I took advantage of the leisure of vacation to listen all the way through to Bach’s cantata, “Christ lag in todesbanden” yesterday. On Easter 2000 John Eliot Gardiner performed this cantata at Georgenkirche in Eisenach. He writes about the performance and the piece in his Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.
I thought I knew this early Bach cantata pretty well, but I found that listening closely to Gardiner’s performance on Spotify continually surprised and delighted me with the freshness of the interpretation which lays bare Bach’s ideas.
Gardiner points out that Georgenkirche in Eisenach was not only the church of Bach’s youth, but two hundred years earlier it was also the church of Martin Luther’s youth. Both men were educated in the school which was part of the church complex.
Gardiner speculates that Bach heard and sang Luther’s great Easter hymn in this building as a child as well.
Gardiner’s erudition is on display throughout this book both as a performer/scholar and as a widely read thinker.
His comments and footnotes have led me to check out a wide range of other books and ideas. Yesterday I was running down the writer Charles Williams whom I did not know.
Gardiner sees the cosmic battle which Luther puts in his hymn and Bach brings out in his music as related to Milton’s vision in Paradise Lost.
This leads him to link the cantata to the writings of H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) and Charles Williams whom he describes as a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
My brother pointed out that Williams was one of the Inklings a literary group from Oxford which included Tolkien and Lewis.
In addition to Bach, I have been thinking about and playing Debussy and Rameau.
Debussy wrote a lovely Hommage to Rameau which I have been meticulously trying to parse out. Debussy’s chords can be a handful and that certainly is the case in this one.
I photocopied it before heading out to California and also several of my favorite pieces by Rameau. There I was able to use the Jenkins California piano. Here in the woods I have my silly electric piano.
It helps me to let music like this (Bach, Debussy, Rameau) to sort of rattle around in my brain and fingers. Kind of a musical osmosis as well as learning process.