You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

March 26, 2009

"Erbarme Dich"

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?

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at March 26, 2009 01:02 AM

Whose voice?

Lutherans took the "priesthood of believers" notion quite seriously. The whole idea of something like St. Matthew Passion (or any other Good Friday service, for that matter) was to induce the audience to think about how many times they had acted very much like Peter. Peter may have been a "saint" (the Lutherans were quite conflicted about the whole idea of saints) but he was a man like any of them.

So whose voice? From a theological perspective, the primary voice of necessity is that of the singer / storyteller, the secondary voice is that of Bach himself, and finally it is the voice of the person in the pew--who is supposed to recognize himself in the narrative. Theologically, Peter is just a random example of a greater story.

Bach is just relentless with the message "This is about YOU!" By the time we get to "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" two arias later, the parishioner had better feel guilty or he wasn't paying attention. By "Können Tränen meiner Wangen" we even discover HOW guilty we should feel?

Posted by: techno at March 26, 2009 06:58 AM


I always enjoy your posts on music....I really like the way you always bring in modern examples of some musical concept like your SRV's "Texas Flood." I assume, since you always mention guitar players, that you are one yourself? I've played for 25 plus years myself.....Do you know of Yngwie Malmsteen? He kind of invented the whole neo-classical metal movement in the 1980's..There wer others you dabbled in this before him-like Ritchie Blackmore-but no one did it to the extent that Malmsteen did. I didnt even know what a sweep arpeggio was until i got into Malmsteen in the 80's...He is huge Bach fan...often calling himself a Bach and Roller! See the clip below and others which you can easily find on Youtube. Tony

Posted by: tony at March 26, 2009 08:53 AM

One of the first CDs I bought, some twenty years ago, was Bach's Mass in Bm, largely because a maestro friend hailed it as the greatest piece of music ever. I find myself listening over and over to Bruckner's Masses in Em and Dm, seldom to Bach's. I bought Matthew's Passion at the behest of a professional musician who wouldn't/couldn't stop raving about it. I much prefer - in fact my favorite CD ever - Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus/Stabat Mater (only the rendition by, oddly enough, the English Bach Festival Orchestra; others seem to confuse mood with tempo, e.g., doloroso with adagissimo). And with string concerti, it's Telemann over Bach. I've often wondered whether it's just my peculiarity or it's that Bach is better appreciated intellectually, i.e. by those well-schooled in music theory and composition.

Posted by: cavjam at March 26, 2009 09:25 AM

Don't have anything to add, except thank you for this glorious music and wonderful post.

Posted by: Svensker at March 26, 2009 09:27 AM

I've often wondered whether it's just my peculiarity or it's that Bach is better appreciated intellectually, i.e. by those well-schooled in music theory and composition.

I think it's just individual taste. Bruckner makes me feel like I'm chewing oatmeal covered nails, while Bach pierces to the heart (altho agree the Vivaldi Dixit is lovely and so much fun). My only musical education (sadly) was growing up with a music-loving father and taking piano lessons as a kid.

Posted by: Svensekr at March 26, 2009 10:01 AM

oatmeal covered nails are delicious

Posted by: NYMNYMNYM at March 26, 2009 02:04 PM

My music is better because I work harder. Anyone who works as hard as me will write music that is just as good.

Any master of anything will tell you the same. And they would be just as right. The only difference between mediocrity and greatness is a curing process. Quality not quantity so they say. Believe it, the first draft of this song sounded something like John Cage.

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you
heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

A pattern I've noticed in life, is people create much great art as a reaction to deep pain. It's where the 'soul' in music comes from. You can't write and sing 'Stormy Monday' and sound like you mean it without living through a few. So it's the voice of the creator. Whether you're talking about a piece of music or the universe. How's that for a pathetic cry, God calling to himself for mercy.

Posted by: tim at March 26, 2009 02:40 PM

Malmsteen? I remember this funny anecdote from Guitar Player years ago. Yngwie J. Malmsteen was touring the US, and he got quite upset at the MC after the guy introduced him as simply Yngwie Malmsteen and not Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

Asked about it afterwards, the MC said he was not surprised by the angry reaction: "Quite understandably, the great guitarist didn't want to be confused with all the other Yngwie Malmsteens out there."

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 26, 2009 07:50 PM

A pattern I've noticed in life, is people create much great art as a reaction to deep pain.

One day many years ago I woke up with the phrase "Art is life's consolation prize" in my mind. Since then I've been trying to find out who said that. But while some have obviously expressed that general sentiment, I haven't found anyone who's said it that pithily. Hence I'm now claiming it as my own.

I think it makes sense in several ways: both that it's something you receive when you really, really wanted something else, and that it consoles you.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 26, 2009 08:20 PM

I always thought holy communion should go "This is the body of our lord Jesus H. Christ." Appeals to the OCD in me.

Art is simple, you can make art of anything you do.
1.)Imagine your goal, the end result, your art.
2)"Frame" it in the most general way
3) Fill in the details.
4) BAM fuckin art.

the important part is choosing your art well, it must mesh well with your soul because you will be pouring it in during step 3. Don't settle because their are fuck-tons of different arts out there.
(shout out to MUsashi -- Book of 5 rings)
Actually RZA revealed that book in an interview or something. He's verse 3 in that song, and you might get discouraged if you were thinking about making MC rhyme your art.

Posted by: tim at March 26, 2009 10:45 PM

Funny one Bernard....I never heard that one about Yngwie before...He is a bit of a blow hard...taking himself a bit to seriously...There are some funny parodies of Malmsteen on YouTube....still a great player who stands alone IMHO regardless of his BS.-Tony

Posted by: tony at March 27, 2009 08:33 AM

Good heavens but I love your music posts (and so does my 8 year old son)! Please keep up this fine work (and if it's not too much trouble, point to where we might find more of it if you've written on music outside of this site).

Posted by: KevinLMack at March 30, 2009 11:20 AM