The Miracle of Bach

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.

10 Responses to “The Miracle of Bach”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m rather wary of supposing that music like this that moves one deeply (I am happy to say moves one’s *spirit* deeply) necessarily has anything to do with the Christian religion which inspired it. Great art can come from believers and nonbelievers alike; it is a mere fact of history that most great art from Europe’s past was on biblical themes. If this wonderful piece moves you then I am delighted and I hope I appreciate beauty as well as anybody. But only if it consistently induced personal repentance in listeners would I say it was Christian. I stress that I am not denigrating it for one second.

    This raises an interesting question: can you tell if a singer ‘means it’ (ie, has personal Christian faith) or if it is just technique? I have no intention of drawing any conclusions about that.

    The philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote an interesting book(“Personal Knowledge”) about expertise in which he said that a surgeon is not conscious of his knife while performing a delicate operation, nor a competent musician with an instrument. Polanyi said that the expert “indwells” the knife or violin. He said that there is ultimately no substitute for the discernment of experts in deciding what is good. Those who try endlessly to quantify research quality at the expense of peer review might take note.

    Ironically my favourite rendition of Haendel’s Messiah does the reverse of this rendition – Haendel wrote it for soprano but it is sung by counter-tenor (with the choir of King’s College, Cambridge). Counter-tenor is my natural register – I find I can sing loud and in tune in most registers (which is all that most choirs want) but only as a counter-tenor can I put *emotion* into it. I am well aware of this when I sing but I have no idea why it is.


  2. telescoper Says:


    It doesn’t always add very much seeing a video like this rather than just listening but in this case my comments were derived from the pictures. Julia Hamari is either a wonderful actress or she’s really “in the zone” with Bach. It’s great to see a great artist at work like that, I think.

    Singing voices are interesting things. Apparently, most male voices are baritone or bass (or somewhere in between) so tenors and countertenors are actually fairly rare. Most guys I know who sing in choirs and the like have bass voices, in fact. I always thought a bass would be a big chap, but all of them are actually quite slightly built. The physics of voice production is clearly non-trivial.

    I remember seeing the Handel Opera Rodelinda when I was in Toronto a few years ago. There’s a wonderful duet in that Opera in which a countertenor and a soprano sing to each other. It is quite an extraordinary effect because they were in the same register…


  3. Beautiful. Thank you Peter, I have not seen her perform this.

    Where is it coming from? The center. The source. The openness from which we spring. This is the reason I have serious problems with purely bio-mechanical explanations for consciousness.

    You can always tell the difference between the artist who is technically adept, and the artist who draws from that source within them. The artist who is in touch with that will often be far more moving, even when their technical skills might not be as proficient as another.

    And this is something we all share, and recognize, that hits us in inexplicable ways.

    I love Bach. I also have heard many people say his music is unemotional. I do not think they realize that much of Bach’s music is simply the pure joy and playfulness with the essence of the form, though. Something like this is very good at showing differently.

    So much of what Bach does seems like it simply should not work. For me, there is a great joy found within the divergent complexity that arises from simplicity, into a wholly unified and complete, greater thing.

    I have heard many people also say how simple his music is, strangely enough. And I have listened to people trying to create their own pieces similarly, in an attempt to demonstrate its simplicity, only to fail terribly.

    I think it is miraculous, too.

    I don’t know, but here is one Bach piece I love – it’s fun Bach. I know some people can’t stand harpsichords, but honestly, some Bach just works best on it. Pianofortes are cheating. This is Trevor Pinnock playing the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for solo harpsichord. it can be our structured math lesson for the day, the fugue in particular. By the way, I love what Pinnock does with Bach. He knows the guy’s spirit.

    And this is really good too, but not very quality media. It’s the C minor p&f on that just completely insane baroque beast of a machine, the organ. Only the first part – it’s continued in another, linked from there.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:


    This Passacaglia is amazing. I suggest that in music of this sort Bach is in the same business as (say) Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple when they are going all out. (Likewise Haendel in the climax of Royal Fireworks and Water Music.) It’s a universal emotion, ie TURN IT UP! I think Bach does this better in his organ music even than in his large-scale choral pieces. Magnificent.


  5. He was totally the blow-out rock star of his day 🙂 Many of his pieces were composed specifically to stretch the limits of church organs. To help send people into the awe and majesty of God. But I suspect he was happier knowing it just blew them away.

    By the way, it takes a lot of wind to produce those enormous sounds, and he was notorious for being a task master with the poor kids pumping the bellows.

    Church organs of his time were, if I’m remembering right, the most technically intricate mechanics of the period, too.

  6. Mark

    When I said “simple” I meant that it is simple to take it apart. That’s a much easier task than putting it together.

    You also reminded me that in his own lifetime Bach was little known as a composer. Even the St Matthew Passion wasn’t at all appreciated during his life. It was generally thought to be “too theatrical”. It took over a hundred years before it was performed outside his own home town.

    Bach did achieve some kind of fame during his life, though, as he was celebrated as an organist. It’s well documented that he loved to improvise at the keyboard, and that love of spontaneity also comes through his other music. I remember hearing the pianist Andras Schiff remark how Bach’s own hand-written manuscripts were done in a rather flamboyant wavy style that suggested he was really having a lot of fun writing them down. I hope that’s true. He never had the recognition he deserved in his own lifetime, but I like to think he loved what he was doing so much that didn’t really matter to him.


  7. Mr Physicist Says:

    What a contrast found on this blog! The genius and inspiration of Bach – remembered through generations. The ineptness of STFC – at best a foolhardy footnote in modern scientific times. Let us hope that it is the spirit of Bach that we see in 2010. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all.

  8. I knew what you meant by “simple” for sure here. I can see it in almost everything you write here. It’s why I trust what you have to say.

    I have not one tiny shred of doubt that Bach took great joy in creating. You cannot create what he did with out it. Passion. But it works both ways, joy and sorry. It’s a good thing we didn’t have brain drugs while he lived, or he’d probably be in the gray in-between.

    Here’s proof of his joy. It makes me cry. This is what academia should be. Not money.

    Here is proof of his “simple” genius. And later, his wondrous delight in just plain fun.

  9. Ha! Not off the wall at all. I second the Wendy Carlos. I even liked the earlier Walter Carlos stuff. Now that’s computers & Bach for sure.

    Glenn Gould drives me nuts, though. I know, I know. I would take Pinnock’s interpretations over his any day.

    My favorite Brandenburg’s is with Sir Nevil Mariner and The Academy of St Martin’s in the Field. Oh, I really miss that cafe down in the crypt, too.

    Here’s Glenn demonstrating the “fun” of trying to write a fugue (you have the nerve to try…? )

  10. […] to see in others the same need as ourselves. This aria in particular (I’ve posted about it before) conveys the feelings of shame and remorse of the disciple Peter after having betrayed Jesus. The […]

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