Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 22

            By Linda de Vries

Whatever acts Sebastian and anyone associated with him throughout the succeeding centuries performed on this date, they have not been recorded.

We will, therefore, look at a composer born on this date 245 years and a day after Sebastian—Stephen Sondheim. Although these two worked in wildly different arenas, they are comparable in their complex style of composition, the mixed reception given them by their audiences, and the ultimate recognition of their importance.

Our Bach Bagatelle for today then, is: Bach and Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim, born on March 22, 1930, is an American composer and lyricist known for his immense contributions to the musical theatre for over 50 years. He has won more awards than any other composer. Frank Rich of the New York Times describes him as “the greatest and best-known artist in the American musical theatre.” He is 84 years old today, and still working.

On February 11, 2011, Peter Hilliard posted an article that explores this similarity: “Three Times Sondheim Changed my Life.” Hilliard wrote:

            Sondheim is a little like Bach. In Bach’s time, his work had a reputation for being confusing, overwritten, too complex, and “overly artful,” as Johann Schiebe put it. Even Bach’s kids considered his music a little old-fashioned, although they acknowledged his genius. Sondheim has never been called old-fashioned, but his music and lyrics have a complexity that many people find off-putting, and he has an undeserved reputation for writing cold, un-memorable melodies. But like Bach, Sondheim is also a writer who rewards close study, a creator of pieces containing seemingly inexhaustible riches, layers upon layers of meaning that keep revealing themselves if you have the patience to keep looking.

Hilliard goes on to describe the three life-changing events. The first was when, feeling estranged from his Les Miserables-loving friends, he bought a used CD of the soundtrack of Sunday in the Park with George and listened to “Finishing the Hat.” The second was when he decided to shift from singing opera to composition and, feeling Sondheim had been an influence, wrote him and Sondheim wrote back. The third was when a student gave him a CD of Sondheim on Sondheim, in which Sondheim talks so movingly about Oscar Hammerstein’s profound influence on his life. Hilliard realized:

            If as a teacher and a father I can open someone’s eyes to the possibility of greatness; if I can pull back the curtain on some piece of music and say, “there is a world of terrific and almost inexpressible meaning here if you can learn to see it,” then there is a value that lives beyond me, and beyond even my work.

Sondheim, ever grateful for the tutelage of Hammerstein, recognized that value as well, and endowed The Kennedy Center Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. The six 2014 recipients received their awards and grants today. I am grateful to be one of the six. Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, and Happy Birthday!

Hilliard concludes his post with a final reference to Bach and the composers who testify as to how much they learned from him: “If he and his work were somehow forgotten, his legacy would still be immeasurable.”

Since the year is 2014 and Sebastian, according to some, felt the number 14 to be particularly significant, and even though the chronology is not parallel, let’s briefly compare the 14th work of each.

BWV 14, Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (Were God not with us at this time) is a church cantata composed in Leipzig in 1735 for fourth Sunday after Epiphany, a rare Sunday, as it only occurs in years when Easter comes late. The text is based on a hymn by Martin Luther taken from Psalm 124, a hymn that had regularly been sung on this Sunday for a very long time. Its theme is that we depend on God’s help and are lost without it:

            If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say:
            If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
            Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
            Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul:
            Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
            Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers:
The snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

This is a late cantata in Sebastian’s canon, and as such most musicologists agree that it reflects a deep maturity. The opening chorus contains an extremely complex four-part counter-fugue, with the added instruments creating a five-part composition, unique in his cantata movements.

Moreover, Sir John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 14 uses “word-painting,” in which the music attempts to embody the words and the drama of the plot. The dangers of the flooding waters are illustrated by fast musical passages, and waves are captured “by the use of octave leaps and fast downward scales.”

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Sondheim’s 14th Broadway Show. As was Sebastian’s cantata, this is mature Sondheim. It is also comparable in its rarity, with Sondheim using the popular musical theatre form to tell a dark, cautionary tale.

As Martin Luther’s hymn had been sung on that Sunday from time immemorial, so too does the plot of this musical have a long history, beginning with the Victorian “penny dreadful,” The String of Pearls.

It tells the story of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd, consumed with hate and the desire for revenge, and his partner Nellie Lovett, who bakes the bodies of his victims into her pies. The theme expresses the threat of Psalm 124: Sweeney is caught as if “in the snare of the fowlers” by his inability to look past his anger and desire for revenge. The Lord is not there on his side, and “the proud waters” have gone over his soul.

Each work speaks of the existential alienation of humankind, helpless without the support of God, a living presence for those in Leipzig in the 18th century but, as Nietzsche wrote, “dead” to those in a Broadway show in the 20th.

Sondheim’s score allows a striking comparison with the cantata in its heavy counterpoint and angular harmonies. He uses the Dies Irae as a motif in the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that runs throughout the score, and then inverts it in the accompaniment to “Epiphany.” As Sebastian used his music to embody the words and the narrative, so Sondheim uses his to make manifest the dark psyche of a mad murderer.

We don’t usually think of Sebastian’s church cantatas in any sense as drama, but that is exactly the view that Sir John Eliot Gardiner explores in his Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.

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