Life with J.S. Bach
My parents had a record player and a handful of records. One each by Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Louis Armstrong, and Judy Garland, plus a couple of Cuban rhumba and cha cha dance albums. Also a boxed set of Guimar Novaes playing Chopin, which had been a Book of the Month Club bonus. When I was in high school, I added a couple of Barbra Streisand records. And that’s it. I listened endlessly to all of these, lying on the living room floor at night, in the dark. I’m sure these performers, and the music they performed, profoundly affected my musical shaping, at least as much as the piano lessons I took and the school and church choirs in which I sang.
My mother helped me to buy my own portable record player when I went to college. I took the family records with me, and started to buy a few of my own at the college book store. Sergio Mendes; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Simon and Garfunkel. I also ventured into “classical” music-- Kirsten Flagstad, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and a two-record set of the J.S. Bach motets, sung by an English choir, whose name I never paid attention to and don’t remember. These Bach recordings absolutely blew my mind, as we used to say. I played them repeatedly, for myself, for friends, while I studied, while we sat around my room drinking beer on Friday and Saturday nights. Though I went to a Lutheran College, we did not sing Bach in our choirs-- so these recordings were my formative introduction to Bach’s vocal style and works. Thanks goodness the performances were excellent: they made creases in my brain which I would never be able to erase.
My favorite of the motets was Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229. From the very beginning, it appealed to me as a perfectly balanced evocation of world weariness and pain, answered by joyous affirmation, faith and hope. I expect that most college-age students feel a good deal of the former, and it was exaggerated by the events and struggles of that time. The Viet Nam War, the civil rights struggle, the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Kent State killings, formed the matrix of my college years, and I know that I, at least, felt little hope and joy in considering the future. I didn’t know that Bach’s motet was thought to have been composed for a funeral, but I surely felt that my world was preparing to die, and his text, written by Paul Thymich, greatly appealed to me:
Come, Jesus, come,
my body is weary,
my strength wanes more and more,
I long for your peace;
the sour path becomes too difficult for me!
Come, come, I will yield myself to you;
you are the true path, truth and life.
It was quite easy to see, and hear, that each line of text was matched to an appropriate musical idea, and to follow the progression of feeling from the darkness of the opening to the soaring lyricism of the final line. There was nothing abstract or ambiguous about it. This clarity really appealed to me then, and continues to do so, now. The difficulty of the piece is not in understanding it, but in executing it: the writing is so dense and complex, polyphonically, harmonically; the articulation so precise and demanding. The choir really has to be firing on all cylinders, and very sure-footed, to pull this off. Though very short-- the motet lasts about eight and a half minutes—the piece really qualifies as a major work and must be treated so, rehearsed as such, if it is to receive an effective performance.
I count it as my great luck, that I happened upon this piece so early in my life. It has accompanied me, as singer and as conductor, throughout my adult musical career. I have grown through it, and witnessed the impact it has on others. I am grateful to have yet another opportunity to perform it this spring, on Chorale’s June 9 concert.