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January 09, 2009

"Sind Blitze, Sind Donner in Wolken Verschwunden"

By: Bernard Chazelle

In the pantheon of classical music there is J.S Bach, and then there are the others. I'll blog about St Matthew's Passion, the crown jewel of Western music, some other day, but as an appetizer check out its famous chorus about "thunder and lightning," and try not to fall off your chair. The video is positively Riefenstahlesque.

To make a long story short, Jesus's disciples are quite miffed that he was betrayed and captured and they wonder out loud why "lightning and thunder have vanished in the clouds." (I've wondered the same thing in the Bush years.) The big pause (0:34) means they're waiting for someone up above to do something about it. When nothing happens, boy, they get mad.

The concert is in the very same Leipzig church where Bach premiered his Passion on Good Friday. And it's performed by the very same boys' choir he directed for 27 years. (I see on wikipedia that the choir was founded in the year 1212. So a pretty new outfit.)

Please listen carefully to the very last chord (1:06-1:08). On the closing word of the chorus, "blut" (blood), Bach snaps out of the Em in which the entire piece lives, raises the minor third to a G#, and signs off with an E major chord. Even if these words mean nothing to you, I am certain you can feel in your bones how this radiant last sound breaks so forcefully with all that you just heard.

Yes, it's pure musical ecstasy, but why is Bach doing that? By that time in his career, his sole ambition was to write music "for God" (much like Jon and me on this blog) so this modulation, common in church music, is his way of saying that today, Good Friday, might be a bit of a downer, but listen to that major third. It's telling you, hold tight, in 48 hours something really big is going to happen.

Richard Dawkins might not approve, but even he would have to agree that it worked wonders for a man's musical genius.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at January 9, 2009 12:52 PM

PHENOMENAL, Prof Chazelle!
What passion in those voices!!
Many thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 9, 2009 04:04 PM

I think the two best things humanity does is music and comedy. The glory of Bach’s music is timeless as far as I am concerned. There is very little dignity in life but when you listen to Bach you can forget about all that for at least a little while. Oddly he was more known for his organ playing during his life than his composition skills. Perhaps his modulation from minor to major was also a brief reprieve from the tyranny of the dominant/tonic cycle of western music. Something that has always interested me is how do we know that baroque music is played correctly in modern times since there were no recording devices during Bach’s time. Some people claim slow movements are played too slow and fast movements are played too fast. Also the instruments were different in those days particularly the woodwinds in their method of construction. For example flutes would have been wooden while today they are mostly made of silver and the keying systems have also been greatly improved over time. Also I believe if I recall my music history correctly most of the musicians were not professionals in the sense that that is what they did for a living so the level of musicianship might have been very different as well. Regardless Bach’s music is gorgeous.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 9, 2009 05:15 PM

Bach wrote two Passions, John and Matthew. But actually scholars believe he wrote 5 of them! Which means 3 of these works have been lost! Imagine literature without Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear...

Now imagine someone discovering the lost manuscripts!

Think what a sad place the world will be in 1000 years from now if a wikipedia entry reads: "Scholars believe Jonathan Schwarz had a blog."

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 9, 2009 06:25 PM

Think what a sad place the world will be in 1000 years from now if a wikipedia entry reads: "Scholars believe Jonathan Schwarz had a blog."

I don’t know about a 1,000 years from now but I do know I wouldn’t know half as much as I know now if Jonathan Schwarz didn’t have a blog.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 9, 2009 07:34 PM

Don't underestimate your cranial capacity, Rob.

An analogous rediscovery occurred recently with the believed-to-be-lost original version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis".

Posted by: saurabh at January 9, 2009 11:50 PM

I second Rob Payne.
Not only I have learnt a lot at ATR, I have also realized how little I know and how much more I need to learn.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 10, 2009 06:38 PM