Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Bach plus seven in the Tower

Here’s an absolute gem I would have missed, had it not been for the diplo-mate and European Commission/EUNIC support for a fabulous cause. Organist William Whitehead is masterminding a project to ‘complete’ the Orgelbüchlein, Bach’s miniature collection of chorale preludes for organ. The exquisite little book has titles of 164 chorales, but Bach only completed 46 of them. Whitehead had the brilliant idea of commissioning composers to fill in the gaps, providing as he puts it ‘a “Gesamtorgelbüchlein”, a complete hymnal...a sort of 21st century tribute to Bach posing the question “what would Bach have done if he’d been alive today?" '.

Looking forward to getting inside my beloved Tower of London and sitting in the airy Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, I nevertheless approached what I imagined would be an all-organ programme with some trepidation. I only partly josh that too much organ music makes me sick, simply because during one Aldeburgh Festival when I was on duty as a Hesse Student, I had to leave Gillian Weir’s recital in Norwich Cathedral to throw up just outside the porch. In truth, it was probably something I’d eaten, though Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on BACH is chromatic enough in itself to turn the stomach.

As it turned out, Whitehead had devised a sequence of dazzling intricacy and variety. The real depths were plunged in the wonderful Catherine Martin’s exploration of three Biber ‘Rosary’ Sonatas, accompanied by Whitehead: I’ve heard Andrew Manze’s performances on CD, but I was hardly aware of all the musical symbology, such as the sign of the cross, in these searing representations of the Annunciation, the Agony in the Garden and the Crucifixion. And only rarely have I taken on board how vibrato-free playing as expressive as this can pierce the soul. It was helpful to have an introduction from Catherine explaining the use of scordatura; each of the sonatas requires retuning of the strings to create its special quality. I came across the scheme while I was seeking further web enlightenment:

Two of the Biber sonatas were placed strategically as part of the Orgelbüchlein sandwich, respectively prefaced and concluded by two of Bach’s big Preludes and Fugues as played with magnificent control and the occasional freedom by Colm Carey; the one in G major (BWV 541) sent us out treading air. Carey also played the Bach originals and the new works in the Orgelbüchlein’s sequence, broken only by the central Biber meditation on Gethsemane. In another inspired touch, Susan Gilmour Bailey gave expressive rein to the original chorale melodies, so we could hear what the six new composers as well as Bach had done with them.

Or not. In two cases, undoubtedly the most original, Spanish composer Benet Casablancas and Lithuanian Justé Janulyté had sent the melodies underground, Casablancas’s wild fantasia – much the longest at just under the commission limit of five minutes – asking the organist to pull out a multitude of stops. Most interesting, perhaps, was the range of approaches: in addition to these mysteries and complexities, Thomas Daniel Schlee gave us a 21st century version of Bachian polyphony, Ēriks Ešenvalds contented himself with chaste homage to Bach and Jonas Jurkūnas’s reflection on the surprisingly cheerful Am Wasserflüssen Babylon burbled along cheerfully, if a little aimlessly, in minimalist style.

I was delighted to see Benet there (pictured above right with Whitehead), since we’d enjoyed a lively correspondence following our pre-performance conversation when the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the brilliant Josep Pons played his Seven Scenes from Hamlet. And I hadn’t realized that my connecting Jurowski with Casablancas, as a composer in whose music he might take no small interest, resulted in a performance of the composer’s Darkness Visible when the LPO and their principal conductor visited Barcelona this February.

I’ve said little of the circumstances surrounding this Spitalfields Winter Festival event. It began unpromisingly with our queueing at the Tower entrance in the freezing cold, being roughly herded by an uncharming Beefeater while penguin-suited Esso employees swanned past us to their reception. But it’s always wonderful to enter the inner sanctuary at night, the White Tower looking more imposing than ever

As you can see from the top photo, the lights of St Peter ad Vincula glowed invitingly. Inside it was warm and bright. We admired the monuments, and the sanctuary inscriptions to the three ladies who lost their heads on Tower Green and were buried here – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – alongside sanctified Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher. The organ case sat in the Banqueting House Whitehall from its construction by Bernhard Schmidt in 1699 to its removal to this royal chapel in 1899, by which time additions had made it three times larger; more recently it has been restored to its original dimensions. The pipework is recent and the instrument sounds in good health, for all I can tell. One thing’s for sure: sitting in the first row of the left aisle and watching foot and fingerwork, as well as having superlative Martin playing right in front of us only added to the pleasure of an unforgettable evening.

One footnote while we’re in chapel: should I have been surprised when the government’s Maria Miller announced that the Church of England would be legally exempt from the current move to allow gay marriages in church* (ie limiting such marriages to a very restricted number of venues)? After all, isn’t the CofE the Tory party at prayer? For myself, I don’t care: civil partnership is good enough for me, and I was reminded that in early January we celebrate seven years of our ritual and the ‘Just Not Married’ party which followed, jumping in as we did to tie the registry office knot three weeks after it all became legal in the UK. But why should those who do want a church event be treated like second-class citizens? Erstwhile blogger pal Jon Dryden Taylor, who doesn’t post enough these days, gives a brilliant exposition of why our rights should be extended here.

*It now turns out this was done 'on the hoof', without consulting the CofE


Susan Scheid said...

I can just picture "being roughly herded by an uncharming Beefeater while penguin-suited Esso employees swanned past us to their reception," though it seems to have turned out to be a delightful evening, despite your past associations with organ music (!). Interesting the issue of what would Bach do. Reminds me of a newish album by Ars Nova Copenhagen, an ensemble I think are a stellar bunch. In the album, Bent Sørensen fills in the blanks on Johannes Ockeghem's Requiem (a BBC Choral Choice in September, I believe). I love this group's singing and wanted to like the album, but found the modern interpolations jarring. Ah well. Perhaps my ear will become more accustomed in years to come.

As for ye olde marriage issue: my take from here is it's a bundle of legal rights, and the way these things work, if you try to create two separate lines of such rights (the old separate but equal gambit), inevitably something gets lost. I don't care about the nomenclature, but at least over here, we're stuck with "marriage" as the name given the legal bundle, and I see no hope of getting out of that. What this means, to me, is that gay folk have to get access to that particular set of rights, not a facsimile thereof, if you know what I mean.

David said...

Wise as ever, Sue: and always good to get the legal perspective. I have to admit the wedding thing sticks in my personal craw: I can't ever say 'my husband', though it's useful for establishing things meeting strangers who ask if you're married to say, 'no, I'm civilly partnered' (again, I may be repeating myself).

On the interpolated note, I rather enjoy cadenzas inserted into old concertos, like the Schnittke one Gidon Kremer sometimes plays in the Beethoven. The trouble with Bach, of course, is that nothing can compare. Though as I said the difference in approaches is fascinating.

Will said...

I think the Bach completion project could bring into being some fascinating work. Is Mr. Whitehead limiting his list only to composers who work in what we might term classical music? I think that would be a shame -- I think particularly of what the sadly recently deceased Dave Brubeck might have created with such an opportunity.

David, if he's your husband via commitment and emotion, do call him your husband whether it's legally correct or not -- a variation, perhaps, to Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Claim that for yourselves because the truth is stronger than bureaucracy. As you must be aware, we are in the middle of exciting times here with the astonishing results of the last election and then the Supreme Court announcement that it would rule on same-sex marriage coming swiftly behind. Next June is supposed to see the announcement of their decisions

And mine is another voice lamenting the infrequent posts from Mr. Dryden Taylor!

David said...

I actually don't like the word 'husband' because for me it has implications of being proprietorial, ie 'bound to the hus', though I know it doesn't mean that. Perhaps because it also has conventional overtones. 'Other/better and more beautiful half' seems much more to do with minds and souls (and in any case I have plenty of straight friends who are partners and not married to each other).

I agree, it would be good to open up the Orgelbuechlein to the wider musical world. But each composer has to be bound to writing for the organ, and consequently to know how to do that.

Susan Scheid said...

And if one thinks husband is bad, just think about the societal connotations of wife! No way on that one for me. Spouse isn't bad, though I think I like ___-Mate the best.

You know, I realize I seem to have generalized on interpolations in a way I didn't intend. I can definitely see how a modern cadenza in an older work--and all sorts of interpolations of various kinds--could work, creating a conversation between composers, if done well.

Will said...

Fritz was wary of the word, but he changed his mind when he found an alternate dictionary definition "to preserve or hold dear" and hen he was fine with525 Gervcn it.

David said...

Well, there we have it: two conflicting views. Indeed, Will, I suppose that's where 'husbanding one's resources' comes from. But the 'societal connotations' of the word - and indeed of 'marriage' - put me off. Having equal rights is much the most important thing. But, I repeat, I want those who do want marriage, and in church, to have it.

David Damant said...

The gay marriage business is another example of the over-use of a generally correct principle. The general principle in this case is the need to establish equality for gays such as myself. The over-use is to insist on gay marriage even though it offends so many people. It is only an idea. Why not wait? Ideas will evolve. Another example of the over-use of a correct general principle is the proposal to consecrate women bishops. Traditionalists on both topics should be handled with care and Christian love. And as Gamaliel said ( Acts 5, 38 and 39), if it be of men it will come to nought, but if be of God ye cannot overthrow it

PS I was going to paraphrase the Authorised Version - but the original shone through

David said...

Wait, though, for what and when? Even the Bishops agree the time has come with regard to admitting practitioners of the opposite sex. The trouble is, as always, that the traditionalists are the ones behind the times. And do not seem to have a grasp of basic Christian principles.

David Damant said...

The traditionalists would argue that it is they who have the grasp of Christian principles. I also believe that a good deal of the pressure for gay marriage and women bishops is worldly - the status of gays or women in itself matters little in the face of the mystery of life, and the Revelations of Jesus Christ In the case of women bishops, the proponents would have got their vote if they had had more Christian regard for the "weaker brethren" rather that insisting ( in a worldly way) that they did not want to have second class women bishops because of flying male bishops etc. In this case charity and political planning argue for the same conclusion.

David said...

Sophistry, I think, compared to the simple arguments of inclusion vs exclusion. We are not going to agree on who are the ones exerting the tyranny in this instance.

David Damant said...

David, I think that you speak as a non-believer.

David said...

I'm certainly a non-knower, but I do reckon some of Christ's tenets are worth following, like 'love thy neighbour as thyself', a command I don't see whole swathes of the CofE exactly following. 'Wait until the times change' is also, in my view, a pernicious doctrine.

Now, anyone else interested in this marvellous concert?

David Damant said...

The Garrick Club Carol Service - in St Paul's Covent Garden and open to all - has the music ( choir, organist ) installed and conducted by William Whitehead. Other Carol services are put into the shade. And this year we even had a composition by the great man - super and very favourably received, including by those who had no reason not to be critical. But the date has passed for 2012.

Colin Dunn said...

David, I have been thinking (for a while) about William Whitedhead's utterly admirable commitment to completing Bach's Orgelbuechlein using today's composers, and Bach's failure to complete the cycle.

William is doing wonderful work in getting fresh interpretations of wondrous chorales out into the world. If I was still composing, I might have written my own but the world will be saved another airing of my chorale prelude of "Jesu, meine Freude" viewed through the prism of the music of the Baben-zele Pygmies in the Central African Republic.

The second issue concerns Bach himself. Surely, I have thought, the reason he did not complete the cycle is that he did not write the works for didactic and scholastic reasons. They were not in the same category as the Art of Fugue, the Musical Offering or the 48. No, rather they were (as I understand it) used for practical reasons: when in need of a chorale prelude in a service, out comes his MS of "Christ lag in Todesbanden", for instance, and he would play it. Alternatively, he'd improvise a chorale prelude, and this I feel is the nub, the core, of him not completing the cycle: he wrote 46 and he had enough to perform when, for whatever reason, he could not improvise. The empty sheets of paper, all ruled with his rastrum and suitably titled, are proof enough that this is not a case of massive numbers of missing choral preludes. He intended to write more, but just didn't get around to it. Bach was a busy man.

I will follow William's endeavours closely.

And, yes, I,too, love that little parish church stuck in the middle of the complex of buildings known as the Tower of London. Terribly moving, especially when passing the spot where so many poor souls were wrenched from life's thread.

David said...

That's an interesting point, Colin: church music as a living, growing entity. I'm sure you're right. I'm now working on a plan to listen to the right Bach cantatas on the right days. If only there were one for every day of the year.