Would Bach have turned in his grave?

Bach would have turned in his grave. Then he'd have stepped out, dusted himself and paid attention … The songs were most haunting when vocalist Fadia el-Hage reverted to Arabic. At those times, perhaps, Bach also wept.
The quote above comes from a review in the Business Times , Singapore of The Arabian Passion according to J.S. Bach. This cross-cultural conflation of Bach's sacred music was performed by German early music ensemble Sarband at the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival, where my header photo was taken. The Arabian Passion, which is based on material from Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, confronts current tensions in the Middle East. It is scored for string quartet, two jazz saxophones and Arab musicians, and has just been released on CD and as an MP3 download . Would Bach have turned in his grave? Read more, and listen to a sample to decide for yourself, here. Sarband are no strangers to the path. Their unique style of cross-cultural music making has already featured here and here.

More 'dust yourself down and start all over again' Bach here.
Header photo credit J. Haug. 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


Hi - love the blog, but this post has a rather shocking coincidence with a couple other recent events that I wanted to throw on the fire for discussion.

The first event is Lebrecht's "Wagner Smackdown" on the WNYC Soundcheck podcast from a couple weeks ago. I can go both ways on that debate (and on Lebrecht in general obviously), but the idea that the composer cannot be separated from the work is alluring, if troubling.

The comparison between that situation (Wagner and his anti-semitism vs modern appreciations of his music) and Bach (his pronounced Lutheran faith vs modern, more secular, or at least more ecumenical appreciations of his music) is a little apples-to-oranges, because Lutheranism isn't exactly odious, but I think it is still profitable. How much meaning do we lose when the man/woman (and his/her interntions) is separated from the music? And is that a good or a bad thing?

The second event is my recent purchase of DG's "Olivier Messiaen: Complete Edition" boxed set. This boxed set is a complete and utter revelation to me (I had very little Messiaen before now). I am desperately trying to understand it. But how much am I really going to understand, if Messiaen's works are inseparable from his rigid Catholic faith, and I'm a non-deist and a thoroughly lapsed Lutheran? I'm certainly appreciating the music on a purely secular and emotional level, but does that automatically place me in a separate category from the many people who are truly spiritually touched by, say, his organ music? Every time I listen to "La Nativite du Seigneur", I do have to stop and think about that for a moment.
Pliable said…
Richard, it is worth remembering that some very great sacred music was written by non-believers.

One notable example was Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose great contribution to sacred music was as co-editor of the English Hymnal. He is said by his widow, Ursula, to have 'drifted into a cheerful agnosticism'.

As Trotsky said: 'You don't have to believe in the trolley company to let it take you where you want to go'.
Quite true - but that thinking seems to imply a certain compartmentalization to the whole process of thinking about music, and what went on behind it. That's not a bad thing, and certainly reflects music listening as an inherently subjective, personal, and cosmopolitan process.

What I'm saying is, maybe my problem is that I'm even caring all that much about artistic intent in the first place: that the personal connection to the music is what matters more. The pro-artistic-intent sort of thinking is all too common in the elitist rock circles I'm used to - and with Lebrecht - but am I going out on a limb to say that you are of the opposite philosophy?
Pliable said…
The Indian teaching that 'the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences' that influenced John Cage also resonates with me.

For me the sobering and quieting is what is important, not, within reason, who wrote or performed the music.

I would define that 'within reason' by the Buddhist approach of 'Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you'.

That gives me a lot of scope to explore the diverse. It allows me to appreciate everything from Wagner to Arabian Passions. But it also allows me to ride some familiar hobby horses, one of which begins with L.

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