I am dipping into the Bach Christmas that BBC Radio 3 is now indulging in. I am not disorganising myself to listen to particular items, if only because I already have all the big stuff on CD. But I am taking in occasional gobs of what comes, whenever it is convenient and I feel in a Bach mood.
And what I am getting from it all is how extremely religious it all is. I realise that this is a very obvious thing to be noticing. But hearing cantata after cantata introduced with its German wording, and then being told in English what it all means and why the contralto aria in particular is so deeply felt and beautiful and then what the chorus will be singing about at the end, has connected all this music to religion in a way that I have preferred to – not ignore exactly – just not pay all that much attention to. Of course I know what the St Matthew Passion is about, but for me the harmonies and melodies are the reason for listening. The religion of it is, for me, merely the platform Bach used to build the thing, even as I am aware that for Bach religion was the point. Bach also wrote a lot of purely instrumental music, such as the Brandenberg Concertos, the violin and the keyboard concertos, and the solo works for violin, for cello and for keyboard, and of course I cannot get enough of those.
But if you want to understand Johann Sebastian Bach, as opposed merely to enjoying him, you cannot ignore religion. Here is yet another historical circumstance which twentieth century atheists like me are now able to understand that little bit better, now that once again we have in our midst people who really believe in this kind of stuff, and who believe in combining their beliefs with the exercise of secular power, in ways that Christians mostly now do not. Listening at around midnight, early on in the proceedings, to one march-like tune from a cantata, and remembering what the announcer had just said that it was about, I suddenly felt scared. My God, I am being attacked by an army of True Believers. In short, I got the message. The Bach story illustrates what artistic treasure can come out of things like the current time of Islamist, er, enthusiasm. Once – although, as with Protestantism, this is a big once – this latter enterprise stops deluding itself that it can take over the world, or even very much of the Middle East or the North of England, it will settle back into its mosques and resort to more peaceful methods of propagandising, and of keeping up the spirits of its faithful. I do not say that there will necessarily be an Islamic Bach, in the sense of a great musician. For starters, I do not know just what the attitude of Fundamentalist Islam is towards music. I rather think they may disapprove. Whatever. But I do confidently believe that Great Art of some sort will result, even though I will not live to see it or hear it or read it. I know what the commentariat will say. Islamism now is about as philistine and artless as it is possible for a bunch of artless philistines to be. They do not create art, they destroy it. I know that. But first generation Protestants were little better. The point is, artistically, what happens when their original True Vision fails to materialise, and they then have to apply their energies to more peaceful methods of spreading their True Faith.
Meanwhile, the religious enthusiasm that animated Bach’s inner life and which paid for his musical career goes a good part of the way to explaining his greatness. Would Bach even have been able to manage things like the 48 Preludes and Fugues, or the Double Violin Concerto, without the expressive momentum drawn from him by his God? We can never know, of course, but my guess would be: not.
For artists to be great, greatness needs to be demanded of them or at the very least permitted to them, by their surrounding culture. Art does not work properly if there is no contemporary response to it. The starving artist in his garret, his genius recognised only by posterity, is largely a myth. Almost all the great artists had at least periods in their careers when they were all the rage. Yes, they would often go out of fashion and fall on hard times, but they almost all of them had some good times as well, when they could really feel that they were getting through to people in a big way, and they could then feel inspired by that response, or by the recent memory of it, to attempt more great things.
And for Bach, his licence to be great, so to speak, was the greatness of his God and of his religion, and his determination to express this, to God, and to and on behalf of his contemporaries and fellow believers.
This, paradoxically, is what makes Bach so modern, to our ears. Bach had a kind of musical ambition – a demand to be attended to, as it were – that separates him from his contemporaries, and puts him, to our ears, alongside the likes of Beethoven and Wagner. In giving full voice to German Protestantism, Bach brought to his task a combination of mathematical intricacy and rigour and lyrical depth of feeling that has never since been surpassed. (When I hear the music of Bach’s contemporaries, like Telemann or Vivaldi, I sometimes say to myself: I could do that. Silly I know, but I do say it. I never say that when I hear Bach.)
To his musical contemporaries and to his immediate successors, Bach was an old-fashioned figure rather than any sort of pioneer, somewhat as the Victorians were thought of during the twentieth century. All that ponderous and high-minded seriousness! All those fugues and hymns! All that intricate counterpoint! Relax old man, said those musicians of the later eighteenth century who still knew about him, as they supplied elegant musical wallpaper for the aristocracy. Actually, there is, in among all the fervour and solemnity, a lot of dance in Bach, a lot of salon gracefulness and jollity. Nevertheless those later composers were right to regard Bach as not really part of their team. He was indeed out on his own.
What we now thrill to, they found technically admirable, but also rather embarrassing. It was left, appropriately enough, to the post-Beethoven nineteenth century to rediscover Bach, and he has been adored ever since.
But Bach did not do it only for us. He could not have done it only for us. To do what he did for us, he also had to be doing it for God.