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Introducing Mr Night-Light
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 12 - 2000


By David Blake
JS Bach is the eternal musical take-away. He is always there. And fortunately there is always something worthwhile to move off with. True, sometimes he is as dry as dust, but can you imagine the world without him? Like dust he is omnipresent and irremovable.
This being his year, the memorial of his death 250 years ago, it is natural that he should appear, multi-faceted, around us and not just as a composer.
To think of him dying is impossible. Presences like Bach do not die. He has become one of Europe's heavenly ghosts -- Leonardo, Goethe, Shakespeare, the Marquis de Sade, Freud: their multiplicity is like the rotation of crops. They nourish and renew.
Looking at the portrait of him done in 1748 by Elias Gotlob Haussman, he looks to be a man, a real one, a genuine high carat man. Yet, of course, the portrait leaves out the cornucopian creature: he is also Lord Priapus, an unashamed sensualist, a character of richness and generosity. Look at the children he made all over the place, spawning them and wrapping them up in the 48 preludes and fugues, the passions, the orchestral suites and the three oratorios of which a part of the Christmas one was heard in Cairo this week. He is untidy.
As well as the kids he wrote the organ music and the passacaglias, whose awful musical dimensions terrified the daylights out of Wagner. Beethoven could grasp only sections of this musical incubus. The child Mozart spent hours copying by hand the fluorescence of the fugues and musical progressions. Down the ages he amazed, horrified and scandalised, and in the end subdued the musical world of Europe. There are many -- he is the first. Contradict him and you will punish yourself, not the master. His musical power was steeled by a mathematical mind whose sharpness was hailed by Einstein. Thomas Mann included him in the group of figures who really formed the culture of Europe.
The maleness of this angel of earthly delights had other tendrils to its being. He crossed the borders into feminism. Like Leonardo he has a feminine aspect, which greatly appeals to women musicians. Three of the most imposing keyboard players of the 20th century -- Florence Foster Jenkins, Wanda Landowska and, greatest of all, the American Lucille Wallace on harpsichord, clavichord and piano -- brought forth electric aspects of Bach's personality never heard before in our era.
Bach was born in the Lutheran faith in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750. His life was quite unspectacular. The one big event was when Frederic the Great, another musician, visited Leipzig to see him.
Bea Robein
JS Bach
Bach forgot nothing. He was born with perfect pitch, could read anything at sight, and wrote mostly direct on the page and never near the keyboard. He became, without intention on his part, a great virtuoso -- a legend. A silent, patient operational genius, a living computer, he was a night worker and seemed to diffuse his own light. He had, often in his daily life dealings, a brutal directness, a selfish disregard for all but the notes. But, as with the saints, all one ever saw was the light.
In 1722 he married one Anna Magdalene. She was a musician. He wrote the Clavier Buchlein for her and in 1722, the same year, finished The Well-Tempered Clavier, the 48 preludes and fugues. They were, and still are, miracles, surpassing any other work written for the keyboard. They are the result of over 20 years of contemplation. At times they make the blood run cold and at others shine with warmth and a sort of dark humour, the same humour with which The Goldberg Variations shine.
The orchestra Bach developed covered vast ground -- the motets, chorals and songs, The St Matthew and St John Passions and, finally, The B Minor Mass, which led to The Musical Offering.
Bach had intuitions of the coming darkness of his life: his sight began to dim. Finally it failed all together and he ended his days in total blackness. His creative life ended with the Art of Fugue begun at Weimar on a visit he made at the end of his life. He died in Leipzig in 1750. The uncomplaining devotion given him in his last days by his wife Anna Magdalene was over.
In spite of the large family, the lamp of her life had gone, as had everyone else's known to him. Anna lasted 10 more years in ever-increasing want and poverty. Bach had left almost nothing, but a few silver instruments, remnants of his once extensive collection.
At his death some said it seemed the century itself had ended. Others say money is not made in the light. Bach had worked day and night, but in the night mostly. His particular night light had not enriched him. His life had a strong, terrible resemblance to the other great saints. The beauty and heroism he inspired covered others.
With the years, as his gift to us increased in richness, the enigma of the mathematician Klingsor of Leipzig became ever more incomprehensible. Best leave him to those who really understood him -- to the angelic hordes -- and we, in the land of the so-called living, must make do with the notes. The rest is music.
JS Bach: The Christmas Oratorio; Cairo Choral Society; Larry Catlin, conductor; Ira Lauren, soprano; Bea Robein, mezzo soprano; Christia Baumg�rtel, tenor; Raouf Zaidan, bass baritone; Ewart Hall: American University in Cairo, 29 November
There is something uncomfortable about Bach's Christmas Oratorio. It is like a visit to one's bank, the first banking house of Germany. Its portal and entrance have the awful authority that the great houses possess, a total indifference, it seems, to all human effort. You ask for and receive a statement. Everything is OK, but the greeting you receive from the manager on his way to his domain is less than warm. It may be the increment is on the thin side. Something more voluptuous would have been better.
One hopes that Goethe would have understood cool feelings for Bach's Christmas Oratorio. After all, it is a long hard listen, ruthlessly stripped of the slightest slant towards the popular, Christmas iconic frivol. However, Larry Catlin, whose affection for it is boundless, let off the performance in the Ewart Hall with a big bang like a firecracker, and from the orchestra unleashed the trumpets. We were away on a merry Christmas.
Catlin as a conductor has a gift for magnificence. He knows and feels things in a large way. There is nothing cramped about his view of Bach's particular take -- as cool as it is -- on Christmas. And Catlin's view is original and new. One feels nobody tells him how; he knows his way and it is always, no matter what the music, true and deeply felt. One cannot ask more of a maestro than a little of the charismatic magic that goes with magicians. And on occasion he has that too -- vide his Verdi's Requiem. Catlin can offer surprises, and he did on this occasion.
No effort was made to bend or twist any of Bach's inflexible periods. We had the lot, like them or leave them. The steel Christmas tree was never even present, nor the bright family story, and certainly not the slightest touch of the maternal presence and her radiance. Even that old worldly immensity, Titian, was not proof against the Virgin Mother and Babe. Bach, with positively Olympian authority, goes directly from manger to cross in one direct leap. This leap takes the music through a number of sections. Catlin gave the first three of six, allowing the Oratorio to end in a paean of love and praise for the Son of God on the third day of Christmas.
The Oratorio makes clear it is not concerned with the infant Christ, but with the cumulative drama of his life and sacrifice. So this part, number Three, which ended the night's season of the Christmas days finishes on an unexpectedly cheerful note. As we leave the Ewart Hall we must not forget the end was yet to come, as salutary a thought as Bach is a composer. Never differ from him on his path as the archangel of music. Catlin never does and the results are surprising.
Throughout, he went for a warm sound, full and comforting, seeking always the bright view, and bright things do abound in a Bach orchestra. Catlin kept it moving, except the rocking lullaby-like arias which he allowed to flow along like a berceuse. So, Mother and Child were there right enough for the Christmas festivities.
The Cairo Choral Society always makes a fine upper line of sopranos, and it did tonight. They, together with the orchestra, gave to the Oratorio�the right devotional sound as well as the narrative one. The soloists were a team of proper dimension. The soprano, Ira Lauren, whose role is not the most thankful Bach ever wrote, nevertheless was of the proper sound if at times on the thin side. She always kept her soprano line in company with the full ensemble.
Bea Robein, mezzo of the evening, had a rewarding role. "See how the bridegroom full of grace" was moving and affecting and itself full of grace. Her voice has a lovely quality, never harsh or strident. At the end, her words, "Keep, my spirit, this blessing and wonder", formed one of the more beautiful moments of the evening.
The tenor, Christian Baumg�rtel, has an interesting role, the evangelist. His words are most important for the full force of the biblical narrative lies with him. He was clear and impressive and always distinct. Raouf Zaidan, baritone, was singing in place of the indisposed bass, David Gwesyn-Smith. Zaidan's natural musical feeling and complete authority as a singer assured us of a complete performance, though through the caprice of nature he lacked the dark, inky tones a bass needs in the ensembles.
With these singers, a chorus of quality, and the really outstanding Bachian sound of the orchestra, there was a warmly lovable performance of the Christmas Oratorio. A work it may be hard to love, but not to honour. It is easy to be one of the foolish for whom the temple is closed. Catlin, with his reverence and unbending integrity for the higher, harder path, is one of those who finds the doors are always open to him. In these times we must be grateful for that.
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