Thursday, March 10, 2016

Scampering Back to Advent

“There’s absolutely nothing to write about,” I tell Lady, “though that tended not to stop me in the past. Unless, of course, you have never heard Montserrat Figueras, in which case you should cancel your day and get down to YouTube at once….”

“And who will paint all these houses?” asked Lady. “Besides, there’ll be plenty of time to hear whoever-she-is later.”

I ponder that. I might have agreed with her a few months ago, but breaking your back teaches you: you have to seize the moment. And speaking of moments…well, I go on to ask her.

“Listen, do I seem normal to you?”

Lady is wise: why answer when no answer will pass?

“It’s just that I seem confused, lately. For months I was busy listening to Bach, and waiting eagerly for the liturgical year to begin. Though, come to think of it, I must be the only atheist in the world who knows about, much less can’t wait for, the liturgical year.”

“That may perhaps account for that smallest bit of abnormality I detect in you,” said Lady. “Anyway, we’re well into the liturgical year, so all should be well.”

“Yes,” I tell her, “but before I fell, I was fiddling around with things like ‘the 19th Sunday after Pentecost,’ which you have to admit is nothing so glamorous Quasimodigeniti. Or even Misericordias Domini. So I’d been waiting and waiting for Advent, and then I completely missed it! That’s what spending three months pre-hospitalized, hospitalized, and then post-hospitalized will do to you. And now we’re in Lent, and Holy Week is a week or so away, and I’m confused, if not discombobulated. How did we get here?”

“Well, would it help if you went back to the beginning, back to Advent? You could sort of crash-course your way through to the present, and by the time Good Friday rolled around, you’d be ready for it.”

“I’m never ready for Good Friday,” I told her. “Who is, or who could be? The suspense always kills me: will Christ this year agree to be resurrected? Because from a mystic point of view, it’s by no means certain that he will. It’s a lot to ask, you know, for a guy a couple of millennia old to get up and do it all over again, Easter morning.”

“Of course he’s going to resurrect,” said Lady. “He’s got to. It’s all over the place in the Bible….”

“Of which Jesus knew nothing,” I told her, “since the damn thing was written decades after his death. No, it’s clear: each year it’s a gamble, a risk. Jesus may very well decide not to be resurrected this year, and who could blame him? I mean, imagine going through all the trouble of being resurrected, and then getting Donald Trump as president? No, I’d hang out in the afterlife as long as possible, given that scenario….”

Of course he’ll be resurrected,” said Lady. “He’s got to be. Can you imagine what would happen if everybody all across the world got to church, and were faced with little signs on the church door: ‘Services cancelled due to lack of savior of mankind?’”

“Off-putting, to say the least,” I told her. “But you may have something, there. It may be that we all have a part to play in it, and that if Jesus is gonna have to drag his sorry-ass back here, as he may have done for 2000 years, then we all have to make it happen. Right—so I’ll do my part. I’ll go back to the first Sunday of Advent, which is approximately when the world fell apart for me….”

“So when was that?” asked Lady.

“In fact, it was the day after my birthday, or November 29. I had fallen a couple weeks before, you remember, and I don’t even remember my birthday. But anyway, it’ll be a stretch packing in all of the Christmas music into one week. Bach alone would be bad enough, but what about all the rest? Messiah, all of the French Baroque music like Couperin’s Messe de Minuit, to say nothing of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio itself. No, I’d really have to plow through a lot—musically speaking—to get this savior born before killing him off and resurrecting him again. And who’s to say it’s worth it? Why not let him take a year off, now and again?”

“No wonder you’re an atheist,” said Lady, “since it seems you hardly have half the energy to sustain faith. Nonsense, get down to work! After all, if Bach could write over 200 cantatas—though it was probably substantially more than that—the least thing you can do is listen to them.”

So I resolve to take on BWV 61, which is one of the two cantatas for the first Sunday of Advent. But I determined to hear Nikolaus Harnoncourt, since he had recently died, and since he had been known as “the pope of early music,” by somebody or other. But what happened when I tried to open it on YouTube? Absolutely none of my favorite conductors was available. Or rather, they were, but I kept getting those annoying “error” messages when I tried to click on them. No, it seemed as if YouTube had thrown down the gauntlet: no HIP (historically informed performances) today. I was left with Karl Richter, from the early 1970’s, and the effect was somewhat startling.

I would have been in my teens when I started listening seriously to Bach, and who would I have heard? People very much like Richter, who came to the score with intelligence and sound musical ideas, and who conducted them with a breath-taking sincerity. Not only that, but he got the best singers around to work with him: the great Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Edith Mathis. Yes, it sounds dated to our ears, so used are we to modern HIP performances. And according to Wikipedia, Richter died an embittered man, since he had been derided as “old fashioned,” and thrown onto the rubbish heap of “inauthentic” performances.

The truth?

I no more know what Bach’s band of musicians sounded like than I know how Sappho proclaimed her odes. I suspect that Bach would be amazed at the quality of musicians today, but perhaps not. Because many of the cantatas contain solo parts of surprising virtuosity. Would Bach have written them if no one could have played them?

And so I enjoyed the Richter performance, taking me back as it did to a time when I was hearing so much great music for the first time. Yes, I was lying on the green sofa of my childhood living room, my mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen, my father was chatting with her and leaning against the refrigerator. The glorious music came to an end, and it occurred to me….

…Richter’s Christ will resurrect  again!