The Easter Bach Marathon took place yesterday at the Royal Albert Hall with an amazing collaboration marking Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 70th birthday.
Having tuned in throughout the day, a particular highlight was Gardiner’s explanation and analysis of Bach’s Easter Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden which brought the work, its background and the 22-year-old Bach to life. In an interview with The Arts Desk, Gardiner said that:
‘Bach’s first Easter cantata…really sums up the struggle between the forces of life and death, dark and light. It sums up and relives the spirit of Easter, the spirit of Lutheranism and the spirit of Bach better than anything else I know.’
This cantata, though intensely serious and dramatic, is shot through with light and humour. And it is the dichotomy and drama between these moments that were illustrated in Gardiner’s deconstruction of the work.
Bach’s setting is completely faithful to Luther’s text, something which he only did two or three other times in the rest of his career though he notably changed Luther’s wholetone setting of ‘victime pascalis’ to a chromatic semitone to bring the tragedy of the passion into the jubilance of the cantata. This semitone runs throughout the work, forming the main subject of the counterpoint – immediately clear with the opening alto and bass E-D# and extended soprano B-A#.
In a typical Bachian way, the work is fused together by the same melodic and harmonic material traversing contrasting emotions and textures. Gardiner described Bach as a locksmith, coming up with a blank key that can fit all doors, calling him a ‘bit of a burglar’.
On several occasions Gardiner pointed out Bach’s ‘zaney-ness’ and ‘funky-ness’, particularly when he doubles the tempo at the end of the first verse, a technique he would never use again, and as Gardiner said, something which only Stravinsky or Berlioz, or at a push Mendelssohn would potentially employ. [Video 3:43]
Gardiner writes in the Guardian that Bach goes:
‘…beyond the literal meaning of the individual words he is setting and it really is the music that counts. You might need to brace yourself against the periodic harangues, for Bach will never shirk an opportunity to box his listeners’ ears in the interests of bearing witness to the truth – of what he sees to be tawdry or reprehensible in human behaviour.’
And Gardiner too achieved an explanation that went beyond the literal meaning of the words or music during his analysis.
This work has personal resonance for Gardiner since it was his teacher Nadia Boulanger’s favourite cantata, and Boulanger left her own marked-up score for Gardiner in her will. During the Bach Marathon, Gardiner described Boulanger as a ‘terrifying tyrant’, a traumatic but inspirational teacher with an outstanding breadth of knowledge and acuteness of ear.
This was just one fascinating event amongst many, and Gardiner’s BBC 2 programme ‘Bach: A Passionate Life’ continues the marathon.
The Arts Desk Q & A with Sir John Eliot Gardiner