Bach Pilgrimage Blog Episode 4

Friday 11th May Twin Peaks

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.