BACH: THE MOST DEMOCRATIC OF COMPOSERS – THE HUMANITY OF BACH'S MUSIC
Interview from Winnipeg, Canada where he was conducting Mennonite choirs. Interviewer unknown.
Q: The first thing - I was intrigued by that little quote. [The democratization of polyphony and the democracy of Bach.]
RS: I don’t know where you found that and I had a hard time figuring out what you meant by it. I’m sure that I’ve said something like it in rehearsal, when I’m trying to make a - I’m trying to help a choir to understand that democratization of polyphony. And, I probably was just using it, not as a philosophical or humanistic judgment, as an ethical attitude, but as a, simply a musical tool.
What happens in polyphony is - of Bach’s intricacy and complexity - is that each of, as many as eight voices in the B-minor Mass, more frequently five than four, and occasionally six, and then in the “Hosanna," eight voices - each of the voices is given exactly the same musical material, but at a different level of pitch which, in a sense, could stand for a different level of consciousness or something like that, but more importantly, at a different period in time.
And so, it’s a - what happens is that each voice becomes - I’m not talking about each solo voice and each person, but each line - each musical line becomes expressive, but they are personally expressive. But they are knit together by their community of material, and they are pulled apart by their difference in time, which is a little bit the same way that humanity functions - Democracy being not everybody cut off to exactly five feet six inches and one quarter and then each given the same eighty-three percent of voting capacity, and all having to vote the same way and so on. But are given this independence of utterance in which they join their human race, by feeling and understanding and seeking the same sort of either emotional qualities to the text and the music combined, but at different periods. So that’s what I meant by that sort of the most democratic of composers. Actually, when one contrasts that with the display, the solo display piece of either opera or the popular song, whatever that may be, it is infinitely more complex and more democratic and more humanistic in that sense.
Q: No. I loved it for two reasons, that phrase, because I love the idea that Bach who for some people is considered an elitist - an elite form of music, and also because of your inherent love of the piece.
RS: It gives everybody so much and so intimate a relationship to Bach’s creative process, each person, and he has, you remember, there is one wonderful letter of Bach where he asked for - I forget. He was applying for a job someplace and I should know these things but I don’t. He was applying for a job. But he asked for at least money enough to have ten singers because he wanted to do double choruses, so it’s sort of one man, one part, and each person has his own musical responsibility, and there is no, there is simply no richer musical responsibility in the world than to be able to sing a Bach line well, or to play a Bach line well. The continuo lines in the cello and organ or the keyboard lines in any of Bach’s work are the most subtlety inflected and need the most extreme mastery, technical mastery of the instruments as well as sort of an understanding of musical direction and musical form and musical accentuation and musical utterance. It’s just incomparably rich, each part of it.
Q: Well, you’re leading right then to that question about intricacy. I’ve had musicians say it’s overcrowded. It’s too dense. It can’t be pulled apart. It’s an intellectual exercise. And as a choral conductor, how do you respond to that?
RS: Well, I’m not sure. I think it’s all right to respond as a choral conductor. I guess I respond partly as that because it’s in escapable but I’m not sure I don’t respond more as a whole person. I don’t - I find it complex and I find it intricate. But my delight, my technical delight, is getting all that intricacy to relate to it so that it comes out, at least it comes out one homogeneous spirit, if not, if one rather complex human spirit.
I don’t find it - the thing that seems to me essentially qualifies Bach’s music is that each, though it’s technically masterful and such, it maintains a humanity that’s as natural as the Negro spiritual. It’s extraordinarily human music. In the Passion, the performances of the Passion, I once had opportunity, just for instance, in Alaska, to do with a - prior to a performance of the St. John Passion - to take a sort of, all the audience and go through an hour, simply to sing the chorales together. Now this is rather simple music, but it’s - you get to the point, if you spend your time with the chorales and sort of take them apart - not take them apart musicalogically but see how the melodies are built and what Bach has added in terms of harmony to somehow underline the particular text emotion at that time, you come to the point where you think, “Well, my goodness it’s unnecessary to do the rest of it at all!” We can just send the evangelist home and the chorus home and just simply do the chorales cause it’s all in the congregational response. So I find, I find that it’s not an intellectuality at all, but an enriching humanity.
St. Matthew Passion and Bach’s Massive Output of Music
RS: We’re beginning now preparation in Atlanta for our St. Matthew Passion performance which will take place in six weeks or so, and we have maybe four or five rehearsals with the choir before that has to happen. We did our first reading the other Sunday. At the conclusion of the thing we sort of looked at each other and said - we hadn’t done it for something like eight to ten years and so most of our choir was new to the thing - we all faced the fact that there were fifty volumes of Bach music of which this was only one, and that it would take any one of us substantially a year to make a reasonably fair handwritten copy of the St. Matthew Passion, with all the instruments and all the voices and all the texts and so on, and that Bach had written fifty volumes of music, most of which is, if not the height of this quality, in the general area of this quality, and it probably would take us fifty years to simply copy it. For him it was not simply copying it but having created the whole thing.
The thing that makes his music last is not its intellectualization but its consummate humanity and the fact that it is basically simple human emotion in extraordinary persistence and renaissance. Every time it renews itself, it’s a resurrection. I’m not talking about a liturgical resurrection or anything else but it’s a resurrection. It’s the triumph of human intellect and good will over commerciality, over control – I’m talking human control over other humans. It’s a triumph of peace over war and of mind over matter. It’s just an incredible human event.
Bach: B Minor Mass and Its Message
Q: Is it possible to tell our audience, who is a mixture of largely a lay audience, how the message of the Mass, the message of the Christian experience, is held in the music itself? Is it there without the text I guess, in the B minor Mass. And if it can be there without the text, is it possible to say how it is there?
RS: No, it may not, though, two things occur to me in response to that, and the first of them is that the most triumphant and magnificent chorus in the whole thing, is one of the shortest, and that’s the “Gratias Agimus Tibi," which also becomes the “Dona Nobis Pacem” at the end. And so there must be – in a sense the music, that music suggests that it’s possible for the music to carry, since it was forced to carry by Bach, two substantially different texts –the first, the sort of overwhelming majesty of the unknown’s greatness, whatever people call God, and the second, a very human cry on the other hand, man’s necessity, for a human cry and longing for peace. And he gives both of those, he gives each of those, quite disparate texts, one describing God’s greatness and the other describing man’s longing and therefore his weakness. He gives them both the same – he gives these two texts both the same music.
The other thing that occurs to me is that the opening “Kyrie Eleison” is about, I think, twelve minutes to twelve thirty long, twelve thirty seconds. And they are two Greek words and that’s all. And so this longing, “Lord our God, have mercy," which is the sort of a rough English translation of what the mysterious longing of the Greek through the Latin is, must have something that is swept up, and is stirred up and is meditated and chewed upon by the mind to be able to take those two single words for twelve minutes. Also, there is a fabulous thing that happens in that opening melody and that is when we sing, “Kyrie ele, da, de, da de, da, de, da de, ba da de, de dum - from a single bass, that is from a single note, the melody is rising - ba, da, da, de - and it goes up a half step, a whole step and scale wise which can be, if one wants to be sort of childishly literal for a moment, which would be the longing of the human soul to ascend to whatever is beyond itself. But the fantastic thing is that the notes which tie it down all the time - ta, tum, ta, tum, ta, te - as the melody rises, when it gets as high as it goes, it hits the same two notes which tie it down on the top which means to a guy who is willing to sort of risk the metaphor for a moment and not try and put too much to it, but which means that at the moment man’s ascending aspiration, it being hung by his own humanity, at the moment he gets as high as he can in his longing, he meets more intimately than ever before the things which held him back. So this is a little bit childish symbology, and childish thinking, except that symbols are frequently more meaningful than dictionary equivalents of language.
Q: And when you hear that, when you were talking about the other two the “Gratias” and the - it sweeps one away, but one doesn’t know why, except the whole experience does. Can you talk about it beyond that experience?
RS: I think it is very difficult to talk about it beyond that experience and that may be one of the reasons that the arts and music exists to say things which can’t be said in language. I think we’ve got to face that too. Obviously, man’s communication with his family or with the people he meets on the street is not limited to words and language or mathematical symbols or computer-ese or grunts or whatever. There is a communication which need not be limited to words. If one is not willing to grant that, then obviously he might have difficulty responding to it. But if one is willing to take sort of the leap of faith that there may be an understanding which my newspaper cannot satisfy, then I think it’s possible for everybody to respond to it. The next question that grows out of that which always is a funny question is whether anybody who isn’t a Lutheran and doesn’t believe everything that Bach believes has any right to perform the music or to listen to it. What’s your feeling about that?
Q: Yeah, well. It’s a wholly different experience for me, not being a Lutheran perhaps. But what do I know? I mean, Schubert, too. But what’s your response to that? If, for instance, we don’t believe in the Resurrection, which is very important. If one doesn’t, how does one? Or, if your choir is not -
RS: I had, one time – we had a beautiful performance in Indiana of Christ lag in Todesbanden which is the Bach Cantata of the Resurrection and just as full of triumph over death as it can be. I had a woman come up to me after the performance and says “You have no right to do that beautiful performance of that work because I know you’re not a Lutheran. I’m a Lutheran minister’s wife and you just simply have no right to be able to do that kind of thing.”
For me, I make a sort of half answer and that is that I’m not sure that Christian symbology including theology is not also an approximation. I’m not sure that one has to believe completely in the resurrection of the flesh in the clothes that the little boy wore when he got hit by the automobile. To believe in somehow the resurrection, the daily resurrection of the human spirit and the regeneration of the human spirit, generation after generation. Since an awful lot of meaning, I think, to me, is already symbology, I don’t have quite the trouble with the literary – the literalness is what I was trying to say - since Bach is already symbolic, and since the Cross is already symbolic, and since the Resurrection is already somehow symbolic. That is to say, I’m not sure in my mind, though I can believe in the triumph of the Resurrection of Humanity, I’m not sure it’s going to be in the literal form that some of my contemporaries consider almost certain.
Bach: What Message for Contemporary Times?
Q: Then what do you think Bach says to the many people who have come to him in the late part of the Twentieth Century? He really is more listened to, more recorded. More people than ever before are listening to his music.
RS: One should think before he answers that kind of a question, Ann. But I think part of it is sanity. It is healthy as it can be. It’s under extraordinary control of the intellect. It is also somehow - one realizes that it is pervasive over generations and is not an immediate response to a subway accident or to a pop style. But it’s intellectual sanity is just - the control, its poise, in a time when humanity is sort of shaking, wondering whether it will survive.
It also is - it gives, somehow it allows a personal response more, for instance, than a Beethoven Symphony. A Beethoven Symphony is almost a – it’s a convulsive social cataclysm, in a way. The people who come to a special Beethoven festival or something are liable to wear blue jeans - which is great, and leather coats, and so on. It’s just fabulous and this means also a great deal to me. But they come as a society somehow. At least in my experience, and not just my personal experience; I’m trying to sort of weigh the audience response, that almost everybody who comes to a concert of Bach comes uniquely ‘alone’ somehow.
One would expect the Passion, particularly the two Passions, to sort of build a community, almost a congregational feel, particularly if you have the audience sing as we frequently do one or two of the Chorales. But somehow it’s an isolative, and one doesn’t look to his neighbor to see if he happens to be crying at the same thing. One just sort of goes ahead. And that’s also, I think, a healthy thing.
Q: I’ve never heard anybody speak of Bach in that particular mode and I think that’s true. Is it possible to put your finger on the quality of his music that is so direct?
RS: I think - again, if I had a little time more to think about it and didn’t have to respond like these doggone radio-type interviews - I think that sanity is important, that thing. It also doesn’t try to – at no point does it try to overwhelm with color or sonority. It’s always working within confines. That is to say, a flute simply can’t - the difference between a flute piano and a flute forte is a few percentage points. It’s not the difference between Mahler’s pianos and Mahler’s fortes. And since these are substantially solo instruments and solo lines, the sonority is so contained and so reflective, so conducive to reflective quality, rather than to exhibitionistic quality, that I think that also must lead to somehow this sort of very personal response.I know that if, working as much as I personally do with music, it’s almost impossible to stand any music in the house other than music I am studying. And I play a lot of recordings after I’ve done my analysis and my editing of the orchestra materials and stuff, just to see if I get back to find out what Toscanini or Furtwӓngler did at this particular problem some years ago. So recordings get played, but they never get played as just sort of music in the home. But one can tolerate Handel and one can use Bach instrumental music. I find that if I listen to the, if the Passions are on, then I simply have to sit down and not tend to anything else.
But the Baroque whole period - and not just limited to Handel and Bach - but the whole scores of composers, create an atmosphere that is not, I don’t know what, not as disruptive. I can go ahead about other works. I can write, for instance if Bach is - not music but I can write words. I write letters to my choruses or something like that, if some Bach or Handel is playing. And I can’t write if other composers sort of seize a hold of my mind and say “Listen to this."
Bach: The Dark Side
Q: With that clarity and that control and even the conventions - inside that, what I hear, often enough, is a very dark emotion, and I wonder if you find that so - the dark side of Bach. It’s amazing that it can be, given all the controls we’ve just been talking about.
RS: Well, being a human being is a pretty sad affair and I think that’s a part of what we were talking about a little while ago about Bach’s humanity. Man is a beast. There is terrible tragedy that happened in this community where evidently a beautiful child has been lost for two months and just in the last few hours her body’s been found. And obviously it wasn’t one of God’s other creatures. It wasn’t a horse or some sort or animal, a bear or something. Man was the animal that perpetrated this thing. And so I don’t think that Bach has been inoculated against this thing. One hears, obviously, in the Mass, one hears the pathetic dropping of the "Crucifixus" melody which just sighs, all the time, over and over again. Not sobbing, really, not beating the breast, but a sighing and a silent tearfulness. But also in almost all of the Bach concerti, the piano concerti - keyboard concerti, the violin concerti, the second movements are movements of great - much more than nostalgia - but a somehow plumbing of man’s hurt. And the human condition is not day after day triumph. And anybody who grins all the time just is not aware - he doesn’t know what’s going on. I mean, the political figures who’ve got nothing but smiles have to be terribly shallow human beings! Because the human condition is full of tears.
And so, the Passions obviously, are full of, I don’t want to say celebrate it, but “explore this” over and over again in the tragedy of this great hero. But particularly the soprano arias just break your heart, time after time. You almost can’t listen to them without weeping. if they’re sung as greatly as they’re written. They just kill ya.
So there is this extraordinary side to Bach simply because he’s human, I think. At the same time his music is also the dance, the dance of life. A thing like the Resurrection in the B-minor Mass, again has a half-dozen words of text. There’s a bass recitative in the middle of it that throws a few more words in, but the choir doesn’t sing much more than ‘et resurrecit” and another half dozen words, and the piece is one of the longest pieces in the Mass. Beethoven does the ‘Et Resurrecit” in a matter of 5 or 6 seconds, maybe 7 or 8, 7 or 8 seconds, and it’s all over. It’s a shout by the tenors and then everybody says ‘whoop-ti-do” and that’s it. It’s a sort of instant resurrection. This may be a little bit vulgar but I always think of St. Vincent Millay’s in the “Renascence," “I lie here and plot the agony of resurrection." But Bach’s is a jubilant resurrection but it’s a symphonia. It’s a whole little symphony. And it just is one glorious dance from the beginning to the end. Mankind is not pulling himself up sadly out of his graves, but he’s just up there just dancing as fast and as happily as he can. And little cherubs and seraphim and cherubim are whirling around the sky in their motor scooters and just having a heck of a time! Just a fabulous, fabulous thing.
Q: So you find it more than form?
RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But also I find form - I get terribly excited about form. I get terribly excited by qualities of recapitulation - when it comes back again, and whether it comes back literally or wherein it’s altered when it comes back. And how many times principle materials happen. And how many times one has to invent intervening materials to make it possible for the principle materials to come back again.This is mostly, in my background, this was the genius of Julius Herford, who was one professor from the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin who escaped Hitler’s wrath and finally ended up, and passed away a couple of years ago, at Indiana University as head of graduate studies there, particularly for choral conductors but also for instrumental conductors, too. His genius was to make form appear to all of us as not the sort of “dry bones” of music but the really bloody heartbeat of it. And so I get terribly excited about it - for me form isn’t ‘formalism’. And I find an awful lot more formalism in the popular song than I find, or in - contemporary rock and roll to me is formalism.
Q: But what I hear you saying when you’re talking about the dance is that it is not formalism. But his use of the dance form.
RS: He’s looking for life! So I – I had an idea where you were talking about that for just a second and I can’t think. I can’t think what it was.
Q: Well, I was just thinking you make me feel as though your choristers have literally to be able to dance to what they’re singing.
RS: Oh - actually, and that’s what triggers my mind again: If David can dance in front of the Ark, then it’s alright for us to dance within the Mass, somehow. It’s probably only if you think that the body is dirty or that the mind is dirty of itself - obviously minds have to be a lot dirtier than bodies because they have the capability of being a lot dirtier - but if you understand man as only innately dirty, then any sort of celebration of man’s humanity also has that taint. And somehow Bach’s dancing - If David dances in front of the Holy of Holies in the Christian tradition, the Hebraic Christian tradition, then it should be permissible for Bach to write dance music for the human voice.
Bach: Robert Shaw’s Initial Encounter with Bach and Subsequent Experience
Q: Is your memory of your first encounter with Bach, special?
RS: I think the first real encounter was a performance of the St. Matthew Passion when I was a freshman in college, and I didn’t find it as communicative as I later found. And I think probably it was partly the possibility, partly the inadequacy of the performance as well as the - I’m not sure the work was represented well. I think mostly I didn’t really respond to Bach until I began working on it. And I found myself under necessity, since I went through college, all the way through College without really studying music – didn’t think I was going to be a musician. Since I was from a reasonably poor family and we didn’t have much in the way of radio, phonographs, or anything, I didn’t hear - we had an awful lot of Church music and practical music as kids, but we didn’t have an awful lot of sort of intellectual and aesthetic music. I wasn’t raised in a tradition where we’d have met Bach as a member of the liturgical family. I’m sure we did Bach Chorales and we certainly knew the things like the Passion Chorale and “How Bright and Fair the Morning Star” and those familiar, the ones that find their way into the conventional Protestant hymn book.
So I came to Bach late and I came to him at a time when I was - just really after college, when it became necessary for me to do a lot of very intensive work, picking up all the things I should have known for 12 to 15 years. And so I was - in my personal experience I was conducting my own first performances rather than hearing them. I guess I had heard one performance of the St. John Passion before I did our own performances. And I didn’t find, I found that a little musicological and dry, and I must say that, in answer to one of your earlier questions, people who find him intellectually sort of, what did you say, not too ornate but too, what was the word, too elite but also not complex but and unnecessarily what - crowded, and I think that was my response, too.
And it wasn’t really until I - there was a fabulous – ah, what’s the name of one of the great American philosophers of education, who was writing an article, and I read on the plane and I don’t know why it should be on that plane, a week ago. But he was saying that the aesthetic experience is the experience, finally, of doing. And what we’re raising is a whole society of cripples because everybody is an observer, an attendant at, which is just exactly the opposite of what’s happening in this community here where the Mennonites are gathering together to celebrate the Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden – celebrate, not in the conventional sense that we use it, but to communicate with one another the musical necessities and the meanings of a Brahms Requiem and a Christ lag in Tosdesbanden.
The point is that Art is not an importable commodity. And it’s not something that just can be purchased. And if the critics of Art, of musical performance, which is already sort of a contradiction in term, if they become the sort of dictators of what is good or bad rather than the musicians themselves or rather than the singers themselves, rather than the doers themselves, and if we become a nation of, I mean a nation or a society of critics and of consumers rather than of doers, then the Arts are completely betrayed and completely dead. So, I don’t think it was an unhealthy thing for me to have to be - to learn to love Bach, not as a consumer but as a doer.
Q: Now, you’ve had a long companionship with this man. How has it changed over the years?
RS: Obviously, in the first place, I guess it’s become a little more natural. It’s not quite as intellectually demanding because I can sort of - one becomes so familiar that one works. I mean, in the beginning you read all the books. You read all the biographies, the bibliographies, the musicologies. You read all the analyses and so on, and now it becomes as though - I don’t see a page at all anymore. I’m just sort of listening to the product as it emerges, sort of unrelated, almost unrelated to the page, because my ears sort of tell me from memory now what the page used to tell me from study - a certain fluency that way.
I think also that there’s one other step that goes and that releases, again releases, the sort of imaginings and imagery and emotional responses beyond - now that the intellect isn’t so busy trying to keep things in order. We’re a little bit freer to dream and to respond emotionally. I guess even, the tears come a little more frequently because the concentration isn’t quite so great intellectually. That’s how it has changed.
Q: Has the Ideal sound changed? You know, there’s been an awful lot of work on his sonority, and for you.
RS: Yeah. My original sound, in my mind, when I did, say the St. John Passion, which was one of the first. I did that work before I did the St. Matthew or the B-minor, thinking of the large works. Also I guess I did also in those days I must say the Magnificat and I was 22 or 23 probably, something like that. And I felt, because I was taken with text through my collegiate studies of English Literature and of philosophy and religion, and text seemed to me enormously important. The jubilation of a Magnificat, “my soul magnifies the Lord”, led me into sort of excesses of vocalism and a sort of shouting exuberant sounds, and it took me a long while. It took me at least 3 to 4 years, before I could really understand that it was an exuberance - that the Bach exuberance was not an exuberance of decibels but was an exuberance of animation and a complexity of utterance, one line against another, so that there was never any less than a duet and there were frequently trios, quartets and on, quintets, and sextets and up to octets of lively materials which must be so ordered and so subtly organized that one could hear into the sound.
So that was the first great learning thing. And that takes time, somehow. At least it took me time, I should say. And also I suppose that while - it took me a little while to find out that while God loves a pure heart, he loves right notes more. So no amount of emotional involvement would be any substitute for singing the right note at the right time at the right dynamic level.
Bach: Message of His Music
Q: Does Bach - does his music or – his music, that’s what we have to move that to a larger human being – does it have a special message for you personally, as opposed to other composers?
RS: I’m not sure that it would have had it if you hadn’t asked the question. For instance, the thing that occurs to mind is my first great enthusiasm was Bach. There’s no doubt. And my second great enthusiasm as I began, and still, and both persist, obviously, but as I began doing more symphonic conducting which meant fewer strictly choral performances, was Beethoven. And I loved and adored and hungered after Beethoven because I felt this sort of revolutionary searching in the guy. And as I mentioned a few moments before, if we do a Beethoven festival, then your audience comes in blue jeans, leather coats and it’s just great because here’s the independent, rebellious young trying to find out what life is about and Beethoven, for me, is that sort of independence, too.
The difference between the Beethoven Missa Solemnis which I think is of staggering, staggering creativity, and the Bach Mass, for me, is Bach’s absolute security, and certainty, and Beethoven’s striving.And so, in a sense, and I’m not for a moment trying to judge how Bach arrived at that security. Obviously his religious tradition made it possible, helped make it possible for him. But he can’t have arrived at it without considerable internal torment, to be that secure. And Beethoven still is struggling, and if he triumphs, it’s sort of put up there on a shelf for a minute knowing that it might just fall off in any time.
The search for - at the end of the Missa Solemnis - his search to try to say dona nobis pacem is said substantially without security, without personal security. It’s said, if I can recall, at least seven different melodic ways, one, first as a folk song. And then it’s said, as almost as a - there are four measure of almost a Bach Chorale, sort of hymn tune. And then there’s a fugato section where you use the same material and the voices plead one after another for the thing. And then it’s said as an enormous shout. Do – Na – Pa – Cem. Pa – Cem. And then it’s said in the midst of trumpets and timpani suggesting war situations. And finally - and the only conclusion at the end is while there still is a rumbling of timpani which symbolized the war and the motive of military trumpets and so on, is said again as a sort of a little folk song which is about as quiet as peace is, as secure as grass grows, and about as loud as, and hope, that one can still hope. But the reason everybody sort of thinks the Missa Solemnis is not ended is because Beethoven substantially says, “Look. There is no assurance, perhaps not even for God Himself, that the thing is going to work out right.”
But Bach, on the other hand, is an earnest prayer for peace, obviously, but it’s also extraordinarily confident somehow that it’s gonna, by George, it’s all gonna work out, you folks. We end on one big D-Major chord and that’s what life is about. D-Major, certainty and hope and all those things.
Q: And you don’t find that a shallow confidence?
RS: No! No! One doesn’t because, you see, because Bach has the dark side, too. He couldn’t have expressed that dark side somehow unless he’d also experienced it. Now, he may - it may be - he was so busy writing the next piece that he undoubtedly - there were things that he didn’t have time to think about. Or, raising his 17 kids, or something like that. Nobody - one shouldn’t ask him to be Kierkegaard and cry buckets of tears and stuff over life. But I think that his, what you call his darkness, indicates that these were not things that were unfamiliar to him. And if he were helped by his pietistic and evangelical faith, then it’s entirely possible that more of us should take a look at that, too, to see what it might be - how it might be able to help us.
Q: I’m wondering whether - I wonder if you can tell me if you have a picture? I mean, is he a human to you or is he too enormous to confine?
RS: Well, I think I’m familiar - one of my friends is Mr. Scheide in Princeton who has one of the great, one of those fabulous - who happens to be a man of considerable wealth and he has one of the great paintings of Bach, presumably done from life.* And I guess when I think of him it just never occurs to me to think of his physiognomy. I’m not sure I could tell the difference between Bach and Handel for instance if they gave me other than the two sort of “famous” paintings. I don’t have that picture. My picture of Bach is a sort of, I guess it’s a musical imagining. And, I think, also of Handel. I’m hoping that my picture of Handel will be enlarged in the next few years of my life by the opportunity of doing - I’d love to do the Handel Operas in sequence. Just one after the other. Three or four a year. Because too much of my now feeling about Handel is limited to the Messiah, which I love dearly, after an unfortunate early experience with it, too, when I swamped it with Mendelssohnian sonorities, and didn’t really get to know it until with a 30-voice choir and a 20-piece orchestra and stuff. And then it became alive. So, my sensibilities to these people are not pictorial but sort of musical.
* The 1748 painting of Johann Sebastian Bach, was purchased by philanthropist William H. Scheide in 1953 and was part of his distinguished rare books and artifacts collection. It’s the most significant and well-preserved likeness of the composer, and was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Mr. Scheide was a lifelong admirer of the composer and founded the Bach Aria Group, a renowned performing ensemble, in 1946. He died in November, 2014, at 100 and per his will the portrait was sent in April of 2015 to Leipzig, Germany, where Bach spent the final decades of his life, and which is the location of the Bach Archives and a small museum.
Working With Mennonite Choirs in Canada
Q: Tell me what brings you, in the deep of winter, to this community. Although we used to think of Atlanta as a warm place. Now we don’t anymore.
RS: Well, there are two personal influences to do that. One is George Wiebe who is head of the choral music here at one of the Mennonite schools and who attended workshops that I was conducting in San Diego some 30 years ago and workshops in, choral workshops in Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey a couple of years ago. And the second was - there is a man in the United States by the name of Howard Swann who preceded me at what happened to be my college, Pomona College, by ten years and who has been a sort of a Father of Choral Singing in the United States by his influences largely – he was Director of Music and Head of the Music Department at Occidental College which is a superior liberal arts school in Los Angeles - but largely through his just traveling around the United States visiting all choral centers and his ability to say what schools of choral music had to offer to other areas of choral music. And he visited up here some years past and he told me, a matter of 2 or 3 years ago, that this was the place that he’d heard the most thrilling human vocalism that he’d heard in North America.
I flat out admit that I’ve never been so – I’ve never been handed an instrument so extraordinarily musical or so extraordinarily sensitive in terms of musical disciplines or philosophical imagination than I’ve met here in the last 3 or 4 days. This has been simply one of the - it’s hard to think of another musical experience of my life that has been as happy for me as this one has been in 5 days. I am hearing sounds which I believe I’ve been looking for but I’ve never been able to sort of hear them and bring them to pass as this has been here. There’s a - speaking technically, there’s a darkness to the vocal sound which I find – which I didn’t find in my largely Jewish choirs in New York City or in the largely black choirs in Atlanta or New York City or Cleveland.
There’s a lack of professional vocal flaws. Tthere’s an absence of professional vocal flaws. There’s a healthiness of amateur choral sound which is not weak or unfocused or unsupported physiologically. It’s an absolutely glorious sound and there’s somehow a - I’ve been here only 2 or 3 days and things are happening in terms of subtleties of phrasing that only happen after I’ve sort of worked with groupsyears. I think we have a very, very great chorus in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, too, which is an amateur volunteer group. And I’d love to get that group and this group together sometimes because I think we’d have the greatest vocal organization that ever appeared in the United States, or in Northern America.
There’s a resident musicality that must have been not only - maybe 30 years in the building here in this community but generations building in its background. And the voices seem to come together without effort, only because they belong together. There’s obviously got to be some sort of racial amalgam for it, too, because you look at some person whom you’ll recognize and then you look 2 or 3 people over and it’s got to be his brother or his cousin. There’s an awful lot of consanguinity of physiology, too. But it’s effortless and it’s devoted, and it’s selfless in the most worthwhile way. It’s not meek and mild and that only, but it’s extraordinary. It’s just really extraordinary.
Q: You love the amateur?
RS: Yeah. In a sense I’m responsible for developing the professional chorus, at least in the south 48, and I along did the Fred Waring Glee Club first and then the so-called NBC Chorale, and RCA Victor Chorale, which finally, when we came on tour had to be called something else and so it became the "my name" Chorale. And Roger developed his - Roger Wagner developed his along about the same time. Together, we were those principle early influences in professional choral music. But I’m not sure having now served on the National Council of the Arts - I’m not sure that our civilization is going to be remembered by two or three hot artistic professional ensembles called the Metropolitan Opera Company or the Chicago Symphony. They are obviously great. But it may be that if civilization is going to be joined by the – what am I trying to say? - judged by what happens in the Mennonite Churches in Winnipeg, Canada and the Baptist Churches in Atlanta, Georgia and the schools in between. That may be what our society amounts to musically, not a few things like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra even. (Interruption)
Q: Is there a quality about the Mennonite, as opposed to the Baptist or the Presbyterian, or the Anglican choirs, that you find here that attracts you, that draws you, that you understand?
RS: Well, you can answer that on a half dozen levels, Ann. Obviously there’s the Mennonite Choirs versus the Anglican choirs of tradition are a lot more full-blooded, and one wants to say masculine, but one should say then – they’re a lot more mature in vocal sound; both masculine and feminine in vocal sound. And it is not as studied as, for instance, the Lutheran tradition in the United States which is substantially vibrato-less and controlled and everything under precise. So this is a more natural sound.I find it also, as I was saying a moment ago – I find its core is a little darker, for instance. But I find the black voice, because I work with them constantly, and strictly limited black voice - I find the black voice full of – and we talk about this at Morehouse College and Spelman College - a much brighter instrument and a voice full of a lot of vibrato that is not quite characteristic of the Mennonite tradition. So I don’t know – what I’m hearing is my first – I don’t have a Mennonite tradition from other than Winnipeg, Canada. I heard - I’ve given concerts at Mennonite Schools in the United States but, by and large, I haven’t heard much of their singing. My guess would be that this is a lot richer in folk physiology and in folk sort of tradition than the Mennonite tradition down South.