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Reinventing Bach

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last weekend I finished Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful. In my post about it, I observed that

Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. And just two weeks ago, his second book appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Both books appear to be worthy additions to my reading list, with the second a perfect complement to my recently finished Mozart book.)

Hours later, at the NYT website, I saw that the subject of the next day’s book review was none other than Reinventing Bach. And a little later, I found that it was the subject of one of the briefly noted reviews in this week’s New Yorker. Moreover, had I only been paying attention, I would have seen a review a week earlier in our local paper, the Seattle Times, by their former music critic, Melinda Bargreen, with Elie scheduled to speak in Seattle the next day as part of his book tour. Someone was trying to tell me something.

I downloaded the book and have slowly been progressing through it. From what I’ve read (a little more than one-fifth in), Bargreen’s opening summary of the book is apt:

Paul Elie’s new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that’s hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach’s interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time.

None of these descriptions does justice to Elie’s “Reinventing Bach,” which is written like a great piece of music — with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity.

I am ambivalent so far about those spectacular flourishes. Some work well. Others I find overwrought.

Yesterday I started the book’s second part, on Pablo Casals. As was the case in Part I, on Albert Schweitzer, Elie alternates passages about the interpreter under discussion with an account of Bach’s career. I love Elie’s treatment of Bach. These passages are fabulous.

In parallel, Elie is telling us about Casals’s discovery of Bach’s cello suites, the impact they had on his musicianship and life, and his recording of them decades later, in the 1930s. Here is an example of Elie’s verbal dexterity.

“Cultivate a singing style in playing” Bach liked to say, and nobody has done it better than Casals did with the cello suites. …

You can hear their equipoise in Casals’s recordings: in the balance between fast and slow, delight and struggle, and in the serenity of his playing even in passages of outward agitation. But balance and serenity are not what you hear first of all. What you hear is a voice. At first, it is the voice of the cello itself: the sound of wood carved, glued, polished, strung, and tuned in ways so as to replicate the tubes and chambers of a creature’s innards.

It is an animal sound, all furred and tendoned. In the slow passages, it is elephantine, or older–a dinosaur’s cry. In the fast ones it is equine, a steeplechase run in stop-motion. But before long, the sound of this music, played this way, is a human sound. The instrument sighs. It grunts. It swallows. It inhales and exhales. Sometimes the sound is dry and nasal. Sometimes it is a chesty honk, a double lungful of sound. Sometimes it is glottal, the tongue enunciating against the roof of the mouth. Sometimes, as the bow is pulled across the strings as across a row of teeth, it is a shout. But it is a voice, no question about it. Like a voice, it seems to come from a source at the center of the body. And like a voice, it seems an inherent trait, given to the performer, not striven for.

And this, a couple of pages later.

Casals’s cello suites are records of life during wartime, anchored in the exploits of a man who discovered the suites and then, blood-soaked, discovered them again. But how did he do it? How, exactly, does the sound of people killing one another in the plain air get behind closed doors, into the cello, in between the lines of Bach’s music, and onto the steel-cut disc that is the master recording? Did he play the suites the way he did in the late thirties because of the state of the world, or in spite of it? And is it right to suppose that music is somehow more human when it is made while there is a war on?

Those are the questions running through his recordings of them, in cogitation counterpoint to their armature of wood and wire.

How’s that for writing? Okay, one more, this time about Bach. Elie is discussing an early cantata, one in which Bach “dramatizes a chorale Luther wrote on the episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ, while `in the thrall of death’ on the cross, descends to the underworld to consider the souls damned there.”

In this cantata he is not, in the main, expressing himself with his music. He is trying to devise a structure that will make Hell seem truly hellish and the Harrowing of Hell really harrowing. His kin are Mercator, with his drafting tools, Hooke with his springs and gears, and Leeuwenhoek with his microscopes–men in small rooms trying to see the world whole and steady, mastering phenomena with precision instruments by the pale northern light.

I like that one.

By the way, the first classical music I ever bought was a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with Casals conducting the Marlboro Festival Orchestra. (Here it is, decades later. A 1990 digital version in two parts, with I imagine miserable sound quality, available from Amazon.) New to live classical recordings, I was taken aback partway through the second concerto by the distinct sound of someone sighing. I’ve always imagined it was Casals. Thanks to Elie, I now realize that it was Casals’s cello, inhaling and exhaling.

Have a look at Tommasini’s NYT review. It takes exception to some of Elie’s argument in ways that I suspect I will agree with as I work my way through the book.

And since the New Yorker’s brief review is behind the paywall, I’ll quote its first and last sentences.

Elie examines how the age of recording has changed the way we listen to Bach’s music. … The book, structured in short sections intended to mimic Bach’s polyphony, is an occasionally frustrating but ultimately impressive testimony to Bach’s power to speak to successive generations.

In closing, I’ll note that as I write this, I am listening to János Starker’s recording of Bach’s sixth cello suite through my computer’s built-in speakers. I have always thought that listening to the Bach suites this way, rather than on our high-end audio system (or better yet, live), is absurd. Apparently Elie will convince me that it’s just right.

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