Monday, March 28, 2011

Bach, With And Without Tears

Tonight I got to thinking about the "old days," the time from about 1978 or thereabouts through perhaps 1999 or 2000 during which I was an active performing musician. A mailer for a local concert series started this train of thought. Some of the people on the series were familiar to me; a couple of them I had even worked with back in the day, performing 17th- and 18th-century music on period instruments or copies of such.

Pretty soon I simply had to hear some of that music. I settled on J. S. Bach's BWV 1039, a sonata for two transverse flutes (cross-blown wooden flutes, the ancestor of today's flutes) and continuo (a name not for a specific instrument but rather for an accompanying group, usually consisting of a chordal instrument, in this case harpsichord, and a bass-melody instrument such as baroque cello or perhaps viola da gamba).

Try as I might, I could not readily locate my sheet music, nor could I find my old vinyl disk of this work. (I never bought a CD of it.) Finally, I gave up and searched YouTube, finding an old recording of old music, possibly 1965 or so, by Frans Brüggen and Leopold Stasny (baroque flutes), Herbert Tachezi (harpsichord) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (baroque cello). Any of these people still living today surely should have the word "venerable" before their names; those were the old days indeed, of wooden flutes and iron (wo)men.

I had to listen to the entire work (4 movements) twice through, the first time with tears welling up in my eyes. I do not often waste time lamenting my crippled state, but the memory of exactly what it felt like to perform that work for the first time, the stage setting, the people I performed with, the lively audience and the formidable challenge for someone for whom baroque flute was undeniably a distant third instrument among those I played, truly made me regret being a cripple, losing altogether the ability to play that music. Still, it is a privilege to have done it at all. There is much joy in that music, particularly this work, and I am grateful to have participated in its performance several times in my career, sometimes on 2nd flute, sometimes on harpsichord.

(Search YouTube for "bach trio flutes" and look for those submitted by "japino11"; the four movements are in four separate tracks. Skip the various performances on modern flutes; those are mostly vanity tracks of student recitals.)


  1. Damn, Steve. Hugs. I understand mourning over what has gone and will not come again as we unravel with age. Losing abilities we had no idea we'd lose...

    I'd complain, but I don't think anybody will listen...

  2. ellroon, thank you.

    Not being a singer, I indeed had no idea I'd lose my musical faculties as I aged; most instrumentalists don't. But diabetics are special; we can lose enough sensation in our peripherals to interfere with performance-quality playing.

    I'll have to settle for today's good news from my doc that the growing age-spot he just removed from my arm is unlikely to be melanoma. (We're running tests anyway.) One has to look to the little things (at least those little things that are no longer growing!) for comfort against the onslaught of old age.

  3. May all your problems be little... uh... that old 'blessing' doesn't work here.

    Good thoughts for good test results.

  4. I remember a line or two in Hesse's 'Stephan Wolf," where there is a complaint that beautiful music was being desecrated by a scratchy gramophone. But, you will always hear it in your mind: clear, magnificent and the knowledge that you have created such beauty.

  5. ellroon - thanks again. I should know something in under a week. The doc sounded pretty confident that the news would be good, based on the texture of the thing he removed, and I've learned to trust this doc's instincts.

  6. mandt, a scratchy gramophone recording is in any case a wonderful tool for music historians. Want to know what the last castrato sounded like? There just happens to be a scratchy gramophone recording, and to no one's surprise, a castrato does NOT sound like the countertenor (male alto, usually a physically intact man singing falsetto) that we usually hire to sing those parts today.

    Many other gramophone cylinder examples exist of how it really sounded, and are of course the only evidence... NOT! Don't forget recording player pianos, at which real pianists sat and recorded (i.e., punched rolls) by playing, often their own music. How did Debussy sound playing his own works? You can get some idea from a piano roll!

  7. Steve, write more about music----very interesting. That was Hesse's point I think and your last comment about the castrato and the counter tenor brings to question what some of those original Handel pieces must have sounded like. Also, Faure's requiem.

  8. mandt, there is no doubt that Handel's operatic and oratorio works for solo male alto are intended for a castrato. The thing that amazed me when I heard that cylinder (rerecorded on a vinyl disk, of course) was that the voice was a fully mature adult male voice, wielded by an obviously superb professional singer... who happened to have an alto voice.

    Good countertenors today, though not the voice Handel had in mind, are a marvel in their own right. They are often natural baritones who have learned to sing in their "head voice" an octave above a man's typical pitch range. Some are even trained to connect the voices, normal baritone to alto, giving them a range of several octaves. I've had the pleasure of working with some truly superb countertenors over the years; someday I'll tell those tales. British choirs even today tend to use boy sopranos (before their voices change) and male altos (countertenors), a fact which has on one occasion offended one American woman who had to live in London for a while... most of their church choirs have no use for women! That, too, is changing, though.

    I've participated in the Faure Requiem only once, singing in a university choir in my godawful voice. The work is lovely, and fortunately works for choir do not typically depend on the quality of individual voices in the choir, as long as they sing on pitch. Serious singers, voice majors, sang the solo parts.

  9. Steve,
    My Dad always thought that Faure's Requiem was built from an early Bach piece. Is that so? Not all masses are created equally. LOL.

  10. mandt, I find your father's thought rather improbable, not just for the manifest musical dissimilarities of an 17th-18th-century German composer to a 19th-20th-century French composer, but for theological/liturgical differences: Faure was a Catholic of less than solid faith, while Bach was clearly a passionate Lutheran believer. (One of my profs confirmed this by his own research on some of Bach's marginal notes in the family bible.)

    Bach wrote only one Mass, the one in B Minor, and it is unsuitable for either a Catholic or a Lutheran service; it's not clear why he wrote it. He did write a number of comparably sized church works, such as the St. Matthew Passion.

    No doubt both composers made use of some of the same plainchant, but Lutheran composers of Bach's generation were far more likely to write organ music or cantatas based on Lutheran hymn tunes than on Gregorian chant.



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