Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bach and space

Last weekend we heard Apollo's Fire (Cleveland's vibrant baroque orchestra) perform a couple of well-known works, Vivaldi's Gloria and the first half of Bach's B Minor Mass. (The picture is Jeannette Sorrell, conducting from the keyboard, from Apollo's Fire's website).

The Vivaldi was exciting and varied: quick-paced at times, at other times lingering as in the gorgeous second movement, Et in terra pax, where the multiple, cascading suspensions seemed to evoke the  longing for peace that the text denotes. But despite that almost timeless movement, the whole experience was contained, bounded, a series of movements with clearly defined beginnings, endings, contrasts. (There's a clip on YouTube of the group doing Vivaldi's Spring last year). It reminded me of those wonderful colored stone inlay tables from 18th century Florence: crisp, exciting, but not something you'd stake your soul on.

The Bach was something else: grand, spacious. It did not hurry, though the notes were sometimes fast; it seemed hardly to have beginnings and endings; the music and the silences before, between, and after, were like one. It seemed to absorb time into the counterpoint, first one voice and then another, till all five were in on the theme; and yet when that happened, some were on a countertheme that we hadn't noticed at first. If one tune left our ears for a while, there were others just coming up out of the inside textures. Though I've sung this piece several times, the opening Kyrie always surprises me: the choir, without any orchestral introduction, in a b minor chord singing "Kyrie" (Lord). Three great chordal cries of "kyrie" are interwoven with moving lines of "eleison" (have mercy): four bars of complex, rich material. As if it were almost too rich, Bach startlingly drops the choir after those four bars, giving the orchestra 24 bars at Largo -- almost a lifetime -- to lay out a fugue, which the choir will rejoin. The lines are long, liquid, intertwining, as if they were outlining some vast architecture.

Where did Bach find that sense of space? From the Bible, certainly: "O God of our salvation, who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth, and of them that are afar off upon the sea" (Psalm 65). From Milton, perhaps (did Bach know his work in translation?):
                                              Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant. . . [Paradise Lost, Book I]
Or from the architecture of the Baroque, the soaring domes and intricate patterns of a Bernini? 

Or from the new science, the Galileos, Keplers, and Newtons who had expanded the scale of the heavens?

When I listen to Bach, I hear how Newton had seen the relationships of time, motion, mass, and space, and given to his age -- an age in intellectual crisis, like ours -- a new sense of order and understanding.