Bach in the Late Afternoon

To go to an afternoon concert is to step into the past, and not only when the music to be heard happens to have been composed long ago. By its very placement after that increasingly rare caesura in the work or school day once known as a lunch break and before the promised—if often illusory—cessation of labor to be enjoyed after returning home, the afternoon recital promises an oasis of musical reflection, refreshment and uplift enjoyed in outright defiance of the caravan of achievement and accumulation trudging towards its distant goals, hazy and unattainable. Unless cast against type, the evening concert is generally a stuffy affair that usually demands dutiful observation of formalities and often serves mainly to demonstrate how the cultured can spend the money they’ve earned during the long day’s working hours. Making the most of leisure time becomes just another job.

Even if the afternoon concert is on a Sunday it still brings with it a unique sense of stolen pleasure, especially since the weekend continues to falter under the relentless siege of the hegemonic work week—not to mention stores open around the clock and the incessant attentions demanded by internet and iPhone.

The afternoon concert’s ethos of purposeful repose is all the stronger if the venue is relatively small—maybe holding two hundred people or so—and has a warm interior of brick and wood and long windows of both clear and stained glass that allow the shifting tonalities of the late winter sunlight to trace their progression from afternoon to dusk. Heard in these changing colors, the emotional hues of the music become all the more memorable and poignant.

Let the music accompanying these infinitely subtle chromatic shadings come not from a clattering orchestra or a polished-up vehicle like the grand piano. Needless to say, you must also ban electronics—microphones; wires; speakers. Instead the music should emanate from an instrument that does not bully and brag, but beckons you to enter its intimate world and to listen with intent and wonder, as if refreshing your hearing from the numbing long-range assault of the motors and machines of the industrial age and the close-up siege of headphone and earbud. The sonority of such an afternoon’s music would be utterly vanquished by even a household vacuum cleaner. Undisturbed by the background noise of modernity, however, the instrument chosen opens a portal onto an epoch when music reached out most ardently and expressively in the gathering shadows of day’s end.

Is all this pure Luddite fantasy, a hopelessly quaint outpouring of nostalgia for a past of musical sound and light that never was?  You might think as much if the instrument heard on this winter Sunday afternoon was not the baroque lute and if the man holding it was not Paul O’Dette, a player of prodigious technique, playful erudition and profound musical feeling, and if the music he was performing was not that of Johann Sebastian Bach and his friend Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the greatest lutenist of the eighteenth century and one of the most famous musicians of the age.

Among his far-flung activities as a recitalist, conductor, researcher, and teacher, O’Dette has been rightly acclaimed for his recording (he’s made some 120 in total) of the complete lute works of the Elizabethan genius of the instrument, John Dowland. This five-CD set is a miraculous thing, ranging across many genres and the most varied emotional landscape, from proud nobility to devastated tears, from florid figuration to eloquent counterpoint. Dowland wrote for an instrument with six or seven courses (sets of strings); this renaissance lute was an instrument played avidly by amateurs. That instrument was commensurate to the sublime thoughts and deeds of professionals like Dowland, as well as a reliable companion for the fumblings of lords and ladies. A hundred years on the lute had acquired twice as many strings—thirteen courses, more than double the number of the modern twelve-string guitar. One eighteenth-century writer complained that having such a lute was more expensive than keeping a horse, and that if a lutenist lived to sixty years of age, forty of those had been spent tuning the beast. Complicated and often cantankerous, the lute lost its amateur players and became the exclusive domain of professionals like Weiss.

But the singular persuasive power of the lute was not lost even as it bulked out to unwieldy dimensions like a once slender courtier with an addiction to anabolic steroids and free weights: the lute still captivated like no other musical body. Partly because the paired strings of the lute are plucked not with a quill or the fingernail but with the bare skin of the fingers the production of sound is intensely controlled and nuanced.  When a skilled lute player touches his instrument it is as if he plays the strings of your soul; there is, I believe, no more direct musical conduit to the human emotions among Western instruments.

Not just a bombastic virtuoso at the organ but also a magician at the clavichord in the small private gatherings he liked to hold, Bach was not surprisingly a devotee of the lute; he called on its mournful voice in his vocal works, and also owned one at the time of his death. Bach counted among his students at least one virtuoso of the instrument and was closely associated with famed lutenists and lute makers. It is quite possible that Bach played the instrument himself, though never in a way that approached his own abilities at the keyboard or the level of mastery attained by his colleague Weiss.  Instead, Bach had constructed for himself a lute-harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that, rather than employing the metal wire used in harpsichords and clavichords, was equipped with gut strings like those of the lute. In this way so-called Lautenwerk was endowed with the warmth and richness of its namesake; thus appointed, this Bachian keyboard invention favored brooding elegance over sparkling brilliance. Bach’s so-called lute works, mainstays of the plucked-string repertoire, are in fact keyboard pieces he wrote for his lute-harpsichord that then have to be re-purposed for performance on the instrument they originally sought to imitate. Such cross-pollinations and influences made eighteenth-century music bloom brightly in often-unexpected ways.

We are now unsurprised by, and generally unoffended at, hearing Bach played on anything from steel drums to cell-phones to marbles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_CDLBTJD4M), and even if the technological possibilities for transformation weren’t so diverse in the eighteenth century, the spirit of adaptation and arrangement was if anything more robust in Bach’s time than in our own.  Bach’s many transcriptions of his own works are rarely merely mechanical, but more often transformative. Even when putting his own music into another guise, Bach never took the path of least resistance.

The first piece on the afternoon’s program was Bach’s Pieces pour la Luth à Monsieur Schouster (BWV 995), which is in fact a transcription of his C Minor Cello Suite (BWV 1011). The opening Prelude is in the style of the French Overture, the grandiose genre that most embodies in sound the splendor of the court of Louis XIV under whose reign many of the greatest Europe lutenists flourished. Bach’s French title bespeaks these proud national origins. After its migration from cello to lute, Bach’s suite luxuriates in the fuller chords that draw a more intense majesty from the sumptuously dissonant harmonies and, between them, the grand flourishes and grandiloquent pauses characteristic of the ouverture’s manner. As a type, the overture was originally conceived for baroque orchestra, but rendered on the lute it is as if the troubled ruminations of a single mind and pair of hands are capable of more profundity, more grandeur than could be mustered even by the pomp of Louis’s gathered musicians or, for that matter, the thrust and parry of the cello’s bow strokes. The fugue embedded in the overture is also fuller on the lute, its counterpoint richer and more purposeful than in the cello’s version. This happens by virtue of the fact that the lute is a chordal instrumental, but more than that it is the striving contours of the lines and the sonorous expansiveness of the supporting harmonies that bring the listener into the music’s ardent but artful rhetoric, delivered in the solemn shadows cast by its own discourse. A single lutenist seems to be contemplating the end of the courtly way of life that gave rise to and sustained the musical style of the very instrument he uses to explore it in the guttering candlelight of its own demise.

It is no coincidence that the lute was a favorite prop in the seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas paintings collected by Bach’s princely patrons. The individual musical imagination reflecting on mortality plumbs even greater melancholic depths in the suite’s ensuing Allemande, which continues with the same gestures of the overture, as if the restive shade of the opening royalist music cannot refrain from haunting realms beyond the hereditary palace that is the overture itself. O’Dette’s delivery of Bach’s faltering gestures invest the music with a sense of freighted memory and impending loss: the music becomes almost painfully beautiful, transporting a kind of tragic weight that, paradoxically, in O’Dette’s magic hands never becomes leaden.

In the utilitarian spirit of adaptation, O’Dette then moved to Bach’s E Major Partita (BWV 1006a)—transposed to the more lute-friendly key of F Major—originally a work for solo violin. The perpetual motion race of the celebrated Prelude, which Bach himself also recast as a kind of organ concerto to introduce one of his cantatas, becomes a tribute to the bell-like resonance of the lute, change-ringing across a verdant harmonic landscape. O’Dette’s reading of this suite’s much loved Gavotte en Rondeau confirms that his playing is capable not just of brilliance and melancholy but also disarming tenderness and grace.

With the light slanting ever lower and greyer, O’Dette began the second half of the program with an early suite by Bach’s friend Weiss. This is music self-consciously indebted to the great French lutenists, and among its many treasure, most precious is the Sarabande, fragile and perfect. Resplendent both as a whole and in its seemingly endless facets and decorative touches, Weiss’s suite brings to mind the bejeweled coral goblets fabricated at great expense for the lutenist’s Saxon employer, August the Strong.  So life-giving are these Weissian luxuries that they seem not like extravagances but rather a staple of existence.

O’Dette concluded with his setting of Bach’s Sonata in g minor for solo violin (BWV 1001), a work that starts with a halting, elegiac Adagio before launching into a sprawling fugue, whose majestic energy pushed O’Dette on towards the twilight of his program. The Siciliano that follows the fugue is a poised creation, balanced perfectly on a high wire above maudlin, but deadly waters: Bach risks making the music too precious, even prosaic. But the great man knew that especially after a searching fugue there is a time and space for guilty pleasures, the music coaxed into its myriad graceful poses by O’Dette’s most refined sensibilities. Spurred on by infallible fingers and deft timing even at high speeds, the final Presto burst the illusion of timelessness before O’Dette conjured that illusion one last time with an encore—the performer’s own transcription of the pleading Adagio from Bach’s third Sonata for solo violin (BWV 1005). This final plaint seemed to be played not so much on the strings of the lute but those of the hearts of O’Dette’s enraptured and grateful audience.

These three Bach suites are available on O’Dette’s magnificent 2007 recording; unless your own melancholy demands the darkness of night, I recommend listening to this disc by late afternoon candlelight.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com