The Music of Bach – an inspiration to us all?
The sun sets early over Jerusalem at the moment. The clocks went back last week in Israel so that (according to our hotel receptionist) dusk would come and go earlier, which is good news for those celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles and thus feeling a little hungry towards the end of the day. I’m here with VOCES8 to perform at the Abu Gosh festival, and our second performance coincides with the actual festival day itself. The church is packed for the concert, high on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, and this seems an appropriate place for our first performance of Bach’s motet, ‘Der Geist Hilft’. The text for this wonderful motet, which finishes our new album of the Bach Motets, ends with a plea that we might strive through death and life to reach God’s presence. These words, alongside the sublime music of Bach, seem beautifully poignant for our first visit to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
VOCES8 began its journey with the Bach motets nearly 18 months ago. Since then, we’ve been working to interpret, memorise, record and perform the six masterpieces. Our recording of the motets has just been released on the Signum Label, and the performance in Israel marked the fifth of the six motets that we have now performed from memory on stage. While many of the group had performed some of the motets before, this project has given us a huge challenge, and with each motet gradually coming to rest in our collective memory, we feel a huge sense of pride in what we have achieved. Learning and performing music from memory is something that will be familiar to most a cappella singers, but this challenge has been one that certainly stands out for me as the most difficult, and rewarding, of my career to date.
We’ve been very lucky to have input from numerous sources along the way, and I can’t emphasise strongly enough how important outside advice is for an a cappella group. From technical aspects of singing this repertoire; performance thoughts; much needed German coaching; discussions on artistic interpretation and then in the recording studio with a great production team, we’ve been very lucky. Advice has come from interesting places - a group you may know called the King’s Singers, the hugely influential Masaaki Suzuki, our great production team led by Nick Parker, to whom words cannot express our thanks, and our ever-patient German coach, Alexandra Rawohl…. ‘No… no, no! More consonants in the text!!’
As a cappella singers, you will appreciate the importance of teamwork, of shared ideas and of commitment and passion for the music that you perform. This project has given us a chance to create a concert performance, and an album, which we believe has great integrity and showcases the stunning music of JS Bach, with singing done not just by 8 individual singers, but as a team, as an ensemble. Discussions concerning part hierarchy throughout each of the motets have moved on to a new level with this brilliantly complex music.
In VOCES8, we try to remember that as singers in this repertoire, we are a medium through which audiences can experience great works of the past. Each of us tries to use our musical skill to interpret the music of Bach as we think it was originally intended, but it’s important that we are also able to bring a musical and a contextual understanding to his work that comes from a few hundred years of musical advancement and historical analysis. Every musician today can appreciate the merits of Bach in a world where it is possible to place him alongside music and composers written since his death, and this gives us a different perspective of hindsight and interpretation with which to assess his work. I can assure you that, behind the onstage performance, we argue and debate constantly about how we interpret this music. I hope we never stop doing that. It’s this passion, this desire to bring to life, which can be used to ignite such dazzling music and lift it from the page and onto the stage.
As a performer, you are often treading a fine line between ‘authentic performance’ and interpretation. Let’s not forget that a multitude of music historians have argued, and will continue to do so, about what may or may not be accepted as legitimately ’authentic’. Source material, particularly in the case of the Bach Motets, has been an area of ferocious debate. You may see pictures of us on Facebook deep in discussion, arguing (not too violently!) or simply flat out on the floor with fatigue! Sometimes the wonder of Facebook can capture our joy, opinions and moment of frustration in a single visual image. The Bach Motets project has undoubtedly exhilarated and exhausted us all, but it’s worth it.
In the past three days, I’ve experienced the various religious quarters of Jerusalem and been astounded by the fervour and belief of the people who live in or visit this place. It’s a powerfully moving yet simple thought that, whether religious or not, I’ve been standing on the place talked about in the scriptures which form the cornerstone of the most dominant global religions; stretch back millenia; and have influenced the history of mankind perhaps more than any other books ever written. Today, by contrast, I’ve watched Jeremy Paxman interview the self-confessed celebrity, Russell Brand. The interview covers what the BBC terms the ‘cult of celebrity’. Regardless of how you view Russell Brand, it’s hard to deny that he and Paxman cover some very interesting ground.
Would Bach, a passionate Lutheran, have something to say about the dangers of societies in which God (in whatever form) faces subjugation at the hands of Celebrity? I don’t doubt it. The comparison between our 21st century society in Britain and the one that I witnessed this week in Israel certainly seems to offer stark contrasts. A member of the Pope’s entourage recently talked about the godless, ‘aggressively’ atheist society in Britain. Although David Cameron was quick to disagree, perhaps Cardinal Walter Kasper was partially fair in his assessment, perhaps considerably more than that. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and Ed Miliband, the new Leader of the Opposition both openly proclaim a lack of belief in God. Brand though, for one, shares his belief in God when talking with Paxman in the interview, and there are many who would stand alongside him. The music of Bach is a powerful, beautiful and wonderful thing, an example of a musical master at his absolute best. It is also music written for religious purpose, for God, and for people who believe in God. But is a belief in God necessary to understand and appreciate the music in these motets? I don’t think so, though it would surely help.
Even though Brand now lives in a world in which his thoughts and actions could influence millions of people who don’t agree with his religious belief or philosophies, he seems some way from using this persuasive power. At least he can find a companion to share his religious belief in Bach. Brand talks with Paxman about wanting to create something of complete artistic beauty. Perhaps in this too he could look towards Bach.
Dr Lewis Thomas certainly places Bach above most earthly things, as he suggests using his glorious music for initiating intergalactic communication: ‘I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course but it is surely excusable to put the best possible
face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance.
We can tell the harder truths later.’
What luck those extra terrestrials have in store.
VOCES8: Bach Motets is out now on CD