Archive for December 22, 2009

The Miracle of Bach

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 22, 2009 by telescoper

The discussion after yesterday’s post prompted me to put this online. It’s a stunning performance that I heard a while ago but have been saving up for a special occasion. It’s the aria Erbarme dich, Mein Gott (“Have mercy, my God”) from the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a bit invidious to pick bits from this monumental work, which takes over three hours to perform but I wanted to post this particular excerpt here for the benefit of those people who find Bach’s music dry and academic. If you can find any piece of music in any idiom as emotionally expressive as this, then I’d love to hear it.

The aria is set for a countertenor playing the part of Peter, and it conveys his feelings of shame and remorse after having betrayed Jesus. Nowadays it is often sung by a female singer in the mezzo soprano or contralto range and it works pretty well done like that too. The point is that feelings such as this are universal. We all – men and women, christian and non-christian – come to know what it is to feel like this, just as we all come to know about pain and death. It’s the fact that we all know that we will die that gives the story of the Passion it’s tragic power.

The structure of the piece is quite simple, in fact, consisting of a repeating  figure of a rising minor 6th interval  followed by a descending minor 3rd. This is a hook used in a lot of tunes, especially Jazz standards. The idea is to start below the tonic and then jump above it, later relaxing down onto it. Most tunes then move on somewhere else after this motif but, Bach rests there to build tension through an unresolved expectation of movement.  In the clip below the (Hungarian) singer Julia Hamari spends a full 4 seconds on that tonic note (the sustained B at 1:10-1:15). While she holds it, you can hear the tonal centre gradually shift from the root chord (Bm) to the subdominant (Em) through the cellos’ 3-chord progression G-B7-Em, in a cadence produced by adding only a single note, each time, to the sustained B: first G (to create the major triad GB below the root), then F# (for the B7 sound, ie, the V-th of the Em), and then E for the resolution. It’s so simple, only a genius could make it work.

The rhythm is interesting too. The time signature is 12/8, which is what is used in many slow blues compositions. Bach arranges the 12 notes in each bar runs of triplets that go down the natural minor scale of B. Hamari sustains that B over 9 beats: GGG-F#F#F#-EEE. This is like the walking bass lines used in jazz, but this one is relentlessly descending adding to the atmosphere of sadness and contrition.

This aria has all the hallmarks of Bach’s great work.  A beautifully memorable melody and an interesting harmonic progression form the foundations. Add to that the tragic, weeping sound of the bowed strings in the orchestra, the plucked cello notes symbolising Peter’s tears,  and the solo obbligato that Yehudi Menuin referred to as the most beautiful music ever written for the violin. Even then you don’t get the full picture, because this is so much greater than the sum of its (admittedly great) parts. What makes it so wonderful is how Bach captures the feeling of guilt and remorse so naturally. It’s not overwrought and we don’t feel manipulated. Even the extensive repetition of the phrase Erbarme dich feels so genuine. What more can be said?

Perhaps just one more thing. I think Julia Hamari’s performance of this piece is sensational. Watching her it’s difficult not to form the impression that she is completely at one with the music and the feelings that it expresses. She looks like she’s in a trance, acting as a vehicle for music that’s coming from some other place entirely. But where? I often feel this way watching great Jazz improvisers, finding it hard to rid myself of the notion that somehow the instrument is playing them rather than the other way around. I’m not a religious man, but music like this is, to me, nothing short of miraculous.

PS. Remembering that this is meant to be an astronomy blog, I’ll add that scientist and author Lewis Thomas once suggested how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe:

I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.