips of angels.

I’m often uncomfortable at concerts: I don’t like crowds, and have never liked sitting captive since I was in school. But here I was back in that basement in the music building, feeling myself transported to a place above my squirming body, above the high ribbed ceiling of the St Thomas church, to that cathedral in sound.

My only complaint was that the Magnificat is so short. I would have gladly skipped dinner to hear them perform the whole 2 ½ hour B Minor Mass.


From → Classical Music

  1. Wow – what a fantastic experience to go and hear Bach’s music in his own church! Fantastic. Beats the Royal Albert Hall!

    • But it doesn’t beat the time John Lennon told the audience there to “just rattle your jewelry.”

  2. Mark Paul permalink

    That’s a wonderful tale. Part of the magic of hearing Bach performed in that church is that the scale is right.

    But sometimes, it isn’t just the scale, but also the acoustics of a particular church that come into play. Here’s Yale Prof. Willie Ruff’s brief description of his solo french horn recording made at St. Mark’s in Venice:

    “The idea for this recording began years ago when my horn and I came to Yale as freshmen. There we fell under the spell of the great German musician Paul Hindemith who was then professor of the theory of music and composition. Hindemith spent an enormous amount of time transcribing early European music which dated from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries for his students in a class called “The History of the Theory of Music.” He even insisted that we play it on original instruments, when available – strange relics dredged up from Yale’s collection of ancient instruments – sackbuts, krumhorns and shawms.

    “But it was the Venetian school, a sixteenth century school of first Flemish and later Italian composers at the Basilica of Saint Mark’s that spoke most clearly to me. Inaugurated by Adrian Willaert, a Netherlander (c. 1485-1586), the Venetian school included, among others, Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1510-1604), Cypriano do Rore (1516-1565), Claudio Merulo (1533-1604) and Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612).

    “Back in the 1950’s, under Hindemith’s direction, it was the music Giovanni Gabrieli whose polychoral treatment, echo effects and the extensive use of instruments together with voices, that most arrested my ears. Above all, I was intrigued by the majesty and complexity of his rhythms. I wondered then how such complex textures and rhythms could be organized and performed five hundred years ago in that stone church without the sound decaying into noisy confusion.

    “Since St. Mark’s musicians were so daring for their time, I suspected that its builders might have known something about acoustics which was not widely known in Europe. Certainly the builders could not have had Gabrieli in mind when they laid out the plan for the Basilica hundreds of years earlier. The music used for church services at that time was monophonic (a single sung melody) having no harmony and not even the accompaniment of an organ until much later. Hymns and plain chant were the standard fare for congregational singing.”

    Simply gorgeous, and justifying every penny you can spend on first-rate audio equipment.

    There’s a fuller account of the recording in a chapter of “Willie and Dwike: An American Profile,” by William Zinsser, which originally appeared as an article in The New Yorker.

    • luminous muse permalink

      I had not thought of that. Dick Winslow of Wesleyan (who BTW just got a well deserved honorary degree there) told me about preparing a “boring” Mozart Mass for a concert in Mexico. When it was performed he discovered that the acoustics of the church created just the right echoes to fill in the holes, making it beautiful.

    • One or two to reemrbem, that is.

  3. I often feel the same way about music, that is by far the most superior of foods.

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