[ by Charles Cameron — you can safely ignore this if you have zero interest in any or all of Bach, Eliot, Christianity and Sufism ]
It’s Sunday evening here, let’s start with Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach — the great Chaconne:
This post began to coalesce for me when Dr Alan Godlas, whose web-pages at the University of Georgia offer, among other things, a profound “gateway to Sufism“, gave me his permission to quote a comment he’d made in a private communication:
Sufis and Muslims need to learn how to recite and listen to the Qur’an (and how to do dhikr and practice Islam and Sufism) at the depth at which Bach wrote this Chaconne and at which it was played by Menuhin.
That really gets to the heart of the issue of spirituality and beauty — and it brought to mind a comment made by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict Emeritus, in his speech at Rimini on The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty:
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.
John Eliot Gardiner, the great conductor of Bach with whom I apparently spent some of my earlier school-years, offers us an intriguing insight in In Rehearsal with John Eliot Gardiner (Bach Cantata No. 63), immediately after Sara Mingardo‘s deeply devotional rendering of the recitative O selger Tag —
Nota bene: Bei einer andächtigen Musik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart. Now I find that very, very significant. That he’s saying wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is present. Which, from a strict theological point of view is probably heresy, heretical, because it’s saying that music has an equivalent potency to the word of God. And I think that in essence is why Bach is so attractive to us today because he is saying that the very act of music-making and of coming together is, in a sense, an act which invokes the latency, the potency, the potentiality of God’s grace, however you like to define God’s grace; but of a benediction that comes even in a dreadful, overheated studio like Abbey Road where far too many microphones and there’s much too much stuff here in the studio itself, that if one, as a musician, puts oneself in the right frame of mind, then God’s grace can actually come and direct and influence the way we perform his music.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
I would like to offer three more interpretations of the Bach Chaconne, and one anecdote. The first interpretation is of the entire Solo Violin Partita #2, including the Chaconne, by the young and already great Hilary Hahn. Her rendition of the Chaconne alone is available as a separate YouTube video here:
There’s also a Busoni piano arrangement, played here by Helene Grimaud — it was, I think, our own J Scott Shipman who introduced me to this stunning performance:
And even more amazing, perhaps, is the disc called “Morimur” by the Hilliard Ensemble, which you can watch much of on Youtube here, then purchase in full and with a detailed accompanying booklet here…
Finally –since I obviously love the Chaconne — I would like to leave you with the story of a double performance of this same piece by violinist Joshua Bell at L’Enfant Plaza metro in Washington, DC — as told by Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten — who won a Pulitzer for this article:
HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play …
Go ahead, read it if you haven’t already — it’s quite a story!