The cost of engaging with great music
Bach did not write any wrong notes. Nor did he write too many notes.
If these assertions bother you, or if you disagree with them, you are in good company. Plenty of people, from Bach's time forward, have been angered, frustrated, or dismissive about the challenges Bach sets, performers and listeners alike. And modern scholarship has uncovered interesting information about the fact that plenty of people did not like the man Bach much either-- he drank a stupendous amount of beer and brandy, and an equally stupendous amount of coffee. He was short-tempered and irritable; he was hard on the performers allotted to him; he constantly lobbied for better pay and privileges and musicians; he "rubbernecked" ceaselessly for better positions; he tended to duck out of responsibilities that were distasteful to him; he angered and frustrated his employers. He spent, I think, six weeks in jail at one point for insubordination. He set a very high bar, seems never to have doubted himself and his own gifts, and was unbending, right to his death. His Leipzig employers, fed up with the power he wielded, put a cap on the position he had held-- no Kapellmeister following him ever had the pay, the title, or the privileges he had enjoyed, ever again. Bach was as relentless and difficult as his music is.
After one of our more grueling rehearsals, one of Chorale’s singers laughingly commented on my emotional attachment to Bach, and to the motet we are preparing. I'm glad he was able to laugh. Performing Bach brings out the worst, as well as the best, in me. Each time I prepare even a relatively short work of his, the effort consumes me-- and consumes a disproportionate amount of rehearsal time.
When I sang with Robert Shaw, the singers sat in a circle, with him and the accompanist in the middle. If there were too many singers for a single row, we sat in two rows-- but he frequently moved the back row to the front, and the front to the back, so that all of use were equally scrutinized and under pressure. As we rehearsed, he would prowl around inside the circle, like a lion pacing in its cage-- watching us, listening to us individually, unexpectedly barking or screaming when he saw or heard something he did not like. It could be terrifying. Plenty of people did not like Mr. Shaw. He might stop in front of you, stare at you, listen for a few minutes, prowl on-- you wouldn't know if he liked or hated what he heard. One thing, though-- you were sure you could never hide from him; and you were sure you could never hide from the music.
Mr. Shaw's singers were highly skilled and presumably very committed; by definition, we were expected to live up to his standards, or else hit the road. We were expected to want what he wanted, see the same possibilities he saw, and do what was necessary to satisfy his goals. Of course, he would tell us that we were serving the music, the composer, and not him-- but it was hard to separate the two. Some wanted this push, this discipline; others did not, and really would not take it. Rehearsal breaks would often devolve into small groups, griping about him or defending him; some singers who were clearly disenchanted just shut down-- and once a particular preparation or project was over, disappeared, never to be seen again. One thing we all wondered: how could we possibly treat our choirs the way Mr. Shaw treated us?
Chorale members who were singing with me at The University of Chicago way back when I first sang for Mr. Shaw remember how galvanized I was, when I returned to my own choirs after my first summer with him. I have no doubt that I became, in the course of that summer, a better choral conductor, as well as much less fun to spend an evening with at Jimmy's. Most conductors have something of Mr. Shaw’s temper and drive in them-- and much of what he did, besides teaching us invaluable techniques, was to unlock that guy and let him loose in us. And inevitably, when we returned to our own choirs, we discovered we could not behave that way and get away with it-- too many of our singers would quit, and we did not have an infinite number of good singers waiting around to take their places. We had to come to some sort of compromise with our own situations, and work at the level that was possible for each of us.
I am completely committed to amateur choral singing. I probably was so before meeting Mr. Shaw, but he defined this and solidified it in me. I believe that singing great music together is the closest we will ever get to heaven; I perceive through it the salvation of the world. I know that Bach did not compose for anything like an American amateur community-based choir; neither did Schoenberg, neither did Vierne. I know that what those composers ask of Chorale-- and what they ask of me, as conductor-- is impossible. I also know that, in our troubled world, life might not be very much worth living, if we do not continue to believe in the impossible, and act on that belief. I do not exaggerate or grandstand when I maintain, week after week, year after year, that we will, as individuals, as a choir, as a society, be utterly changed, if we can just finally sing all the right notes in this Bach motet, in this Schoenberg "illusion" (he himself did not finally believe in his piece, or its message)-- that through singing them, we will come to understand why we sing them, and why Bach and Schoenberg wrote them-- and, like Tennyson's flower in the crannied wall, we will finally know what God and man is.