Shchedrin, J.S. Bach, and a touch of Duparc
This week we said goodbye to Rodion Shchedrin, turned in our Sealed Angel scores, and began rehearsing the St. John Passion, by Shchedrin’s favorite composer, J.S. Bach. Shchedrin himself says that Bach is 50% mathematics, 50% stupidity; and at this stage of our learning, we can’t afford to explore any of the stupidity: the math is so incredibly demanding. Why would I expect otherwise… whether it is one of his weekly cantatas, a one-movement motet, or one of the Passions, Bach’s music takes no prisoners. With each work Chorale learns and performs, we begin in total bewilderment-- how could he think of all that? How can his harmonic language be so rich, his rhythmic pulse so complex, that he can fool us, again and again, by taking us in directions we do not foresee, with a new chord on every beat of the measure, a new metrical twist with every phrase?
Chorale will do fine. Each time we undertake a new Bach work, we sound terrible for the first couple of rehearsals. I look up from my own score, and see singers twisting themselves in knots, valiantly trying to plow ahead and keep up, skipping bars, grimacing, laughing helplessly, as they confront what seems impossible. As I specify breath marks, ornaments, dynamics, I see that singers are befuddled—why does he talk about ornaments, when I can’t even get the basic pitches? I see that some of the singers are even angry—angry that Bach asks so very much, angry that I expect them to be up to Bach’s demands. Every now and then, some singer will raise his hand and ask, How are we supposed to breath? There are no rests, no commas in the text…for two pages!
Finally, though, the math starts to sink in—or, rather, to surface, through the cloud of notes—and the singers begin to perceive patterns; they put more and more pieces of the puzzle together, and the whole thing starts to make glorious sense. Chorale is fortunate in its singers: so many of them are highly intelligent, and highly educated, graduates of elite colleges and universities, accustomed to confronting problems with confidence and chutzpah. I wonder if any other nonaffiliated choir has so large a proportion of MDs, JDs, PhDs, as Chorale has—to say nothing of the growing number of trained music teachers and performers who are joining our ranks. I often envision them with sharpened number two pencils behind their ears, analyzing, comparing, criticizing, ready to astound me with their observations and insights. And once they perceive the patterns, and unlock some major portion of the Bach system, they race through, joyously, picking up pitches and relationships, which had completely stumped them previously. When we reach that point, I am astounded by their rate of learning, and by their understanding.
The other 50%, the art and inspiration, the stupidity part, is, in the long run, far more difficult for us. The mathematics part stumps and frustrates Chorale’s singers because they know it is there, they know it makes sense, and they know that they fall short; but the stupidity part can all too easily escape them—their predilection, and their training, suits them for ratiocination, not for emotional transcendence. An uncle of mine once told me that he loved Bach because the composer left nothing to chance: one just turns on the “baroque machine” and everything takes care of itself, happens in proper order with no fuss. My uncle did not realize that the other 50% existed. And many of Chorale’s singers do not, either. Teaching them to hear, feel, understand, inhabit, that other 50%, is the conductor’s greatest challenge—much less leading them to express it in performance. The easier thing, given smart, prepared singers, is to aim for cleanliness, for museum-quality reproduction, for “expression of the composer’s intentions,” for unimpeachable clarity; musicology, and “historically informed performance practice,” tend to encourage this, and to free the performers from personal, emotional involvement, other than the satisfaction and euphoria that come with doing a thing well. The less easy thing—the difficult thing—is to allow oneself to become vulnerable to the emotion, the pain, the joy, the passion, which are so clearly essential components of Bach’s genius. Once encountered and acknowledged, they can be dangerous and subversive; Bach then enters ones whole being, like a virus for which there is no cure. I often think of the great Duparc song, Le Manoir de Rosamonde:
Love, like a dog, has bitten me with its sudden, voracious teeth... Come, the trail of spilt blood will enable you to follow my tracks. Take a horse of good pedigree and set off on the arduous route I took, through swamps and overgrown paths, if that's not too exhausting a ride for you! As you pass where I passed, you will see that I travelled alone and wounded through this sad world, and thus went off to my death far, far away, without ever finding Rosemonde's blue manor-house.
Music bites like that; and Bach’s music, of all musics, is certainly the Rose of the World.
Chorale aims for the whole potato—the entire 100%.
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, Sunday, March 24, 3 p.m. Be there.