I’ve been through a lot in the past six years: survived lymphoma and leukemia, with a few health issues pending. One thing that got me through the arduous courses of chemotherapy and the endless spinal taps was a minute, detailed, daily study of all the Bach sacred cantatas. I often tell everyone about my “Bach cure”: better then chemo, and a lot more beautiful. Of course, medicine and music worked together on my behalf.
I had the cantatas on my iPod while receiving the “drip.” Admittedly, the whole experience of listening to a work as “site-specific” as a Bach cantata on an “iPod” seems a bit of a betrayal to me, but it enabled me to have the necessary out-of-body poise to endure treatment, so I suppose I am grateful to the recording industry after all.
What I did was listen in-depth to one cantata each day at home, as early in the morning as possible before having to begin medical appointments. I had a reputable recording, score in hand (not a piano/vocal reduction). Then I’d go to the piano a play the parts separately, and together, sometimes haltingly, making my own “reduction.” I also scrutinized the sometimes garish Pietistic Lutheran texts to these works. “Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital” (The entire world is but a hospital–from BWV 25) is just one line of many that resonated.
I have been through the entire cycle of nearly 199 sacred cantatas at least ten times, and have had the luxury of comparing multiple recorded versions of many of them, as well as hearing live performances such as John Eliot Gardiner’s “Cantata Pilgrimage” series of 2000/01.
Bach is such a legendary figure, everyone thinks he/she “knows” Bach. But how many really know the cantatas, which make up one-fourth of the BWV Bach work list? They were used in the Sunday Lutheran worship service, a grueling affair that could last up to seven hours in eighteenth century Leipzig. Imagine the temperature of those stone churches in winter. Amid the shivering, I wonder how many of the pious Leipzigers appreciated the gift they were being given week after week.
I hope to focus on aspects of the cantatas in future blog posts, but for today I only want to mention how the passage at the end of this post leaped out at me when I read it (no peeking ahead.)
In antiquity, science, art, religion, the occult, philosophy, and music were much less “separated” or compartmentalized than they are now usually regarded.
We all know the name “Pythagoras” from high-school geometry and that theorem about triangles. Pythagoras was an ancient Greek mathematician/philosopher whose teachings were entirely oral, passed down to his students (and their students, and so on) generation after generation. In fact, there is now a lot of debate as to whether he said anything attributed to him, or even “invented” the theorem that bears his name. In any case, he condenses in one figure many of the intellectual and spiritual concerns of his time (ca. 570–495 BC).
“Abstain from beans” is one of his “Pythier” sayings. I guess farting is one of the universals. He was also a vegetarian, a believer in reincarnation and the “music of the spheres.” This esoteric idea stated, among other things, that there was a relation between musical tones and the relative sizes, orbits and other proportions of the planets and stars.
According to legend, Pythagoras was passing a blacksmith’s shop when he observed the ringing and clanging of the hammers on the anvils. Wishing to understand why their resonance was so pleasing to his ear, he noted that the hammers were sized in simple ratios to each other, 1:2, 2:3 etc. Do you know Handel’s harpsichord piece “The Harmonious Blacksmith”?
“The divine monochord” as he called it, was a stringed experiment with the same idea. As all string players know, if you “stop” (place your finger) on a string exactly in the middle of its length, it will vibrate one “octave” higher than the full string. Other ratios produce other overtones and notes.
So geometry and music are really kissing cousins. Maybe they did more than kiss. If I’ve rambled, blame it on the “chemobrain.” Okay, here’s the passage, from a “biography” of Pythagoras written in the third century AD.
“How Pythagoras Cured by Music—Not through instruments or physical voice-organs . . . but by the employment of a certain indescribable divinity . . . through which he extended his powers of hearing, fixing his intellect on the sublime symphonies of the world . . . apparently hearing and grasping the universal harmony and consonances of the spheres . . . producing a melody fuller and more intense than anything effected by mortal sounds.”
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs