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Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall

To appreciate some kinds of music, you have to be in the right mood. Adolescent angst is handy for Mahler’s vast, self-regarding symphonic canvases. A sense of adventure and a dose of hallucinogens are helpful when embarking on one of Scriabin’s mystical flights of fancy. Self-pity is apt for Sinatra’s None but the Lonely Heart. But there are some composers who are so immense and all-encompassing that they sweep “mood” away, the way a March wind sweeps away winter’s dead leaves. And of those composers, J.  S. Bach is the one who is truly infallible. On Easter Monday, the Royal Albert Hall hosts an extraordinary nine-hour celebration of his music, led by the musician for whom Bach means more than anything, John Eliot Gardiner.

There’ll be organ music on the Albert’s Hall’s stupendous instrument, played by John Butt. Three starry soloists will play music for solo cello, violin and harpsichord. And crowning everything will be Bach’s sacred music, played by Eliot Gardiner’s own Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, culminating in the great Mass in B minor (BWV 232). All this forms the climax of the BBC’s Baroque season and will be broadcast live on Radio 3.

But is Bach a Baroque composer at all?

Many people feel he floats outside history altogether. That’s why listening to Bach confers a mysterious sense of coming home, as if he’s both the origin and the center of classical music. All the great composers who come after him acknowledge that, even if they go through a stage of rebelling against him. Stravinsky is a case in point. When he was a young man, he said sniffily, “Bach is always compared to a cathedral, but there are many free spirits outside the cathedral.” Decades later, he repented.

In any case, the “timeless” Bach was in many ways a man of his time. He was conventionally pious, had the same smattering of Latin and rhetoric, the same loyalty to family and community, as all his neighbors. Look at the well-known portrait of Bach, and what you see is the face of a determined, hard-working German burgher, not some mystical dreamer. He liked a drink and a pipe, was prickly about his status, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He once flung an insult at a bassoonist who’d let him down in a performance. The incensed “nanny-goat bassoonist” later met Bach in the street and gave him a slap. Bach drew his dagger, and the two “tumbled about” in front of some gleeful students.

That’s not the only evidence of Bach’s quick temper. As for Bach’s music, it shows a deep reverence to his German forebears, but he wasn’t immune to changing fashions. When galant gracefulness came in, in the 1740s, he showed he could be as galant as anyone. And he was alert to the virtues of other nation’s traditions. While some German composers scorned the graceful, ornamented style of French keyboard music, Bach loved it, and according to one of his sons played it “fleetingly and with much art.” He was keen on the Italian concerto style, which courses through his own Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-51), and can even be heard in his sacred music.

So this most German of composers turns out to be the most universal. It’s a paradox, one of several that keep Bach familiar and yet mysterious. Here’s another. Bach is often praised for being the most abstract of composers. Such pieces as the Musical Offering (BWV 1079) are like geometry in sound. They unfold in calm, beautiful lucidity, aloof from human concerns.

Yet Bach is also the most sensuous of composers. He relished the sound of instruments. As Stravinsky put it: “You can smell the resin in his violins, taste the reeds in his oboes.” The joy of the Suite in D Major (BWV 1012) for solo cello arises from the physical pleasure of crossing the strings with the bow, and the ringing sound of the open D string. Many of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) are born out of the sheer fun of crossing hands at speed.

Fun isn’t a word that normally springs to mind when thinking of Bach, the great “lawgiver” of music. In fact his name is a byword for all the difficulties and constraints of technical rules in classical music. Generations of music students have struggled to harmonize a chorale or compose a fugue “in the style of Bach,” and yet, the composer often broke the rules himself. Some of his pieces are wild and willfully eccentric, such as the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903), or the cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54), which actually begins with a dissonance – something unheard-of at that time. In Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in B flat Major (BWV 1050) the harpsichordist, who for most of the piece fulfills the role of a modest “filler-in,” suddenly takes off in an extravagant solo. At that moment the solo keyboard concerto is born before our ears.

Strangest of all is the piece where Bach seems to invoke “law” at its most rigid, The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). As he piles up the fugue melody in ever more complex ways, the harmony often buckles under the strain. Underlying all these tensions in Bach is the fundamental paradox about him. Bach is often thought of as suffocatingly pious. I remember my university professor grumbling that “Bach is always on his knees.” Well, it’s true that he felt the reality of sin and the pains of this life, in ways that we find hard to empathize with. There are pieces in his output which express a dignified anguish at those things and resignation to God’s mercy.

We’ll hear those moods next Monday, but we’ll also hear something else: joy at divine providence, expressed in a way that partakes of everyday joy in life. Bach’s sacred music dances as it praises, and if we can’t join in the praising, we can certainly join in the dancing. So next Monday, forget the vile weather and post-Budget blues.

Come home to Bach.

Ivan HewettThe Telegraph