16 January 2015

Bach's BMW


It’s a phenomenon I first noticed a few years back when sitting in on some student recitals where the students themselves had written out the programme details.  Suddenly the catalogue numbers for Bach works started being listed as BMW.  The practice has now become frighteningly widespread, with several regional variations; the other day I came across a recital programme written by a Filipino student (presumably a devout Catholic) which described a Bach piece as being BVM. (I wonder what the Lutheran Bach would have made of being associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary?)

It started, certainly in my experience, with Chinese students in Hong Kong and Malaysia.  They are a group of youngsters who tend to see the acquisition of a German-made high-spec automobile as the ultimate symbol of success. (More fool them.  From my 43 years of driving around the world in cars, buses and commercial vehicles, I have seen so many BMWs involved in horrendous accidents, burnt up on the side of a road or sitting forlornly waiting for the rescue truck, that I would never get into one out of choice.  It may be that the cars are inherently dangerous or that the drivers who prefer them lack the imagination to drive safely – or most likely, a combination of both – and a good friend of mine in Singapore who foolishly possesses one tells me that, while it is horrendously expensive to maintain, the real hurt to the pocket comes from the fines he incurs whenever he drives up to Kuala Lumpur.  A Singaporean-registered BMW is, of course, an open invitation for Malaysian police to stop and demand cash payments from its driver, but since my friend proudly sets his cruise control to 150 kph as soon as he has passed the toll barrier at the start of the North-South Highway and refuses even to turn it off when he passes through the restricted speed area around Melaka, he brings many of these fines on himself.  I admit my choice of cars is hardly inspiring – either Volvo (boring) or Jeep (unreliable), but at least I feel safe in them and never incur the unwarranted green-eyed wrath of other motorists.)  But I digress.

Probably subconsciously, those Chinese students seem to associate the fact the musical world now reveres Bach as an almost God-like figure striding colossus-like across the panoply of musical history with the kind of material greed which is the hallmark of those in today’s rather shallower society who have earned popular acclaim.  I suspect that they imagine that, had such things as BMWs been around in his day (and I’m not sure many of they don’t actually think they were) Bach would certainly have driven one; a “Bach’s Musician Wheels” to paraphrase the usual mnemonic for BMW which, political correctness has now rendered us unable to utter in western society (even if it still seems the preferred motorised wheels for drug dealers of African and Caribbean descent in the slums of major cities).

When I first started taking music seriously, I wrote to Lucian Nethsingha, then organist of St Michael’s College Tenbury Wells (of sad memory – the establishment long having been closed down in the early days of the demise of Anglican choral foundations) to ask him about a voluntary he had played after a broadcast of choral evensong.  He replied in a delightful postcard, his writing looking as if it had been written above a ruler, suggesting that he was delighted that I had enjoyed it and it was Bach’s “Fantasia in G, S.572”.  The “S” fascinated me and when I discovered it was short for Wolfgang Schmeider, the man who had drawn up the original Bach Werke-Verzeichnis in 1950, I understood what it was all about.  For several years after that I continued to describe Bach works with the catalogue suffix “S” until I realised nobody else did.  Perhaps had we carried on with this, Chinese students might now see Bach as an altogether different (and for my money, better) German limousine.

Of course this is all nonsense, because even if he had been alive today Bach would never have had a BMW.  For all his proud German-ness, he would not have been a man to squander money on pointless exhibitionist displays of lavish automobile possession.  A humble Trabant or, more likely bearing in mind his large family, a more spacious Wartburg would have been his thing.  (Remember the Wartburg?  A school friend had one and when he came to sell it through the columns of the local paper he highlighted its principal selling point as a “built-in smoke screen”!) Bach was not a traveller and needed no car other than one to get him around Leipzig when he had to juggle the various duties at the university and at the various churches to which he was attached.  If a man would happily walk the 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck just to hear Buxtehude play the organ and then walk all the way back again when staying would have involved marrying Buxtehude’s ugly daughter, he certainly was made of more potent stuff than the wimps and self-regarding salesmen who aspire to the ranks of BMW owners today.  A Wartburg would have managed that journey well enough, provided, of course, there were no steep hills along the way. (My school friend often had to turn his round and go up one the once notorious hill between Basingstoke and Farnham in reverse, gleefully smiling at the truck drivers who sailed past him in their 32-ton artics without a care in the world.)

But if you think all this ridiculous talk of Bach and cars is just so much silliness directed at a long-dead composer with a reputation for arch-seriousness and deep religious intensity, it might be good to remember two things about Bach.  Firstly, he spent time in prison for an ill-fated prank on an employer, and secondly, shortly after his arrival in Leipzig he penned two of the most ridiculous and downright silly Cantatas known to man (or at least until Joseph Horovitz came up with his amazing, but sadly long-forgotten, Horrortorio).  I have just reviewed the recordings of the “Academic Cantatas” made as part of Bis’s Bach cantata cycle directed by Masaaki Suzuki and have to say this is a side of Bach I had not realised existed.  Up to now I thought his idea of a belly laugh was referring to his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs as “The best crayfish [krebs] in the stream [bach]”, but when I hear the stunning Roderick Williams (has ever a singer received so much exposure on disc yet never failed to exceed all expectations?) do his impersonation of the appallingly pompous King Aeolus keeping all the winds locked up for the summer, and the wind players of the Bach Collegium Japan having a ball straining at the leash to be let out into the open, I realise that here is a composer not just with a huge sense of humour but with a sense of the ridiculous and silly as strong as any.  I would heartily recommend this new disc to anyone who still believes Bach to be stuffy and serious.

And I would certainly recommend it to those misguided students who might like to take note of the BIS editorial team’s rather more conscientious approach to accuracy.  These two works are properly catalogued as BWV 205 and BWV 207.

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