No Loss For Words
John Butt adds narration to the mix in celebrating Bach's cello music.
Thursday, February 1, 2001
The program was devised by Butt, a prominent Bach scholar and accomplished keyboardist, and the show''s imaginative range of observations was taken from the composer''s own letters, writings by his contemporaries and reflections on his significance by well-known names from subsequent generations. (Among the latter was praise by Richard Wagner, who cited the start of the Bach revival without mentioning its initiator, Felix Mendelssohn--who displeased Wagner by being a Jew.)
Having organized the program this way, Butt emphasized Bach on both personal and universal themes, but used the cello only decoratively--not more than a couple of movements of music were heard at any one time, and they were selected to match the mood of the preceding words. For example, the desolate sarabande from the Suite in C Minor was chosen to reflect on a description of Bach''s death.
What the narrative did not do was delve beyond West''s remark that Bach wrote keyboard music for the cello, harmonic music for a melodic instrument. No other composer penetrated so deeply as Bach into the chordal possibilities that, from a practical point of view, can only be sketched on a bowed string instrument.
Bach did the same thing, of course, in the solo partitas and sonatas for violin. That this is essentially keyboard music can easily be demonstrated by playing it on lute or guitar (for which Bach also provided versions), instruments that gracefully and comprehensively make an ideal--sometimes preferred--alternative to the harpsichord.
And what about the potency of Bach''s music of this kind? Just ask yourself to name music for solo cello or violin by any other composer. It can be done, of course, but not without a considerable search of memory or the library. (The Bach-admiring Zoltan Kodaly wrote a magnificent solo cello sonata, one of very few standout examples.)
While most of the musical episodes were played on cello alone, Butt would not have needed to be present at all but for his choice of movements from the three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, used for the same purpose as the solo movements. In these, the harpsichord made an acoustically fine account of itself at the Golden Bough Theater, despite its small voice. (The same instrument on the stage at Sunset Center can barely be heard beyond the footlights.)
Butt''s scholarship reveals that Bach''s death at age 65 was apparently the result of two botched operations on his by-then blind eyes. One sadly amusing bit in the narrative is the surgeon''s description of his "success," written some 11 years after the fact. His estimate of Bach''s age at the time, 88, was a full quarter-century off the mark.