Bach anniversary

July 28, 2009

Today marks, if my calculations are correct, the 259th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach, not only one of the greatest composers in our history, but, according to David Bentley Hart, also one of our greatest theologians. (Actually, he calls him our greatest theologian, which is surely an exaggeration.  That is understandable; Bach provokes superlatives.)  To wit:

Bach is the greatest of Christian theologians, the most inspired witness to the ordo amoris in the fabric of being; not only is no other composer capable of more freely developing lines or of more elaborate structures of tonal mediation (wheresoever the line goes, Bach is there also), but no one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite.  It is in Bach’s music, as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest. . . In Bach’s music, each note is an unforced, unnecessary, and yet wholly fitting supplement, even when the fittingness is deferred across massive dissonances by way of the most intricate contrapuntal mediations.  Nor are dissonances final, or ever tragic: they are birth pangs, awaiting the glory to be disclosed in their reconciliations – their stretti and recapitulations.  Bach’s is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation. . .

The analogy between God’s and Bach’s handiworks is audible chiefly in Bach’s limitless capacity to develop separate lines into extraordinary intricacies of contrapuntal complication, without ever sacrificing the ‘peace’, the measures of accord, by which the music is governed. . . [It] offers an aesthetic analogy to the work of the Spirit in creation, his power to unfold the theme God imparts in creation into ever more profuse and elaborate developments, and to overcome every discordant series.

David B. Hart,
The Beauty of the Infinite.

By way of illustration, here is Nathan Milstein playing Bach’s great Chaconne, from the Partita No.2 for solo violin, BWV 1004.  It looks like it was recorded sometime in the 1950s.

That ends rather abruptly; the remainder of the piece is here.

6 Responses to “Bach anniversary”

  1. For some years this has been the piece I would choose if required to name a single Greatest Piece of Music Ever Written.

  2. cburrell Says:

    It certainly has a claim to that title, doesn’t it? I once heard that Bach wrote it after returning home from a journey only to find that his wife had died and been buried during his absence. I’m not sure if the story is true.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Have you heard the “chorale” version of the Chaconne? A few years ago a musicologist came up with the theory that the piece is structured around several of Bach’s beloved Lutheran chorales, and she created an “arrangement” of the piece in which voices sing the chorale melodies over the violin.

    Admittedly, this is offensive to purists, and could tip over into musical kitsch if done badly, but in fact it was done beautifully by the Hilliard Ensemble (on this recording).

    There is another “arrangement”, even more offensive to purists, in which the voices sing the chorales and the main musical line is played by a lute. It was sung by Emma Kirkby (soprano) and Carlos Mena (counter-tenor) on this recording. Not everybody likes this sort of thing, but I do. You can hear a snippet at emusic, but, alas, the appalling new rules make it an “album only” download.

  4. I have no objection at all to transcriptions of that sort. I think I’d like that Hilliard recording–at any rate I’d like to hear it. Not so sure about the other one, as I’m not a big fan of the lute, but I’ll listen to the samples. (12 credits for 10 tracks–not so bad, really, esp. as 2 of the tracks are 15 minutes–but that’s assuming one wants the whole album.)

  5. cburrell Says:

    I am surprised that the “chorale” arrangement is not on YouTube. It seems like the sort of thing that might have made it there. Anyway, it is worth hearing if you should ever have the opportunity.

  6. Perry Santanachote Says:

    In celebration of Bach’s 325th birthday, Jennifer Koh is performing all 6 of his sonatas and partitas for solo violin at Columbia. Check out what she has to say about Bach’s music and the impact it has had on her:

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