Comments: "Kommt Ihr Töchter"

This is a very enjoyable post. I’m always impressed with your musical knowledge. I think the only thing I might disagree with is the idea that words have meaning while musical notes do not. A single note like a single word has no meaning. If I walked up to you and said “bird” it wouldn’t mean anything to you but if I said “Look at that bird in the tree” then the word is imbued with logical meaning. The same thing is true of musical notes. A single note by itself has no meaning. But when you play the note F# as in the example of the descending line you wrote then F# is imbued with meaning just like the word bird. For a single word it is its use in a sentence that gives it meaning. And for musical notes it is the notes that come before and after a single note that give that single note meaning.

Another example might be when people ask “well what’s the difference between a G Major 6 chord and an E minor 7 chord?” They both contain the exact same notes and I think the best answer is that (other than the bass notes) you have to look at where the chord is in the progression noting the chords that come before and after. What is kind of interesting is that though the two chords share the same notes they have different functions. A Major 6 chord sounds at rest while the E minor 7 wants to resolve.

Posted by Rob Payne at June 20, 2009 11:30 PM

A poem:
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
Is that an Angel up above
Or an F-16
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
Is that an Angel over head
Or an F-18
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
Is that the soldiers I hear
Or the children's screams
Oh when those tanks
go rollin' in
Oh when those tanks
Oh when those tanks
Oh when those tanks
Go rollin' in
You better be hid
In some bunker
Oh when those tanks
Go rollin' in
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
Is that lightening strike
Or a rain of Willy Pete
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
Is that the thunder's pound
Or another JADAM scream
Oh Zion! Oh Zion!
What does GAZA
Really mean
Oh when those tanks
Go rollin' in
Oh when those tanks
Oh when those tanks
Oh when those tanks
Go rollin' in
They'll probably cook
In those bunkers
Oh when those tanks
Go rollin' in

Posted by Mike Meyer at June 21, 2009 12:04 AM

Professor, your love of Bach and music is endearing. i'm a hopelessly remedial student, but it's still much appreciated.

Posted by Not Exactly at June 21, 2009 12:19 AM

Can you recommend an SMP recording or two?

Posted by Guest at June 21, 2009 01:28 AM

BEUTIFUL!
Thank you Prof Chazelle.

ps I had to listen to this piece several times to really appreciate it and specially the separation of voices from three choruses. The following video clip helped to do that ( may be, it was because how the three choruses were distinctly separated and one could separate their voices). And the more I hear the music you have posted, the more beautiful I find it.

Bach - Matthäuspassion - 01 - Kommt, ihr Töchter (part 2)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4Jecl_J1WQ

Posted by Rupa Shah at June 21, 2009 10:54 AM

Please excuse my typing error! I am hopeless.
It should read "BEAUTIFUL"!

Posted by Rupa Shah at June 21, 2009 11:47 AM

Rob: you're absolutely right about the logical meaning of music. Very much like language. Some phrases have a feeling of necessity -- as though no other combination of notes would work. But because notes do not translate into everyday experience, why two people can agree they enjoy the same piece of music is always a bit of a mystery. Or put differently, if someone says to me that my favorite novel bores them, we can at least talk about the story and have a conversation. But with music it seems that love and meaning are inseparable. I don't see how my post can make anyone understand the SMP, because to understand it is to love it. Hopefully it'll entice them to listen to it. But they still don't like it afterwards, that's it. Words can't help.

I find this even more frustrating with jazz, because sharing one's excitement is so difficult. Words are very inadequate.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at June 21, 2009 01:43 PM

Bernard,

I think I see what you mean -- though music is logical (or good music is logical) it is still an abstract so each listener experiences it a little differently. Maybe some are interested by the counterpoint or perhaps someone else is enthralled by the beautiful melodic lines of Bach’s music. So two different people might enjoy the same piece of music but not for the same exact reasons. What is also mysterious to me is why a series of tones affect us emotionally. Sure, we can all agree that if a piece of music is to be mysterioso that it should be written in a minor key but that doesn’t really explain why a minor key is better suited for mysterioso than a major key even though we know it is from listening.

Yes it is difficult to convey the excitement of listening to good jazz. One person told me they didn’t like jazz because it reminded them of smoky night clubs. I just shrugged my shoulders because I didn’t have any good reply to that. If someone associates jazz with a certain environment there is nothing you can say that might change that view. Another person told me that jazz made her dizzy. Again, what could you possibly say to that, how can you convey the excitement of a really great rhythm section and how it interacts with the soloist which sometimes seems like ESP. You are right, people have to experience it or they don’t and who knows why?

And still others have told me they like melody but they don’t hear any melody in jazz. This just blows me away because for me jazz is full of beautiful melodic lines. It’s a mystery alright.

Posted by Rob Payne at June 21, 2009 03:06 PM

o Funny line about smoky night clubs. Actually I realize now that I associate lots of pop tunes with particular events in my life, but I don't have that kind of immediate association with jazz/classical. Not sure why. "Penny Lane" will always bring me back to 7th grade walking in the school yard. The association is indelible.

o Best SMP interpretations? Herreweghe is probably my favorite (his 2nd recording in the late 90s). Scholl is an amazing countertenor. I like the English style, too (especially Gardiner). Suzuki is fantastic (as is his mentor, Koopman). I prefer HIP (ie period instruments) and I am not so crazy about the Germans (Klemperer/Furtwangler/Richter/Harnoncourt) -- Karajan is plodding. Basically the Classical/Romantic guys like vK don't get it.
But still.... a Hungarian friend told me that everyone who speaks Hungarian speaks perfectly (b/c no one takes 2 years of Hungarian). By and large the same is true of the SMP. Only the experts do it. So by definition it cannot be bad. But there are tradeoffs. I don't care that much for the tempo and conducting style of the Germans but they tend to have the best soloists (Suzuki's weak point). Herreweghe probably has the fewest weaknesses: great soloist, great "swing," great drama.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at June 21, 2009 03:30 PM

Bernard, does rehearsing and performing the St. Matthew's Passion have the same emotionally draining effect on musicians and singers?

Posted by Nell at June 21, 2009 03:31 PM

Nell, I can only speculate. I am sure it's exhausting for the evangelist and the soloists because of the sheer length and difficulty. But nowadays it's treated as concert music. I am not sure how much the musicians pay attention to the meaning of the words. (The good Bach conductors do. They're all Bach scholars. One has to.) But back in Bach's days, it was more like gospel music in black baptist churches, ie, it was an integral part of a religious experience. Not at all a "recital." The whole good friday vespers would run 4 hours: 3 hours of music with in the middle a 1-hour sermon. No potty break. Lutherans are more into the crucifixion thing than Catholics, so I believe that feeling the pain and the emotion was an essential part of the experience. That's why the words are so important. So I have to assume it was incredibly draining emotionally.

Which brings up the issue of intentionality. If Bach only wanted to write good music, it's hard to believe it would have been half as good. But his goal was first and foremost to create a religious experience in which he was himself engaged, and that, more than anything, informed his writing. Which brings an intensity and a range of emotions he could not have gotten otherwise. Except perhaps for the Art of Fugue, his religious choral works on a different plane altogether than the rest of his output.

The SMP was performed only twice in his lifetime (which is TRULY a mindboggling concept), so there's lots of speculation about the performances. For example, how could a city like Leipzig field such a large ensemble with music making such demands on its members? Was the musicianship just so much higher than now? It's hard to believe. Others speculate this large orchestration was only in Bach's dreams and the ensembles were much smaller (which would be more realistic).

But it's hard to believe that a deeply religious singer (as no doubt they all were) could sing Erbarme Dich to a large crowd on good friday and remain the same person afterwards.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at June 21, 2009 05:19 PM

it's like... feel the vibrations man... :D

Posted by tim at June 21, 2009 09:11 PM

colors, vowels, deadly sins, chakras, days of week, bunch of shit in the bible. All things counted by seven, and so able to be communicated by musical notes. Not to mention spelling stuff with the letters.

Posted by tim at June 21, 2009 09:20 PM

SMP as Lutheran Gospel music. Chazelle--you really get it.

As someone who endured those interminable Good Friday Lutheran services as a child, I am not certain we are into the crucifixion thing more than anyone else, but we ARE into the idea that all this historical brutality was because of OUR sins.

Looking back, I think it was absurd to try to imagine the petty misdemeanors of a child were responsible for a crucifixion, but it probably wasn't so bad to learn that personal wickedness can lead to greater tragedies.

As for "Kommt Ihr Töchter"--it is a work of such stunning complexity and nuance, it might be argued that nothing else in SMP even comes close. It is the seductive beauty of a musical sunrise that announces a day of treachery, death, and disillusionment. And to do it right, one must train children to participate in this musical complexity.

Welcome to a Lutheran Good Friday. We survive.

Posted by techno at June 22, 2009 12:47 AM

Bernard,

This is up to your usual excellent standard. As always, entertaining and enlightening -- and extremely well written.

I've always been especially moved by the final chorus, "Und da sie den Lobgesang gesprochen hatten." After a brief instrumental introduction the chorus doesn't enter so much as burst in on the listener in a wave of grief that still startles, even shocks me with its power. I don't know what the dynamic marking is, but it sounds like fortissimo, depending most likely on the conductor (in my case Helmut Rilling). I take these convulsions of sorrow to be Bach's way of saying that the Crucixion may ultimately spell salvation for humankind, but one must never forget the horror and human pity of the event itself.

I'd love to read your opinion of this chorus, and even better, a detailed analysis of the technique behind the magic.

Posted by Arthur Chapin at June 23, 2009 08:48 AM

Bernard,

This is up to your usual excellent standard. As always, entertaining and enlightening -- and extremely well written.

I've always been especially moved by the final chorus, "Und da sie den Lobgesang gesprochen hatten." After a brief instrumental introduction the chorus doesn't enter so much as burst in on the listener in a wave of grief that still startles, even shocks me with its power. I don't know what the dynamic marking is, but it sounds like fortissimo, depending most likely on the conductor (in my case Helmut Rilling). I take these convulsions of sorrow to be Bach's way of saying that the Crucixion may ultimately spell salvation for humankind, but one must never forget the horror and human pity of the event itself.

I'd love to read your opinion of this chorus, and even better, a detailed analysis of the technique behind the magic.

Posted by Arthur Chapin at June 23, 2009 08:49 AM