Episode one Tuesday 1st May - scroll down for further episodes
On Tuesday 1st May I will set out again on a Bach Pilgrimage, taking round the solo violin music of JS Bach to communities up and down the country. My odyssey this year is a little more modest than the marathon of 2013 when I covered some four thousand miles and did 50 – yes 50 (!) concerts in two months. But, none the less, 22 concerts in 29 days will test my stamina. Not tested will be my wonderment and enthusiasm for this music as it continues to yield riches for the mind, soul and senses. I’ll try and share some of these and some more practical thoughts over the coming days during moments of quiet as I crawl all over the country.
Of course no greater music has been written for the instrument; one feels this from that first huge G minor chord on the opening page right through to that delectably delicate E major Gigue on the last. This is violin music conceived by one who knows and senses the instrument inside out. Yes, as we all know JS Bach was a fabulous keyboard player and with the agility of mind of a unique genius but, he is as well, one of us – a violinist, a fiddler a jobbing scraper even. (We should remember that his first paid appointment was as a violinist in a Court Orchestra in Weimar after all.) And this can be felt in every note – one knows that he knows what we will be feeling with every chord, how every slur, so tellingly penned, will turn the arm and delight the senses if we achieve the phrasing he asks for. Just take a look for instance at those bars of written out arpeggio in the Chaconne before he decides not to blacken a whole page and giving just the chords. Here is a totally sensual way of writing out this D minor chord. The way the F and the A are bent around the open D string and then the way the bowing is marked – with the changes not on each beat but displaced. Every violinist of almost any level knows what this feels like. And it’s not just that he wants us to avoid stress on the main beats but he knows this will feel good. In short, when we violinists play Bach we’re not just playing his notes, we’re joining in a sensory communication with the composer. I don’t think it gets better for a violinist. Johann Sebastian becomes a companion. So I’m looking forward to the next month.
I’ve had to get my memory back up to scratch of course. There’s no secret here, just lots of time spent playing and then not playing but thinking through each piece and in countless different ways. Though now I do feel I can retrieve that longed for sensation of knowing that it’s all there and enjoying the freedom to really fly that comes with it. That hoped for feeling of the music coming though one. But careful! There are the trap doors to remind oneself of, the slightly similar passages even across separate pieces. (Strange, I notice how keen colleagues are to share their stories of memory lapses by themselves and others. Why do we have this fascination with things going awry? Another uniquely violinistic tendency?)
I must admit that I now think more and more in terms of the whole set as a gigantic super work. The B minor Partita for instance I now think very much as being between the G minor and the A minor; the G minor itself is not just the first work in a set of six but as the commencement of the whole thing – a kind of epic. And though I seldom do them together in a concert I think of the relationship of the D minor and the C major as being the most important in the whole cycle. I prepare those twin peaks the Chaconne and the C major Fugue with equal care and a very gently sloping ascent in practice intensity. Both need to be so strong so as not to crack under the stress of performance. There are no tuttis here to recompose oneself, take a breather and regroup if you start feeling tired or uncertain.
Of course there is still some juggling to be done in order to ensure that when I first put bow to string in St Mary’s Abbey in West Malling next week all is in order in mind, spirit and body. Hundreds of practical details will be pressing on my brain too before I actually sink into that first G minor chord. But then, as horse hair meets gut and my ancient Amati starts to sing, so begins the real journey – always different, though always the same.
I look forward to sharing a few thoughts on this adventure as it develops.
Episode 2 Friday 4th May
The Sound of Silence.
The first ‘event’ on my journey was at Malling Abbey, a place I had got to know after playing there at a festival in September last. It is a rather unique place. Suggestive remnants of the forbidding eleventh century buildings of the Benedictine community of nuns founded in 1090 survive. They loom and tower over tranquil meadows orchards and gardens. But after a long wait post-reformation, these buildings - with the help of some beautifully sympathetic additions - now reverberate again to the rhythms of religious life. A small and, it must be said, now dwindling community of nuns continue the dance of spiritual observance there and offices are chanted throughout each and every day. It is a place of long silences but of palpable energy of the sort that does not arrive by command.
I had felt that it might be an ideal place to gather my energy as I set out. And so by arrangement with the Mother Abbess I was to play all six works of Sei Solo over three sessions in the course of a day interlocking with the sung offices. At 9.00am the first Sonata and Partita; at 1.00pm the second of each, and at 5.00pm the final two. We had agreed that a small group of invitees together with the Sisters themselves would treat it as a day of meditation and quiet and that there should be no applause or speaking.
Arriving at 8.30 to hear the Sisters going through the office of Terce, I began to realize that I was not at all in the right frame of mind – suddenly becoming aware of overwhelming fatigue, of anxiety and stress and an almost complete sense of not being properly prepared. I mumbled something to this effect as I was gently ushered into a small ante room. Gently, but with upmost clarity I was told that I would be looked after and that all would be well.
With no protocol to govern anything, I walked out in to the reverberant air and saw in front of me the nuns and a few others sitting in an attitude of ...what?
I hesitated, fighting a desire to simply to start playing and break the almost unbearable pregnancy of the moment and its silence. I managed to stand still for a few seconds; a few more. The silence of presence - not of absence – seemed to beckon. I found from somewhere the courage not to interrupt it, sensing that the moment to let my instrument speak had not quite arrived. And then it did, and I put bow to string. The sound I made met my ears in a sort of waterfall of vibration – how, I wondered, had I never heard a G minor chord like this one before? It moved me, and though I was sure it was me who had played it, it seemed to beckon me on. Again, as I reached the final chord of the Adagio and it tapered and tapered into the lofty space above and around, I waited. With a little more confidence this time I stood still – hesitated until the moment to kick into life the fugue seemed to present itself. I jumped on, as if clinging onto a route-master bus as it left a stop. And this rhythm was repeated with each movement – a longer pause between the two works. And then finally to playing the last Double of the B minor and the last ‘B’ took me to a place where applause would usually break the spell, shatter the silence of the music. Not a sound, no one moved. I at last allowed my violin to leave my chin and to look into the room. Everyone silent, motionless; my eyes briefly met the Mother Abbess’s who gave me a look of ‘all is well’. And so I stayed for more moments of what I can only describe as a sort of naked blissful emptiness that was yet far from empty. This seems silly as I write it. Perhaps because it is these things which can never be convincingly written about; or not unless you are a great poet.
Is this what Benjamin Britten meant when he said ‘Music is everything that happens between the notes’? Or why TS Eliot said that we must ‘learn to sit still’?
After the day I found myself reflecting on how easy it is to talk over and blot out these most precious moments, whether to each other or to ourselves. With the help of a great building, some supremely supportive and receptive people and just enough courage to accept what was happening, I had found my way back to knowing that they are always there, waiting patiently to be discovered.
Episode 3 Tuesday 8th May
B minor Partita.
The Partita in B minor BWV 1002 is probably the least played of Sei Solo. I’ve played it already several times on this journey and have noticed it creates an unusual impression on listeners. It comes second in the cycle and occupies a space between the large and declamatory Sonatas in G minor and A minor. Both those works are played often in recital on their own and have a clear dramatic shape as dictated by the form: a massive Fantasia and Fugue followed by a movement of calmer reflection with the added relief of a change of key, and rounded out by movements of a certain untamed rustic/folksy quality. The B minor on the other hand has eight movements – yes eight! – all in the same key and all of which stray very little from the tonic and its near relations; indeed all the movements chart a similar path of modulation. And this key of B minor allows the third in the scale – the D natural – to be the only open string to resonate, though Bach’s use of opening and closing chords chooses to forgo even this openness; a certain opaqueness to the sound world results. There is an austerity to the expression but also a kind of purity. Some say that the key of B minor is associated with death, though I can find no really clear indication of this. And is it merely an oddity that Bach uses ‘Doubles’ to echo each main movement? What’s he trying to say? These four main movements – Allemanda, Corrente, Sarabande and Tempo di Borea certainly don’t need their Doubles in any structural sense beyond lending matching the weight and length of the Sonatas surrounding this Partita. So why are they there and what do they give?
The Partita opens with a bold and arresting Allemanda with some telling harmonization and much use of dotted rhythms. It has a speech like quality. The following Double is entirely without double stops and consists almost completely of two notes under a slur – a recurring gentle ripple; this is followed by a Corrente movement that is itself almost devoid of harmony beyond what is implied by the moving quavers; and following that, its Double is again without double stops, made up instead of whirling scales and arpeggios. This is music of the utmost economy of means and by the time I have finished playing these four movements I often sense the audience is nearly in a state of trance. B minor and its related harmony is now resounding around the walls and air like a throbbing icon, and though the succeeding Sarabande and Tempo di Borea movements restore a more ‘outer’ expression their respective Doubles present the palest responses, like the ethereal bodies of weightless dancers.
Indeed it was while playing these waif-like movements that an idea came to me of what Bach is perhaps expressing here. These Doubles are all exact harmonic clones of their ‘real’ movements and in fact they can be played with mixed success as duets if one can find a willing partner. But as part of Sei Solo of course they can never be partnered; only one violin and one violinist can play and must resort to playing the Doubles only after the event. Can this be Bach invoking his dead wife to join him in dance? Can this be the reason – I’ve long puzzled over this – that he calls the last main movement ‘Tempo di Borea’ and not just ‘Borea’? Is he self-consciously trying not to evoke his own noted characteristics of an authentic Borea, which should be, he tells us, the most comfortable and enjoyable of music. Instead he can only imply what it ought to be and then listen as his lost wife calls to him from the beyond.
I sense from performances of this Partita and its effect on audiences that this distant and mysterious creature gives us something quite special and rather radical. The reason that its qualities are least suited to the concert hall are in a way the very ones that give it the special balm it seems to possess. And I don’t mean the comfort of a distraction or of coziness; the emotional and spiritual character carried is exactly what one needs after the G minor Sonata. If one takes the flamboyance and richness of the G minor fugue and the fury of the concluding movement as vessels of the first shock of bereavement, then with the B minor one has absorbed this reality. One is looking at loss full in the eye, its reality, its bleakness and the certainty of earthly separation from a loved one.
Episode 4 Friday 11th May
When I was fourteen I went to Switzerland on an exchange visit and spent time living with a family in a little place called Spietz. From my bedroom window I could see off in the distance several major alpine peaks. This was all quite fantastic to me; a boy for whom the gentle undulations of Hertfordshire and Essex were my daily reality. These mountains on the other hand seemed from another realm altogether. That summer I spent ages just gazing at them as they appeared from time to time from behind curtains of cloud. I began to get to know them a little and to think of them more as characters. One was the Eiger I learnt. It had a sort of sharp tip that was snow covered and then below this was a great area of exposed rock – too steep for any snow to cling to. With some binoculars I inspected this region and found that it was pitted and craggy and with all kinds of gougings and striations. I remembered my geography classes on glaciation and saw how glaciers had torn into this peak and cut and cut it. I felt I could see it had suffered and it thrilled me to inspect these wounds from my little bedroom or from the balcony where I was served my breakfast.
But next to this scarred and tortured soul was another mountain. It was quite different. Covered entirely in snow and of a much more rounded shape, though none the less massive, it radiated serenity and calm, making no effort to expose any secrets or sufferings. I began to find it a little frustrating to be denied the intimate knowledge that the Eiger offered and I found myself training the binoculars far less often at this seemingly unknowable peak. It was called the Jungfrau.
There are three fugues in Sei Solo. Of these the one in C major is the grandest and imposes the greatest demands on player and listener. And it is in many ways quite different to those fugues from the G minor and the A minor sonatas.
Both these fugues have quite short subjects and while they are dissimilar in many respects to each other they share the sense of build towards the massive Chaconne - the fulcrum of the entire opus. I like to think of the C major fugue as the Jungfrau and the Chaconne as the Eiger.
It presents challenges to the player by what it is not. It does not offer the same impassioned moments and the same kind of drama as the Chaconne and one must be careful therefore not to resort to the kind of playing that one might feel appropriate in the Chaconne. There is no gnashing of teeth, or excoriation here, no visceral turbulence. The purity of the counterpoint – especially in the middle fugue where Bach has the theme in stretto; that is, coming in on top of itself, has a kind of beauty that is more akin to the music he was to write much later in his life in works like the Musical Offering or The Art of Fugue. Some of it might be said to be ‘eye’ music even. (In other words, the beauty of the counterpoint can almost better be seen by looking at the notes rather than by hearing it played.) So, one needs to deliver these moments with as clear an execution and as knowing an attitude as one can. One must remember that by using counterpoint Bach is nearly always invoking the music of the spheres or, if you like, handing over power to a higher level, to the ultimate authority. In the context of the journey of Sei Solo Bach has here ceased to look at humanity and earthly life and has turned instead to the world of spirit and of God. One must simply do one’s best to deliver the piece and trust that this is enough. Sure, there are moments of great power – the two great pedal points over the open D string and then over the open G before the final reprise of the opening fugue – but even these I have found do not respond well to drama or to any kind of straining. And the first episode, though dance like in character, doesn’t come off if it becomes skittish. The whole thing can so easily start to sound and feel like a horribly overacted scene if things get out of hand. And in the heat of performance it can be the hardest thing to retreat from a more active attitude where only calm certainty will do. One certainly cannot shout or cry, or worse, charm and joke. I find myself telling myself,’ Tom, the notes are enough, just deliver….’
In a way the matter has all been settled in the preceding movement, perhaps the most questioning, strange and profoundly disturbing movement in the whole opus. Time seems to be being measured and yet in suspense at the same time. And supreme doubt is everywhere in this world between worlds. But as soon as one plays that first note of that fugue all that is done with.