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February 26, 2009

Bach's Lullaby

By: Bernard Chazelle

Call it the Bach paradox. The man composed music of high mathematical sophistication -- Goedel, Escher, and all that. Yes, it's really quite awesome. But in the end it's not the awesomeness that does it for me: it's the gentleness, the humility, the innocence, the deceptive simplicity, the sublime beauty of Bach's melodies. This final chorus from St John's Passion is a Bach melody to die for (this being a passion, literally so, I guess). Its tenderness and poignancy are physical.

Bach is not much into "mood" and "attitude." All that Sturm und Drang stuff will have to wait for later generations. His fancy footwork, dazzling counterpoints, canonic figures, and fugal runs are not meant to impress but to honor. Nowhere is that more obvious than in his two passions. But here's the thing: his lofty peaks so often, and so uniquely, segue into exquisitely melodic child-like voices. With Bach, you're getting King Lear and Goodnight Moon, all rolled into one.

Ruht Wohl ("rest well") is a lullaby. Officially, it's Jesus in the tomb being mourned but, if you listen carefully, you'll realize it's actually a baby being gently rocked to sleep. The 3/4 meter is a giveaway. Just as dance is the art of making the shortest path from A to B anything but a straight line, the essence of Bach's music is its curves - if you want angles, listen to Beethoven. And so there we have Jesus being laid to rest to a dance tune. (Think New Orleans.) The passion is a cycle, actually a palindrome. (No technical words in this post, so I'll spare you the explanation.) Ruht Wohl is the key turnaround of this large-scale piece: it brings it all back home. And so at this most solemn juncture of the most solemn hour of the most solemn day of the Christian calendar, what do we get? A sweet dance! That's what true genius is about. For dance is the essence of music and Bach understood that better than anyone. When he returned from a trip to discover that his wife had died, he was so devastated that he immersed himself into the composition of his monumental Partita in Dm in her memory. And what does the mournful Partita consist of? 5 dances.

Bach's famous toccata (which Keith Olbermann loves/hates so much) is always presented as Exhibit A for the "seriousness" of classical music. Baloney! The toccata sounds pompous because it was composed specifically to test-drive new organs. Literally. So it had to sound as full-throated as possible to get all those windy intertoobz blowing. For Bach it was nothing more than mindless goofball noodling. But he could be a very serious man, too, as when tragedy struck. He would then sit down and write really serious music, you know, dance tunes. Virtually all of Bach's music has a soft jazzy swing. Little wonder it's never ceased to inspire jazz musicians.

It's worth pointing out that Bach chose not to end his passion on that note. He added one final, upbeat chorale. Why did he do that? I think, being Easter, he did it to remind his Leipzig parishioners that Goodnight Moon has no meaning unless we're assured that the child will wake up the next day to say Hello Sun. Bach lost as many as 10 of his children in infancy and the record suggests it is with them in mind that he composed Ruht Wohl.

Conducted by the amazing Masaaki Suzuki and performed by his superb "Bach Collegium" ensemble.

Medical Warning: If you're new to Bach's passions, be warned that prolonged exposure to this music will renew your faith in humanity and make your eyes watery. Failure to display such symptoms might be an indication that you are clinically dead.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at February 26, 2009 04:17 PM

How can such beauty exist together with the horrors in the world? Blake asked that of the Tyger: "Did He who made the lamb make thee?'--the old question that has no answer. Thank you for Bach and Suzuki.

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at February 26, 2009 07:22 PM

Gracias mil.

Posted by: Jesus B Ochoa at February 26, 2009 07:33 PM

Why has inspiration deserted the human race?

I see the reasons every day in the haphazard pollution discarded thoughtlessly and randomly by humankind in general. Bach and other masters were thankfully free of such negativity.

The likelihood of a modern-day Mozart surviving the global schooling system is as likely as a whale, driven to insanity by US military sonar, surviving a mass suicidal beaching.

Posted by: Daniel at February 26, 2009 08:08 PM

i'd make the age old argument, without all the "horrors" of the world, we would have no idea the "beauty" of JSB. zin, zang, etc. etc...

Posted by: sloweducation at February 26, 2009 08:35 PM

i'd make the age old argument that without all the "horrors" of the world, we would have no idea the "beauty" of JSB. yin, yang, etc. etc.

Posted by: sloweducation at February 26, 2009 08:37 PM

Virtually all of Bach's music has a soft jazzy swing. Little wonder it's never ceased to inspire jazz musicians.

That’s an interesting observation. Some people argue that all western music has a swing element to it not just jazz. Some say one element of swing is a slight speeding up of the tempo as a piece of music progresses. I read somewhere that African drummers were impressed with the technical ability of jazz drummers but that they had a terrible sense of time as in speeding up and slowing down. They also criticized western musicians for not being able to play eighth notes evenly. However that may all be I have loved Bach for years and used to listen to his music for hours. I have a few flute sonatas that I still like to play and never fail to get emotionally involved with the beauty of Bach’s music which I never quite feel with other composers to the same degree for some reason.

Posted by: Rob Payne at February 26, 2009 11:13 PM

Your music posts are the best.

I would like to request a post about what the heck it is conductors do.

Posted by: Guest at February 27, 2009 12:55 AM

Thank You Mr. Chazelle,

Nice to read the comments of someone who is MUCH farther in Bach than I. I was sorting through my collections of St. Matthew Passions tonight so this was an especially appropriate addition to my evening.

Posted by: J Larson at February 27, 2009 04:04 AM

"I would like to request a post about what the heck it is conductors do."

I second that motion.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at February 27, 2009 08:45 AM

"prolonged and repeated exposure to this music" = music for the soul!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at February 27, 2009 09:47 AM

when one gets so involved in a piece of music, it ( music i.e.) can make one forget one's manners!
Many thanks ( missing from my previous comment) Prof Chazelle for the post.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at February 27, 2009 01:38 PM

Nothing to say except "thanks." Really, thanks.

I wrote a children's book about Bach for an educational publisher. In it I used the incident in which Maria Barbara, Bach's second wife, would sneak into the loft to listen to him play, and the church fathers chided him for allowing this "stanger maiden" into the church. The editors changed it to "strange maiden," because the original would confuse the kids, but of course it hardly means the same thing, does it? So much for American education.

Posted by: catherine at February 27, 2009 01:39 PM

What does "stanger maiden" mean?

Posted by: Guest at February 27, 2009 07:30 PM

Wonderful Post.

As Beethoven himself said, "His name shouldn't have been Bach (brook); he is an ocean.

Posted by: Paul Avery at February 28, 2009 03:54 PM

wow! I just spent five minutes crying at my office desk. Thank you...

Posted by: Peter Hinow at March 3, 2009 12:17 PM

i am pleased to announce that i am now the #1 hit on google for "stanger maiden." unfortunately i don't know what stanger maiden means, so googling myself for the answer proved useless.

Posted by: Guest at March 3, 2009 08:39 PM

I think the way to go is to heavily publicize my "Stanger Maiden" Cafe Press store, then when someone buys one of my t-shirts, I can ask them.

Please no ban me, I stop now.


Posted by: Guest at March 3, 2009 09:06 PM

Superb. Thank you

Posted by: waldo at March 4, 2009 03:05 AM
Bach is not much into "mood" and "attitude." All that Sturm und Drang stuff will have to wait for later generations.
I hadn't realized this until I read Hermann Hesse observing the same thing in Das Glasperlenspiel. In that narrative, the excessively rationalist future society eschews the passions of the Romantic era as degenerate, but they worship Bach as a kindred spirit. That's not to say he's cold or emotionless, but he does tend to elevate, rather than excite, the listener. Posted by: Cris at March 4, 2009 10:43 AM