Monday, 2 January 2012

Bach Fails To Add Up


The organist of a North London church leaves the New Year’s Day party early to play at Evensong. As well as hymns and improvisations, he plans to play Bach’s new year Chorale Prelude BWV614 Das alte Jahr vergangen ist – the old year is over. I know he has had a few drinks as I poured them myself including some from a 1982 French sweet red which he brought. This is as old as our friendship and older than many of the guests. There is nothing to worry about as he once drank a litre of Pimm’s before a service at Oxford and nobody could say it wasn’t Bach himself in the organ loft. I give him a lift to the station without telling Mrs Jones, as she would prevent me, and he tells me that according to a Youtube comment accompanying a performance of it by the organist Gilberto Guarino, the chorale prelude in question contains 12 bars and 365 notes and that the chorale melody it is based on has 52 notes. He adds that for all he knows this is complete tosh, but I decide to investigate anyway. I discover the prelude does indeed have 12 bars, but the chorale melody has 53 notes and although I have several cracks at it, I cannot for the life of me make the number of notes in the piece add up to any more than 354, even counting tied notes, grace notes and ornamental turns. Admittedly, the trills allow the right amount of leeway (with an extra note for the 2012 leap year), but I am still disappointed. If Bach had wanted the number symbolism to work, he would surely have contrived to make the arithmetic add up properly.

The approximate figures still give a representation of passing time, however. Although very slow, it is a short piece, like the transitoriness of life. The downbeats occur with menstrual regularity, the decorated melody has four seasonal lines and steady weekly crotchets. The superfluity and uncountability of the notes sprayed across the two staves of Bach’s manuscript is like the wasted days which all lives contain. I am reminded once again of John Cage for whom music was only decorated time. I consider subjecting the guests to a performance of Four Minutes Thirty Three, but instead refer to it only in a poem, the full text of which is delivered as a toast.

But whom to hail in this Olympic year?
None other than the great American seer
John Cage, who garnered no long, loud hurrahs
For his naughty piece of aught but silent bars.

Some of the audience felt duped. Cage’s point was to make them aware both of the sound of silence in a full concert hall and of passing time. Composers resent the audience’s preference for familiar tones (unless they are theirs). This was the impulse which also drove the early music movement: the desire to hear musical sound afresh on different or new instruments. The BBC’s Great Expectations last week used an 1815 Clementi piano in its soundtrack although the music it played was contemporary, composed by Martin Phipps. It was especially effective in Miss Havisham’s immolation scene, its dark hollow, antique tone conveying at once the grim misanthropy and lost reason of the protagonist through Phipps’ simple score. The BBC hired the instrument from Finchcocks’ museum in Kent. The owner Richard Burnett tells me they paid him £1800, the same amount, he laughs, as he purchased it for in 1969. The irony appeals to him, though he admits the 2011 sum was worth a good deal less than forty years previously.