Bach we approach with some trepidation. Bach is not really a mere musical commodity at all, but a religion. Bach’s music is an almost satisfactory substitute for sex. Its purity grips minds slightly too rarified to be properly religious. Compared with the music of Bach, Beethoven’s and Mozart’s efforts are the soiled product of the dirty human hand.
Bluff your way in Music
Peter Gammond, 1985
I came late to the music of Bach.
It had always been there, of course: we sang “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” in Chatham’s Central Hall for a school concert when I was about 11, for example. The ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ ads were all-pervasive as a kid, too, and used Bach’s Air on a G string as their punch-line theme.
But I never really got into Bach’s music in a big way until a good friend of mine died in Sydney in 2007: he had an enormous CD collection in which there were many dozens of disks devoted to Bach. I was asked by his executor to digitise it… and naturally I listened to the music as I did so. I was swiftly hooked by a music that is mathematical, rational and objective …and yet, uniquely capable of reaching emotional depths and spiritual heights. On many occasions, it’s also incredibly happy -and tempts you to tap your toes or get up and dance for joy! It can make you cry whilst making you want to dance; and simultaneously give you that sense of satisfaction you get from completing a complex crossword. There’s a world going on in Bach’s music, and it’s wonderful.
So whilst Peter Gammond is having a bit of a joke in that extract above from his very witty Bluff your way in Music book, there is some truth in what he says: Bach is stratospherically good, in a way that can, just occasionally, make Mozart and Beethoven sound rather ordinary!
One particular part of Bach’s enormous musical output attracted my ear: the Cantatas. There are about 197 of them extant. Each is a little mini-drama on spiritual themes, sung by a few soloists and a small choir. They are Lutheran in outlook -meaning that there’s a lot of angst, woe, guilt, damnation and other mid-eighteenth century pietism that sits uneasily on a 21st century soul. I can’t think of any music about which it can better be said: ‘you are better off not knowing what the words mean, just enjoy the music’!
Nevertheless, I found myself wanting to know what the words meant, even if in the end, their specifics didn’t help me in my appreciation of any single cantata. Thus the Dizwell Bach Project was begun. Originally just an intention to come up with new translations of all of Bach’s cantata texts, it soon morphed into a way of getting my thoughts about each cantata into order -so that, as well as translations, each cantata is explored more deeply for its spiritual and musical content.
So: on this website, I’ll try to document all I know about Bach in general and his Cantatas in particular. It is a personal hobby, though, and I’m not a trained musician -so anything here will be the equivalent of ‘The Dummies Guide’ to Bach’s Cantatas at best! I may also add pieces of more general musical and even technological interest (the technology behind modern music listening is worth an article or two, I think!)