Bach Performance Notes

This week it seems that my life has become again bound up with that of J.S. Bach, that protean (and Lutheran) master of the Baroque.  Musicologists frequently cite the dualistic character in the life and work of Robert Schumann, but Bach, although he fails to name his muse (apart from a trinitarian vision of Christian savior, that is) is also dualistic in his effect.  His style is both cosmopolitan and national, cerebral and visceral, full of, as Louise Young writes of Japanese imperialism, “ossified weight vs. mercurial dynamism.”

Which is to say that playing his music is both fun and difficult.

Along the lines of previous post-performance exhortations and assessments, I’ll tease out a few remnants from this morning’s performance in the hopes (eh, the expectation!) that said document can serve as another foundational block in the Steps to Parnassus.  Sure, perfection is unattainable, but isn’t that the whole point of playing an instrument, carving out a piece of writing, or heaving sighs at visions of die ewige Weibliche? Die ewige Weibliche zieht uns hinan!

Grundlage: Foundations are either wholly sturdy or reveal their shoddiness under duress.  Don’t be like a corrupt cadre who socks away time chasing gold when you should be pouring concrete.  Which is to say that foundations are, by definition, laid early and intentionally.  Interpretations of a given piece, will, of course, change over time, but — just as Nietzsche said there is no substitute for having worked hard in undergrad — there is no substitute for having put a piece to the woodshed every day for a two- or three-week period a few months prior to the performance at hand.  Little mishaps or playing merely adaquately when the line could have shone with brilliance brings one to this point just as surely as train wrecks.  Foundations!  成为基础成为基础没有基础就没有技术就没有艺术吧。 Habit is the essence of craft.  Practice is the pedal tone, the tonic, the Hauptton, the basso profundo of the morning.

Allein oder Gemein? Alone or performing with a partner or ensemble, one’s mental train changes significantly.  I realized this today in the guts of the program, in the moment of stark silence before starting the Bach Prelude in d for unaccompanied cello.  (Maybe I could emphasize the solitary nature of this endeavor by using the German phrase for “unaccompanied cello,” which is  “violoncello unbegleitet.”  Yeah!  that’s fine, strive to be unbegleitet when you aren’t gemein/sammlung andere kraefte wie Emile Durkheim/keine Worter werd’ die Wettbewerb kurz stricken/Donner und Blitz macht hell im Gesicht/unheimliche Wut im Fuβ was tragst du/Johann Sebastian was sagst du/aber schweigend bleiben sein/fuer wann heller Nacht naeckt am Strand lauft, dann ist alles los/wie verlorene Doppelgriffen weinen zu dem Vater suchen/ploetzlich wacht auf und deswegen macht etwas neu!/mit festen Bogenstrichen fuehren sie selbst/entaeuscht mit anderem, nieder from pelts of seaweed rise up from the deep/Heinrich Schutz mag ich dich so sehr/lehren Harmonien/schwer und compliziert, deine Klingen sorgt mich tief/Brust schwollen mit Bilder von Alpen/so zuruck kommen wir jetzt, meine alte liedvoller Freunden/von Macht und Kraft bitte sie mich aufzubauen, ich bin nicht gestorbene jetzt!/und jetzt mit eine neue jetzt…bis Berlin, bis Wien, bis bald)

Well, there may be more to come, but now it’s begun.  To beginnings, and to Vivace first movements!

Adam Cathcart with Bach-thundering harpsichord at Pacific Lutheran University, March 3, 2010


  1. I know nothing about music, but by accident I have recently come across some violoncello and would like to hear it on its own, without orchestra.

    I heard it again in a video showing Almodovar filming Speak to Her at where somebody sings the Spanish folk song Cucurrucucu paloma.

    The cello comes through for less than a minute, and wouldn’t you know of some piece of music where it could be heard as a solo instrument?

    1. I would recommend of course the Bach Cello Suites, some of which can be found on my YouTube channel (played by me with varying degrees of success). Here is one example:

  2. Thank you very much!

    I tried to listen to it, but it sounds very abstract to me so that I would like to record it to listen to it more extensively later.
    By “abstract” I mean only that I cannot understand how one little sequence follows from the preceding one or what would be next.

  3. I haven’t forgotten this, but I am in Spain and these days the political news have pushed everything else out of sight and mind. I am Swiss and not well acquainted with things here in Spain, where I live; and so, for instance, this morning I wasted 1.5 hours trying to find out when the new town governments resulting from yesterday’s elections would become operative.

    1. Sounds like a magnificent journey, Cantueso! Hope the transition remains interesting and not too frustrating. I have been told that everything takes more time in Spain, but need to investigate for myself, surely.

      1. I like the sound of the instrument, but I don’t think I can get used to Bach. I have known for some time that for me music is harder to see through than print . Once on a forum of people who knew a lot about music I asked somebody what he thought of Gershwin’s Summertime, and he answered that he did not know, as he had “never sunk so low”. I am sure he could not have guessed that this answer made me giggle each time I remembered it.

        However, I think that of the few church songs that I really like some are by Bach, for instance one based on Isaiah “Uns ist ein Kind geboren aus einer Wurzerl zart” and another one “Lobet den Herren, den mächtigen König”. As I am some sort of a Catholic, I would have heard them again and again over many years.

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