A comment on When styles collide raises the interesting question of when was the Matthew Passion composed? Was it when Bach started writing the work, when he finished it, or when he produced his final performing version? It is much more than a semantic point. Behind it lies the question, what is the Matthew Passion, or any other piece of music?
Is the Matthew Passion the notes printed in the score? But there are diffferent performing editions, and Bach himself directed several versions. Is the Matthew Passion the music Bach heard in his head when he was writing it? But his conception of the work continued to evolve and he was still revising it nine years after the first performance. Is the Matthew Passion the music we hear in performance or from a recording? But performing styles, musical competencies, acoustics, recording technology and our own auditory and receptor systems are constantly changing.
The answer must be that the Matthew Passion, or any composition, is simply the music we hear in our head at any one moment in time - whether the source be a score, a live performance, a recording, a memory, or our imagination. As Steve Hagen explains:
Most of us see ourselves as corks floating in a stream, persisting things moving along in the stream of time ... The fact is, however, that there are no corks in the stream. There is only one stream. What we conceptualize as "cork" is also stream. We are like music. Music, after all, is a type of stream. Music exists only in constant flow and flux and change. Once the movement stops, the music is no more. It exists not as a particular thing, but as pure coming and going with no thing that comes and goes.
Or, as René Char (whose poetry Pierre Boulez has set) put it:
Each movement is virgin, even the repeated one - you can't repeat anything exactly - even yourself!Which means none of us hear the Matthew Passion the same way, and none of us hear the same Matthew Passion twice. Most importantly, it means there is no permanence in music. Comparisons require permanence. So our endless search for the newest, most authentic, best performed, award winning and best recorded version of a work is meaningless. The only Matthew Passion is the one you are hearing right now. Savour it, because it will never sound the same again.
Header image is a CD of contemporary music by John Palmer who spent time in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. Lower two photos are of Daisen-in, the Great Hermit Temple in Kyoto, which I visited during my first trip to Japan in 1983. Read more about John Palmer's music, and about koans, here.
Photos 2 & 3 are from the highly recommended and truly beautiful Taschen volume Japanese Gardens. Currently selling for around £6 in the UK, a real bargain. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk