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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 4

Reflections on Bach

December 6, 2003

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Gilles Cantagrel - Recherche et transcription: Frédéric Trudel, recherchiste à la Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada

Extract from an interview with Françoise Davoine, broadcast on the program "Radio-concerts," February 28, 2000.

To my mind, the most fascinating and moving thing about Bach is the fate of that small, greatly gifted little boy who at the age of nine witnessed the death of his mother, then his father, in his home. The young orphan was taken in by an older brother and later sent to a school in Lüneburg in northern Germany--a journey he made all alone.

Traces of this sudden encounter with death appear in all his music. Whenever Bach evokes "Our Father, who art in heaven," the thought of his own father is there in the intricate and almost painfully complex chromatic harmony that emerges from Martin Luther's stately hymn. This can't be a coincidence. Bach's profound element of sadness marked his work to the end of his days, but it was also a powerful factor behind his determination to forge his own future. We have only to listen carefully to his work--both the music and the words--to see that here is a man who experienced profound existential anguish. We find that this great believer questioned his faith every day, perhaps as all great believers do. He meditated and even questioned the observance of church dogma. The one-time orphan was to base the tenets of his life and music on this anguish--and here I'm not even referring to the later deaths in his life: ten of his twenty children, and then his first wife.

Bach's music was to be based on this deep sense of loss. I would go so far as to say that the strong, steady throb of his music is the basis of his whole sonic edifice, forming a kind of counterpoint to the seamless network of his music. It is a construct of the musical mind, as though he wanted to rebuild the world that was crumbling before his eyes. "A mighty fortress is our God," wrote Martin Luther in his reformation hymn, and in this way Bach rebuilt this crumbling fortress for his own use. In so doing, he set in motion a dynamic of hope that, because of his great genius, works for us three hundred years later. [Translated by Jane Brierley]

By invitation of the Chaîne culturelle de Radio-Canada, violinist James Ehnes and harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour will play a recital devoted entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach on December 15 at Salle Pierre-Mercure.

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