Robin Holloway

Heaven and earth

Heaven and earth

I don’t really like Radio Three’s recent venture into blockbuster one-man blow-outs. It’s a bit sophomoric and anorakish, and the completism can reduce even the greatest composers to wallpaper. Bach is unquestionably one of the greatest. But during ‘Bach Christmas’ it often seemed as though one were switching on into the same piece extended on an endless loop: might as well have been Telemann! This impression was compounded by a tendency to prefer jogtrot ‘sewing machine’ performances. Many minutes must have been shaved off the project by going for modern high-speed baroque. In fairness, I must add that of course I couldn’t hear everything, and did catch some diversity of interpretative style and many moments of thrilling beauty.

Most missed was a sense of Overview (something frequently achieved elsewhere on the network with far more modest means — e.g., This Week’s Composer). In its absence, I’ll tempt hubris by trying one myself.

Albeit universal, Bach is also human (though a friend recalls a graffito from the Sixties declaring ‘Bach is God’) and doesn’t extend to the utmost of his divine creator’s range. What he clearly does contain comes in three main categories. In secular instrumental music — suites, partitas, concertos, for keyboard, solo violin or cello, orchestra — physical energy prevails; the robust body rhythms of this dance-based corpus, its cheerfulness, with outbreaks of festivity; its tone of small-court ceremonial, provincial-town society, family comity, though in no way lacking tenderness, lyricism, inwardness, is fundamentally extrovert.

In religious vocal music, the range is infinitely wider and deeper: from epic in subject and scale (both Passions and the huge B-minor Mass) to small-scale devotional intimacy (particularly in the earliest cantatas — Weimar, Cöthen — perfect instance the actus tragicus with its florilège of biblical touchstones as personally revealing as those chosen by Brahms for his Requiem); and plenty in between, including the four smaller masses and the vast mass of church cantatas.

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