h1

The Bach Project — Prologue

September 16, 2018

A couple of weeks ago while staying at a friend’s summer home in Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, I had a revelation. I had just turned eighty and was thinking that, despite my best efforts, I was getting old. The next twenty years were likely not to be twenty years and would prove fatal. What to do? It came to me as I sat in a quiet white bedroom of that 170 year old house that I needed to figure it all out, life that is—what did it mean to be alive. What came to me was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in particular his cantatas, and how they related to paintings that I knew.

Allow me to back up a bit to 1959, the year I started art school in San Francisco and the year I became aware of Bach’s cantatas. I was just out of the army and had just turned twenty-one. I had managed to talk my way into a job at a record store in North Beach that specialized in imported exotic European classical records. I needed a way to pay for my education and that seemed as good a job as any. It changed forever my taste in music. I knew a little something about classical music before that as my parents had a small collection of classical records that I had listened to and that bit of knowledge is why the owner of the store gave me the job. But now I had thirty or forty hours a week to listen to music in the shop. Yes, I did work full-time and go to school full-time, but I was young and stupid at the time. As soon as I started listening to the vocal sacred music of Bach I was hooked and that took about all of a week.

I should state at the outset that I am a lifetime committed atheist and that my abiding interest in both religious music and art has everything to do aesthetics and nothing to do with faith at least my faith or, more correctly, lack of faith. I’m quite sure that a majority of the religious composers and painters that move me with their art were devoted to their faith. In truth, I admire their religious beliefs and, at times, wish I could share them. Only, I believe that when I’m dead that I am truly gone. I will not miss me as I will not exist and my friends will soon get me out of their minds as well. Perhaps some of my work will hang on for awhile, but I doubt that as I am no Bach or Dürer. If this seems dismal, so be it, but it doesn’t bother me. I am, however, interested in what moves me as a human being. Otherwise there seems no reason for art and I have devoted my life to art.
Back to Bach and his cantatas.

The structure of baroque music makes sense to me. Perhaps it is its sense of order and logic. Music does have its roots in mathematics and the human mind does like the order of mathematics. Bach cantatas generally follow a set pattern: chorus, recitative, aria, recitative or adios, aria and a final chorale. Within this pattern there is plenty of room for complexity. There are cantatas for solo voices, for larger vocal ensembles, sacred and secular, long and short cantatas. They are catalogued by what are called BWV or Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis numbers. The cantatas are the first of these numbers. In round numbers the first two hundred are sacred cantatas, BWV 1 to 200, 201 to 216, secular and 217 to 224 doubtful of their authorship. Around 209 survive. (There may be others such as one that was discovered in 2005 and numbered BWV 1127.) I will get into more detail about all of this as the project continues. I own 376 individual cantatas, which includes many repeats, in my collection on vinyl and CD. These are what I am going to listen to in their entirety during this project while trying to compare them to paintings that I have actually seen. Mind you, I might run out of time, life, before I complete the project.

The question arises to the order of listening to the cantatas. Logic says start with BWV 1 and that is what I think I will do. However, it is not that simple as Bach catalogue system is not, like Mozart’s K or Köchel numbers, chronological. Most of the cantatas were meant to be played in order of the Lutheran liturgical calendar following the Lutheran liturgy. Anyway, I need a method to my madness and BWV 1 seems a good as place as any to start. So, it is back to the turntable and CD player to listen to the three versions I have of Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern or How brightly gleams the morning star.
The next post will deal with that and we are off to the races or is it a race with time?

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 14 September 2018.

5 comments

  1. Sounds like a rewarding project Virgil. Havw fun and keep it simple.


  2. Good morning Virgil

    Thanks for sending me your post about your new project.

    I am most curious this project and have a few of questions about it:

    Are you going to listen to your collection of reproductions of the music on headphones while looking at pictures of the paintings you have seen on a screen and record your feelings and observations that arise from this experience?

    In what setting will you do this, at your kitchen table in the morning with your coffee, in a library or church or gallery?

    How will you decide what image go with what piece of music?

    Will you listen to the piece and use the images to illustrate your thoughts on the music in an article or blog posting or will you listen to the music and compare it to a famous painting that was created at the time?

    Regardless of how this project takes shape, it sounds like a good way to spend some of your remaining days, listening to music, thinking about paintings and then writing about it. Isn’t that what art critics do?

    Write on.

    mark

    >


  3. Ok, this would make one hell of a Fly Me To The Moon program….devoted to the Bach Cantatas! Are you interested? We could plan to do it in the mid-winter, like Feb or March 2019,or even in the fall of 2019 if it will take you longer to listen to them all and have something to say! I’d have to book the date now, though, as the programs are going fast!


    • Of course, I would be more than happy to it. You set the timing. Virgil

      Sent from my iPhone

      >


      • Virgil is booked as my guest on the Fly Me To The Moon program on March 17, 2019! 1:00 cfta.fm.ca



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: