by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bach 2000: A Musician for the Millennium

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 16 March 1999


While politicians still seem able to get excited about the Millennium Dome, among Britons at large the mere mention of this mushroom-like Thames-side eruption is likely to invite groans and satirical comments. Some people can no longer bring themselves to utter the word 'millennium' at all and have taken to referring to it as the 'm word,' and the linguistically challenged have been heard to speak of an alternative, more homely affair called the 'minnellium.'

Some time ago the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, doyen of the Baroque music revival and now a renowned and highly sought-after interpreter of the entire gamut of the classical repertoire, began to ask himself whether as a musician he should simply ignore the whole business or try to find an appropriate response to it. And noting that the year 2000 marks the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, he decided that something really should be done about it. Accordingly, he has committed himself to performing and recording all 200 of Bach's surviving cantatas, beginning this Christmas and ending on New Year's Eve 2000.

There is no other composer he could conceive of devoting a whole year to playing, said Gardiner at his London home.

'The point is that Bach is the central figure in classical music from the 16th to the 20th century,' he said. 'He's the composer to which all previous generations of Western composers seemed to have been leading towards. And his shadow fell right across the 18th and 19th century and long into the 20th century. It's difficult to think of a composer not influenced by Bach and many of the great ones -- from Beethoven to Schumann and Brahms -- were obsessed with him in one way or another as the supreme master of every aspect of their trade.'

'There is something uniquely satisfying about Bach's music,' Gardiner added. 'It's complex, but the ear can attune to it so easily, and it's no accident that he is the European composer par excellence who lends himself to jazzing, to boogying, having a beat attached to him and being played on different levels without destroying the composition -- something you are hard put to do with Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven.'

Simply to record all the cantatas in just a little more than 12 months would be a colossal undertaking, but Gardiner has set himself, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir an ever greater challenge by opting to perform them in churches scattered over the length and breadth of northern Europe.

The jumping-off point for 'Bach 2000' will be in Saxony and the places where Bach lived, composed, played and conducted, starting at Weimar, where the former choir boy found his first job as an instrumentalist in 1703 and ending in Leipzig, where he went in 1723, where he wrote most of the cantatas and where he died in 1750. Meanwhile, conductor and musicians will range far and wide, traveling to other parts of Germany, and to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, the Netherlands, France and Britain, where the venues will include St. David's Cathedral in the far west of Wales and the abbey church on the island of Iona, through which St. Columba brought Christianity to northern Britain in 563. (For information on Bach 2000: tel. in London 44-181 871-4750; fax. 44-181 871-4751.)

'We're deliberately avoiding the usual concert hall circuit and playing in more out-of-the-way places. The only big metropolitan centers we are touching on are Berlin, Amsterdam and London, but all the performances will be in churches, chapels, abbeys, priories and cathedrals,' Gardiner said. 'I passionately believe in the mutual benefit of music and architecture.

'When you have a beautiful church, or one of importance as a place of pilgrimage, and you put music in it, not only does the music reawaken it, but the music itself is affected by the architecture. The music is enhanced and embellished by the beauty of the acoustic and the musicians inspired by the latent spirituality of the building.'

One of the major attractions of doing the cantatas as opposed to the many other magnificent works by Bach was that they could be performed throughout the year on the Sundays and feast days for which they were composed.

'The basic pattern of the week will be very much like Bach's own when he was composing the cantatas -- except that we don't have to write them!' Gardiner said. 'He would compose on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday the Bach family factory of copyists, the human photocopying machines, would get going and he'd start coaching the boy singers. Then Thursday and Friday would be with the instrumentalists and the rest of the choir. Saturday: Dress rehearsal. Sunday: Performances in church. Finish! Start all over again on Monday morning -- with no thought of posterity, preservation or publication.

'So, we'll more or less be replicating Bach's working week, but with Monday and Tuesday for travel and rest. We'll be recording on Saturday so that the tapes can be zoomed off to various radio stations to be broadcast as well on Sunday, and some of the performances will be televised. And meanwhile, Deutsche Grammophon will be issuing the records in monthly batches.'

Gardiner will divide the musicians and singers into three groups, each of which will spend three weeks at a time on the road. He himself expects to be traveling for the whole year.

To be able to do the complete program at the venues planned, Bach 2000 will need £5 million ($8 million). About £3 million has been pledged by private and corporate sponsors, and energetic efforts are being made to raise the rest.

Gardiner's aim is not just to put Bach center stage next year but to establish something longer lasting: 'Only a handful of the cantatas are regularly performed, but I'm yet to meet one that is not rich in invention and imagination. So the hope is enormously to expand the playing of this part of his repertoire in future.

'Equally important is that these concerts should be encounters with the communities in which they take place, with the local people being able to take part in the experience, and singing the chorales in unison before the performances of the cantatas,' said Gardiner.

'One of the fascinating things about Bach is what a paradox he is. Unlike his exact contemporary Handel, who was a very international figure, he was a stay-at-home, who spent almost all his life in Saxony. But he wrote music that has an extraordinary universal appeal.'

'I think the reason for this is that Bach's music offers a joy and spiritual refreshment that no other composer can provide. And it affirms not only religious values but human ones too, and brings home to you the sheer privilege of being alive.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023