Reinventing Bach

by Paul Elie

15 November 2012

An electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bach’s music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives.
cover art

Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
US: Sep 2012

Excerpted from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie, published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC . Copyright © 2012 by Paul Elie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

>>1>> This, you say to yourself, is what the past sounded like: rougher, plainer, narrower than the present yet somehow more spacious, a place high- skied and open to life.

The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. Then with a long, low swallow the organ fills with sound, which spreads toward the ends of the instrument and settles, pooling there. The sound is compounded of air and wood and leather and hammered metal, but how the sound is made is less striking than what it suggests: the past, with all its joists and struts and joinery, its sides fitted and pitched so as to last a lifetime.

The organ is a vessel on a voyage to the past, and that opening figure is a signal sent from ship to shore—a shout-out to the past, asking it to tell its story.

Now the sound spreads emphatically from the low pipes up to the high ones and down again, tracing a jagged line of peaks and spires—an outline of the lost city of the past, a message tapped out from the other side.

>>2>> Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18, 1935, at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in London. He was the world’s best-known organist, although he lived many miles from an organ; he was far better known than Bach himself had ever been, and the fact weighed on him, for he thought of Bach’s music as a refuge from his fame—as the music of an earlier, purer time.
He climbed the steps to the organ loft, took off his coat, and tried to concentrate. For two nights he had played Bach’s preludes and fugues to the empty church. It was the oldest church in the City of London, already seven hundred years old when it was threatened by the Great Fire of 1666. Now the worn stone of its walls and the smoky glass of its windows seemed to echo his fear that European civilization was ending—“beginning to melt away in our hands,” as he put it. The old City was overrun by motorcars. The organ was recent and mechanized, not the trim eighteenth-century type he favored. The windows rattled when he sounded the low pipes. He and his two apprentices took turns climbing a ladder to dampen the loose glass with towels.

Making a recording was complicated, too. The technicians spoke English, a language he had not mastered. He had to stop playing in odd places or repeat whole fugues three and four times. The wax cylinder process would never fully capture the sound of the organ in its surroundings—the essence of organ music, in his view—and he would never be a natural recording artist.

Yet as he settled behind the organ he felt at home. After two nights, he was familiar with the two keyboards and the hand-worn wooden stops. He sat upright, exhausted but invigorated, in vest and shirtsleeves, feet on the pedals, arms spread as if to echo the two wings of his white mustache, eyes on the pipes tapering up and out of sight.

Thirty years earlier he had renounced a life in music for one in medicine, training to run a clinic for poor people at the village of Lambaréné in the French Congo—to be a “jungle doctor in Africa,” as the press put it. He had wanted to do “something small in the spirit of Jesus”—to make his life an argument for a way of being that was grounded in what he now called reverence for life. But his act of renunciation had turned into something else: a double life in which he spent half the year in bourgeois Europe describing the poverty of Africa. Was this really the way to be of service—to become a freak, an exhibit of human virtue at its most self-congratulatory? Might it not have been better to do something small the way Bach had done, hunkering down behind the organ in Leipzig and making music that shouted from the housetops about reverence for life?

It might have been. But it was too late. At age sixty, he felt old—“an old cart horse… running in the same old pair of shafts.” He had written an autobiography as a kind of testament. He had made arrangements for the supervision of the clinic after his death. Germany was lost to Nazism. Europe was going to war again, and he was struggling, in a book, to set out the political and social dimensions of his philosophy as a corrective. For the first time in his life, the words would not come.

The recordings offered a way out. The hope of making them had sustained him on long nights in the tropics, as he played Bach on a piano fitted with organ pedals and lined with zinc to ward off moisture. The sale of them, in a pressboard album of shellac discs, would raise money for the clinic—for medicines, lamps, an X -ray machine. More than that, they would do with a few nights’ work what he had striven to do over several years in his book about Bach’s music. They would express his life as a musician and spread it across long distances. They would set the past against the present, and would put forward the music of Bach as a counterpoint to the age, a sound of spiritual unity to counter “a period of spiritual decadence in mankind.”

To his schedule of lectures and recitals, then, he had added these recording sessions at All Hallows. The technicians had brought equipment from the EMI compound in St. Johns Wood, crossing London in a specially outfitted truck, which was now parked in the lane outside. A microphone hung from the ribbed vault in the nave. Electrical cables threaded up the aisle and around the altar to the sacristy, where the wax cylinder console stood at the ready.

Now a handbell rang, a signal from the technicians that a fresh cylinder was turning. It was time to make a recording.

The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: it was in this, the music of Bach, especially, that Schweitzer felt reverence for life—felt the “real experience of life” that had led him to medicine and Africa. Making these recordings, he was fully alive. He straightened his back and began to play, repeating the opening figure once, twice, a third time.

He played for about ten minutes, pausing once while the technicians replaced one wax cylinder with another. He played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue the way he had played it in Paris in his student days: as a sermon in sound, an expression of the unity of creation that he feared lost forever.

>>3>> For those ten minutes Schweitzer’s life overlaps with ours. In the music, he is present to us—more so, it seems to me, than he was to most of the people who were actually in his presence while he was alive.

At the peak of his renown Life magazine called him “the greatest man in the world.” Since then he has faltered in the test of time; the adjectives once affixed to him have come unstuck, and the great man—doctor, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, and celebrity all in one—now appears a problematic, compromised figure: his project paternalistic, his methods condescending, his view of the people he worked with in Africa more akin to the crude racial stereotypes in Kipling and Conrad than to any ideal found in the gospels.

But his take on the Toccata and Fugue hasn’t lost its power. The music he made in those ten minutes is still bright, brave, confident in its cause. It beams Bach out into the night with an electric charge, which will outlast us the way it has outlasted him.

The question is: How does that happen? How does a snatch of recorded sound survive? How is it that a little night music made a long time ago can withstand the wear and tear of time?

The obvious explanation is that it is the music of Bach that survives, brought to life in Schweitzer’s performance. That composer, that work, that church, that instrument, that organist, that night—all combined to produce an “inspired” performance, one that (fortunately for us) was recorded.

That is true, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story. The performance is extraordinary, and yet so much of the power of this Toccata and Fugue in D Minor seems to be more than merely technical. The mysteries of that experience of music-making were cut into some pieces of soft wax that night, and now they are to be found between the lines of the recording—in the blurred edges, the high notes ground down to points, the surfaces that seem part of the structure, like the rattling windows of All Hallows.

Schweitzer characterized Bach as a technician of the sacred and a representative of a prior epoch in which spirit and technique went hand in hand. “In that epoch, every artist was still to some extent an instrument maker, and every instrument maker to some extent an artist,” he declared, setting the mechanical present against a past in which knowledge and know-how were indistinguishable. But to read Schweitzer on Bach is to recognize Schweitzer too as an exemplar of such an epoch, in which to “play” music was to take up an instrument, and in which examples of the music perfectly played were not near at hand but existed mainly in the imagination.

The Toccata and Fugue recording registers the technique of that age. By professional audio standards, it isn’t a “good” recording. It isn’t clear or accurate; it isn’t high fidelity, not even close. At times the great organ seems to wheeze, its sound as small and fragile as an accordion’s; in range, the recording goes from black to gray, from muddy to soupy, from loud to a little less loud.

This lack of fidelity is the source of its power. Recordings usually become more transparent the more you listen to them, until you feel that the recording is the music itself. Not this one. This is a recording, and it sounds like one: the more you listen to it, the more audible its extra-musical qualities become. It is an old recording, and it sounds its age: the dark corners and muddied entrances are pockets of mystery; the hiss of the tape transfer is the sound of the mists of time.

It sounds like the past, that is. It isn’t timeless; it is full of time, dyed with it. Yet it isn’t historical, an artifact of a certain time. It is full of the European past prior to 1935.

Across London T. S. Eliot—sharp nose, knotted tie, emphatic Adam’s apple—was bent over a typewriter, pondering the afterlife of the past. “Time present and time past /are both perhaps present in time future”: so goes the formulation that he came up with in the beginning of his Four Quartets, and so it is in Schweitzer’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The recording evokes the night a long time ago when the music of Bach (“in appentency, on its metalled ways”) coursed through the pipes of a big organ at a church in London; it evokes the past of Bach himself, emerging from a tribe of musicians in the Black Forest; and it evokes the longer past that found late expression in Bach’s music—the past of castles and cathedrals, of incense and stained glass and torchlight, of plague and pestilence and bloodletting, angels and devils, saints and martyrs.

“Age confers on all music a dignity that gives it a touch of religious elevation,” Schweitzer remarked, and the phrase—“a touch of religious elevation”— characterizes this recording. The age of the recording, and the epoch it calls forth, suggest a grandeur that the present lacks. This is the past as a time more complicated than ours, one that sponsored an encounter with life more direct and dramatic than the ways we live now.

Even as the recording gives us access to that past, it reminds us that we will never hear the past whole. It sends two signals that blend into one: it brings the past close to us, and it makes clear how distant the past really is, makes decline and fall audible.

That is what it does to me, at any rate. To me, it is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the one that sets the expectations for all the others. And yet it is unsettled and unsettling. The sonic boxiness of it—the very quality that makes it sound historic—makes it hard to listen to for simple enjoyment. The qualities of awe and wonder that it suggests have an alienating affect. This is the past made real, the sound of an era done and gone; it leaves the listener on the wrong side of history, in life’s postlude, a man in a room clamped into headphones.

Schweitzer entered the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor into the record in London on December 18, 1935. Now that performance, meant to evoke the past, is itself a piece of the past. The further we get in time from it, the more antique the recording sounds, the more awe it calls forth. A diminished thing, it points to the thing itself. It is a relic or fossil, a bony shard of sound; it is a relic of the true cross, light from a dead star.

For all that, it is a beginning, not an ending. “And time future contained in time past,” Eliot in the poem went on, and the recording, even as it evokes the past, faces forward. Like Enrico Caruso’s aria recordings (from the first decade of the twentieth century), or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives sides (from 1925 and 1926), or the Carter Family’s records of the twenties, it stands at the junction of the age of recordings and the ribbon road of time—call it pre-recorded—that had gone before. Like those recordings, it delivered on the promises of the new technology. Performed by Schweitzer, recorded and distributed around the world by EMI and its subsidiary Columbia, in the half century after 1935 this recording made Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor one of the best-known pieces of classical music, as familiar as a church bell tolling the hour.

The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is a beginning in another sense, too. It was composed when Johann Sebastian Bach was in his teens, some 230 years before Schweitzer etched it into wax at All Hallows: early in Bach’s career and in the classical tradition. Now great in age, it was made when Bach, and Western music, and modern Europe, were still young; it is the sound of a much earlier beginning.

>>4>> “Music is one of the best arts; the notes give life to the text; it expels melancholy, as we see in King Saul. Kings and princes ought to maintain music, for kings and princes should protect good and liberal arts and laws; though private people have desire thereunto and love it, yet their ability is not adequate. We read in the Bible, that good and godly kings paid and maintained singers. Music is the best solace for a sad and sorrowful mind; by it the heart is refreshed and settled again in peace.”

Martin Luther was a music lover: a natural singer who incanted his sermons from the pulpit, a player of the lute (his namesake instrument), the author of hymns so stirring that a foe of his claimed they had “killed more souls than his [prose] works and sermons.”

Famous as a reformer, Luther was also a revivalist, and in him these two dispositions, these two ways of making the old world new, were fused. The reformer works to change the structures of things, striving to produce a glimpsed ideal. The revivalist calls for a change of heart, recalling a prior state of ardor. Luther did both: he evoked a purer past as the model for a purer future. After him, reform and revival would run in counterpoint through the Protestant experience, and so through the modern West—through religion, politics, culture, the arts.

Photo (partial) ©Sue Johnson from MacMillan author page.

Photo (partial) ©Sue Johnson
from MacMillan author page.

Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.

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