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March 26, 2009
By: Bernard Chazelle
I've been traveling pretty much nonstop these last few weeks and, to make the long airport waits and layovers bearable, I filled my iPod with several versions of Bach's passions. I hadn't done this sort of "comparative" listening in a while and I emerged from the exercise with a renewed appreciation for the difficulty of conducting Bach and the scholarly exigencies of the job. I thought I'd write a few words about the famous St Matthew aria, "Erbarme Dich." This version is conducted by Karl Richter, the ultimate Bach scholar.
First, some context. Bach thought highly of his St Matthew Passion. He called it his best work. Alas, few of his contemporaries shared the sentiment. After a performance in St Thomas Church on Good Friday, 1735, the powers-that-be in Leipzig whispered into Bach's ear that, as long as he kept that theatrical crap out of the Lord's House, everything would be all right. He took the hint and applied for a job in Dresden, 70 miles away, submitting his Mass in Bm as part of his application package. He was turned down. Perhaps that's because Dresden had high standards and, after all, the Mass in Bm is considered by many to be only the second greatest composition in Western music. The greatest? For Seiji Ozawa, it is "without a doubt, the St Matthew Passion."
Bach's two surviving passions (the other two were lost! Imagine literature without Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet...) fell into oblivion after a couple of performances. They were too hard, too long, too demanding, too operatic for Lutheran sensitivities. Ignoring friendly advice, Mendelssohn re-premiered the SMP 100 years later. By doing so, he invented what we term "classical music" today, ie, the modern view of a concert hall as both a school and a mausoleum. Music had never before looked to the past. On that day in 1829, Bach became immortal.
The subtly rhythmic "Erbarme Dich" is as meditative as "Ruht Wohl" but far more melancholy. It is no lullaby. And yet how could anything be sadder than mourning the dead? This aria, indeed, is not about death. It's about something theologically more serious -- betrayal -- and the feeling of guilt that goes with it. The text echoes the amazing opening chorus, "O Lamm Gottes," about which I must blog some day.
A couple of technical points. Surprise, surprise, the melody is eminently hummable. It repeats the same motif over and over: a minor 6th leap followed by a descending minor 3rd. The idea is to shoot up past the tonic from below and then fall back right on top of it. This hook inspired the world's most famous bossa nova, "Manha de Carnaval." But, whereas "Manha de Carnaval" lands on the tonic and moves on, Bach rests there to build harmonic tension. The wonderful Julia Hamari spends a full 4 seconds on that B (check it out at 1:10-1:15). While she holds the tonic, you can hear the tonal center gradually shift from the root chord (Bm) to the subdominant (Em). The harmonic motion is created by the cellos' 3-chord progression G-B7-Em, in a standard cadence that quite remarkably is produced by adding only a single note, 3 times, 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 in such minimalistic harmonic constructions that one can best appreciate Bach's contrapuntal genius. (Julia's compatriot, the great Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, used to talk about the "Proofs from the Book," ie, the math proofs that God keeps under his pillow. No doubt that's where you'll find Bach's harmonies, too.)
Yet the secret of the aria lies not in its melody but its rhythm. The time signature is 12/8, which is that of most slow blues (eg, Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood"). Bach has 12 beats to play with per measure, each one worth an 8th note (yep, that's why it's called 12/8). Like any good bluesman, he arranges them in runs of triplets. His runs go down the natural minor scale of B (recall that natural minor scale = scale of relative major, which here would be D). Hamari sustains that B over 9 beats: GGG-F#F#F#-EEE. (By all means, go ahead and count the 3 triplets by tapping gently on your keyboard 9 times.) This is just like a jazz walking bass line. But instead of Charles Mingus, we've got cellists plucking the strings of their instruments to evoke the tears flowing down Peter's cheeks. (We know that from the prior recitative and the fact that Bach was always big on sound imagery -- there are many wonderful examples of that I'll discuss some other time.) The descending line is relentless. The walking bass goes down and down and down, then comes up for air only to resume its plunge.
Yehudi Menuhin was crazy about the violin obbligatos. He called the "Erbarme Dich" solo the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin. To me, the genius of the music's pathos is that it isn't the slightest bit manipulative (that minor-mode affliction so common in popular music.) Here, it's about the sting of remorse. I find the humility and intimacy of the music almost overwhelming. Like a blues tune, it is a deeply personal statement, not a collective one. Of course the blues metaphor should not be stretched too far, but there's a fundamental integrity and spirituality to the music that reminds me a lot of Robert Johnson and John Coltrane. Even though the listener is immensely pleased, in the end that is not the purpose of the music. Bach made it very clear he was writing neither for humans nor for posterity. He was writing "for God." (If I lost 10 children, as he did, maybe I'd be doing the same thing, too.) He never gave in to any pressure to appeal to the local musical tastes. He was a big, tough guy, who was known to brawl in bars in his youth. He was even jailed once. When the local authorities threatened to block his promotion (which they did) if he didn't "simplify" his music, his only reply to them was a loud "Screw you!" Bach was fearless. But his Leipzig years were not happy ones. He had a much easier life composing for the Court (as the Brandenburg concertos make it very clear). But he chose to move to Leipzig to work for the church and take a huge salary cut. That was his own decision: a very Coltrane-like spiritual awakening. Sure, he was convinced his music was superior, but it's fascinating to hear his reasoning: "My music is better because I work harder. Anyone who works as hard as me will write music that is just as good." At least the first sentence is partly true: he did work harder than anyone. It took him one year to write the SMP, and it was performed only twice in his lifetime. It's humbling to think I've listened to it more often than Bach himself.
I'll leave you with a theological conundrum. The plucked cello notes are Peter's tears, but given its pitch the voice quite clearly is not his. So here is the question: whose voice is it?
Posted at March 26, 2009 01:02 AM
— Bernard Chazelle