JS Bach: A Pilgrimage

During May and June of 2013, I did something rather crazy – a marathon ‘Bach Pilgrimage’ across mainland Britain.  I played some 50 concerts up and down the land - from Cornwall to Glasgow, from Norfolk to Yorkshire, mostly in modest churches but not excluding the grandest of cathedrals.  It was exhausting and invigorating; testing and revealing; though above all and in the end it was the most fundamental affirmation of the worth of being a musician.

I am often struck by an envy for those of us in the arts; somehow it is assumed that our sense of our own lives and who we are goes without saying, that we must be exempt from doubt as to the value of what we do.  To be sure we can be self-possessed, self indulgent, and our obsessions have a way of masking some of these existential doubts.  But at other times we also question, doubt and worry. Are we not a huge irrelevance, a mere diversion from life’s more serious matters, an expensive luxury?  

Well on the evidence of my experience in 2013 the answer is “no”.   The fact is that in many ways what I set out to do was a self-indulgent quest.  I had wanted more than anything else to master these works and to do that I felt I simply had to play them a lot.  I hit on a formula that might deliver these opportunities: knowing well how parlous is the state of many church buildings and the ever present need to fund raise for their upkeep, I decided to offer the concerts for this purpose or for other charities.  I felt too that this music would work best in the atmosphere of churches rather than the concert hall.  The response was soon an avalanche.  

And so I set off in the early summer sunshine in a splendid borrowed car full of the joy that is perhaps every musician’s get-out-of-jail-free card – that of being the gypsy, the wanderer, the Pied Piper.

But, of course, I was rewarded with far more than that. I certainly hoped that this music would work its way into my listeners’ minds and that they would sometimes hear the beauty and pathos that I have always loved; but I was not prepared for the deep penetration and astonishing ‘atmosphere’ that some of these concerts created amongst audiences who were often not at all classical music aficionados.

There is much that is mysterious about the life of JS Bach and at least as mysterious are these six works for solo violin - so cryptically entitled ‘Sei Solo’.  It is now widely agreed that the composition or at least the completion of the project derives from a crisis in Bach’s life, the death of his first wife, the enigmatic Maria Barbara.  

With so few facts to go on, it is perhaps only sentimental to construct around these pieces the story of Bach himself, and especially when the music tells us so much more in human terms than mere biography ever could.  But that the works form a sort of intimate diary of aloneness, questionings of the soul and wonderings at life and death cannot be disputed, and, if like the audiences of my 2103 Pilgrimage, you are similarly moved I am just grateful to feel useful.

Click here for list of Bach Pilgrimage 2013 concerts

Thomas Bowes