If I had to demonstrate the communicative power of Johann Sebastian Bach's music with only one work, I would surely choose one of the church cantatas. These are the works, above all others in Bach's voluminous legacy, that most vividly outline the unassailable niche he occupies in the realm of the arts: his skill at composition, his unwavering faith in Higher Powers, and the genius whereby he applies the one in the service of the other. The further astonishment in these works — the 200 or so that survive out of probably twice that number — is the extraordinary beauty, originality and complexity of the greatest of them measured against the circumstances of their creation, music ground out on order to serve the daily needs of a church at which Bach was a salaried minion. Yes, there are cantatas that come across merely as the competent products of a busily engaged craftsman, as there are dull moments in Shakespeare and occasional uninspired brushwork by Michelangelo; with all three towering figures, the flub percentage is wondrous small.
Right now I'm under the spell of the Cantata No. 8, thanks to a superb recording newly at hand on the Harmonia Mundi label. (The numbering of the cantatas, by the way, has nothing to do with the order of composition, but only with the sequence in which they were first published, more than a century after Bach's death.) The text, which begins “Dearest God, when am I to die? My time is running out,” propounds one of the central tenets in the Lutheran canon: Earthly death not as a tragedy but a release to a more “blessed, joyful dawn.” As with most of the cantatas composed during his tenure at Leipzig's St. Thomas-Church, Bach designed the work as a gloss on the chorale specified for that particular Sunday — Trinity XVI in this case. The text, fashioned by one or another of the merely adequate poets serving the church, is, similarly, a gloss on the words of the chorale, heavily laden with the dense interweave of metaphor and symbol that constituted churchly poetry in the Baroque (and may still).
The miracle is Bach's ability to rise beyond the encumbrance of this workaday text, and the fact that he accomplished this at Leipzig week after week. Join me to sample what happens at the start of this particular magical work. Two oboi d'amore (deeper-pitched than an oboe, but not as honky as an English horn) wind their deep-bronze tones around one another to spin out a haunting, slow melody in triplets that seems to extend toward far horizons. Over their melodic line from time to time a piccolo goes “ding ding ding,” fast, repeated notes like a distant summoning bell. The melody stops, then starts again, still with the insistent “ding” from the piccolo; this time the chorus joins in with its opening text, sung to another flowing triplet melody in elegant, smooth counterpoint to the oboes' tune. Listen with delight and awe, in just the opening phrase of this new melody, to the way Bach sets the word sterben (“to die”): a dissonance, a chromatic shudder, a harmonic progression that seems for one wink of the eye to look ahead toward romantic harmonies as yet undreamed.
Actually, this new melody is a flowing, elegant, somewhat garrulous variant of the simple, hymnlike chorale tune that, in its unadorned form, will round off the work some 20 minutes later. Be amazed at the way Bach has built this first movement by combining four separate lines into music rich and warming, full of its own range of fantasy: the tune for the oboes, the piccolo, the flowing melody for the chorus, with the notes of the chorale embedded into that line. Many of Bach's cantatas are constructed in this “striptease” manner; they start off with a chorus or ensemble in which an actual chorale melody is wrapped in elaborate counterpoint, and arrive eventually at that melody in its bare essentials.
The world gave Bach a pretty good birthday party back in 1985, his 300th, but it will surely find time to celebrate again in 2000, the 250th anniversary of his death. He needs these frequent celebrations, for at least two reasons. One is to make up for the decades after his death when his music was virtually unknown until Felix Mendelssohn's famous revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Another is to make up for the years after that, when his music circulated in lurid reharmonizations and re-orchestrations that sought to re-create Bach as an eager precursor of Romanticism.
But that history of mistreatment says something about the timelessness of Bach's music, and its resilience. His music survives the tamperings of the Victorian monster choruses, the irresistible pandemonium of Leopold Stokowski's transcriptions of organ works and choruses for Wagner-size orchestra, Wendy Carlos' sci-fi synthesizer versions, Bach-as-scat by the Swingle Singers. It shines through the prissy rhythms in Wanda Landowska's Goldberg Variations on an “authentic” harpsichord or the visionary intensity of Glenn Gould's two performances on an “inauthentic” Steinway grand, either or both of which I hear as modern man's self-defining statement on Bach. On the new Harmonia Mundi recording of three cantatas, Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe's performance of the first movement of No. 8 runs six minutes, 41 seconds; Helmuth Rilling's on Hänssler Classic runs four minutes, 34 seconds; both are the work of eloquent, dedicated specialists in this music.
When we listen to music — listen, I said, not merely bathe in — we are almost always made conscious of its place in time. We hear Haydn and Mozart as the fruition of Classicism's sublime logic; we hear Beethoven as the fuse kindling Romanticism, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring as modern music's powder keg. I hear Bach's music, however, beyond any chronological identity. Music like the cited opening of the Cantata No. 8, or the violent confrontations in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, or the end of the “Crucifixus” from the B-minor Mass — where a harmonic sideslip at the sepulchral bottom of the voices' range defines the exact meaning of grief for all time — exists apart from any sense of time frame. There have always been imitators, but never a successor. Bach endures, not in some kind of scholarly vacuum, but as music's great self-renewing force.