Features

Marvelling and Weeping

Johann Sebastian Bach

Vishvantara looks ahead to the Southbank Centre’s Bach Weekend in March – and back to her own discoveries of some of the music that has been most important to her.

In the music room, a Dansette Monarch took pride of place – over which Miss Brown, silent as was her preference, ritually divested an LP of its cover and inside sleeve, and prepared the machine. Crackles ensued. The orchestral opening, the energetic build-up of the long slow introduction, presented a clue to the vigour and joy that were soon so momentously to arrive. This culminated in a playful, teasing octave exchange before the wild and ecstatic theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony unleashed itself into the unsuspecting classroom. All the cells in my body vibrated as I listened. Where I had to sit completely still, they danced.

When the bell rang I ran out of the school gates and onto Marlow Hill, a half-mile-long descent. I skipped vertiginously down this for ten minutes, pigtails and satchel bumping, nothing but the symphony in my head. On a YouTube recording of the piece one user has commented, ‘I am sure this music has the power to make people feel and behave better. It should be compulsory to listen.’ I think Miss Brown would have agreed.

After suffering a serious illness he believed might have been fatal, Beethoven gave the slow movement of his Quartet in A minor (op 132) the title ‘Hymn of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity’. T S Eliot describes the effect of such music as ‘the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering’. I first experienced something of its profundity at university, at a tutorial with the late, great, Derrick Puffett. I’d finished reading out my apology for an essay on Italian Opera; on which Derrick made no comment. In silence he wheeled himself over to the record player and extracted a record to play. He let fall the needle on to the vinyl. Then in silence he wheeled his wheelchair round to face the window, his back towards me. There emerged such music! A language I had never heard or conceived of filled the room. It was eternal – it did not come dressed in the garments of a particular time-period.

When it finished, the needle did not lift automatically but stayed put, repeating its hypnotic jerk between the paper centre and the end of the recording. Derrick remained looking out at the summer roses, still without speaking. I crept over to the record player and managed to decipher the label’s spinning revelation. From there I tiptoed to the door, made my way to the music library, and borrowed recordings of all the Beethoven late quartets I could. I shut myself up in my college room with the recordings and scores, marvelling and weeping.

When, at 28, I discovered Buddhist meditation, I fell in love with it for many of the same reasons I had fallen in love with Beethoven, Handel and Bach. Bach – what can I possibly say about him? His music has fuelled much of my wonder at the world. It has been compared to great architecture, such as the great cathedrals. Or you could compare the intricacy, the power and the dramaturgy of his harmonic language to Shakespeare’s use of the English language. His music is the apotheosis of the Baroque period, a period in which music used the contrapuntal method of composition. You could think of this as being like a conversation between true individuals, all speaking their overlapping versions of the truth in harmony with each other – as opposed to the image of a solo singer with band and backing vocals supporting them.


music is conducive to the growth of self-intimacy, self-knowledge and self-compassion in the same way that practising meditation is


Bach was born in Eisenach in Germany in 1685. For the last twenty-seven years of his life held the post of Music Director at the principal churches in Leipzig. He died in 1750. He married twice – his first young wife dying in 1720 after bearing seven children, four of whom survived into adulthood. The following year Bach met and married a gifted young soprano seventeen years his junior – Anna Magdalena Wilcke – and they had thirteen more children, six of whom survived. Thus of the twenty children Bach fathered, only ten survived.

Bach must have felt these deaths – his first wife, and his children – deeply, and surely all the more because both of his own parents had died before he was ten. There is a beautiful thesis by the German musicologist Helga Thoene which holds that because Bach was away from home when his beloved first wife died, and because when he returned home she had already been buried, the pieces he wrote immediately after this event were encoded – filled with references to Chorales (Lutheran hymns) that dealt specifically with death, resurrection, and faith amidst great suffering. She argues that the great Chaconne from the D minor partita for solo violin was woven around such a Chorale, and my experience of listening to the partita with the Chorale sung above it was indeed one of hearing Bach’s hidden, raw but sublimated emotions.

There is a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in Bach’s music coming up in the South Bank Centre’s Bach Weekend, from Friday 13 March until Sunday 15 March 2015. The opening concert features the Double Violin Concerto (tickets for that particular event will go fast). I defy you to remain unmoved listening to the slow movement of that Double Violin Concerto. It’s just possible that the relationship of the two solo violins – their questioning and communion,  their intertwining and their separation, one’s call and the other’s answer – will speak to your soul  with a subliminal teaching about the possibilities of human communication and our capacity to experience the spiritual in music – two things the pianist and concentration camp survivor Alice Sommerherz said were ‘umbilically intertwined’. In my experience, music is conducive to the growth of self-intimacy, self-knowledge and self-compassion in the same way that practising meditation is. During my first practice of the Loving Kindness meditation, when we were encouraged to respond with kindness towards ourselves, I experienced this as a bucket of warm clear water emptied over my head, streaming down my arms, exhilarating and warming. Just as with the showing of the ‘hidden’ Bach chorale, I had been initiated into a great and powerful secret.

Bach Weekend 2015

Bach and the Concerto: 13-15 March

An exploration of the concerto, juxtaposing Bach’s concerto output with the masterpieces of his main inspiration, Antonio Vivaldi. Includes the ‘Sunday Concertos’.

More info at southbankcentre.co.uk

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