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A Bach chord

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Intellectually, even though my dad was an Anglican priest, I’m an atheist. But the human yearning for grace and otherness, which finds its most obvious expression in places of organised worship and their liturgies, must come from somewhere. It’s the urge uniting the music of John Coltrane, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Johann Sebastian Bach.

This is a blog about music, so there’s no reason to exclude Bach, and perhaps the most intriguing chord ever devised — at least until the Beatles closed “A Day in the Life” with 10 hands on four keyboards more than two centuries later. It comes at the very end of his St Matthew Passion, written in 1727 and performed on three Good Fridays during the composer’s lifetime. The massive work then lay fallow for 85 years until, in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn, aged 20, conducted it in Berlin. After that it became a standard work in the repertoire of choirs and orchestras, a piece meant to accompany and intensify the reflection of Christians at the beginning of the Easter weekend.

I’ve been listening to Otto Klemperer’s 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir, and an all-star group of soloists including Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. As was the fashion in those days, Klemperer takes it slowly, emphasising the breadth of the choral melodies, filling the space (and three CDs) with the sound of a large vocal group and an orchestra using modern instruments. Today’s interpreters favour period instruments, a smaller choir and a brisker tempo, sometimes knocking a whole hour off Klemperer’s three hours and 45 minutes. I’m with Otto on this one.

Listening to one CD per day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, I found myself constantly looking forward to the closing seconds of the climactic chorale, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit down with tears)”, in which that extraordinary chord makes its appearance. It’s a C minor 7th — a C, an E flat and a G, with the addition of a B**. It’s with the B — played (I think — I don’t have a score) by one of the three oboes*** — that Bach inserts a dissonance made more enigmatic by its designation as an apoggiatura: a grace-note sliding up a semitone to the next C, delaying the sense of resolution.

The chord has already been played, so unemphatically that you might almost take it for a mistake, three times throughout the eight minutes of this finale to the oratorio; on each occasion it concludes a passage, and the effect grows increasingly unsettling. Its reiteration as the closing chord of the piece carries more emphasis, the grace-note this time held long enough to remove all ambiguity. The dissonance, not the resolution, is what hangs in our minds. The inventor of western harmony wants to disturb us as the Easter story unfolds, and he succeeds.

* A remastered version of Klemperer’s 1961 recording of St Matthew Passion is on the Regis label.

** I really shouldn’t have attempted this piece without a score and a keyboard to hand. My old friend Peter Brown points out that the grace-note is not a B-flat, as I suggested, but a B natural. Sorry to have misled anyone, not least myself.

*** My cousin Penny, who knows a thousand times more about these things than I do, checked the score: it’s played by a pair of flutes in each of the two orchestras.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tot #

    Richard, yes – good thoughts about a minor 7th. The basis of ‘You Never Give Me Your’ Money’, opening chord to ‘The End’, ‘Fly Me To The Moon’-type songs, multi mid-6o’s French pop chansons and Morricone’s lighter popsongs therefore essential to the blessed and much-misunderstood ‘cycle of fifths’ (Legrand et al tho not so much Gainsbourg) – “Where do I Begin”-type songs etc and probably at least 50% of the better known piano-led 70s ‘super-ballads’. What else? ‘Helter Skelter’ intro? The chord almost always is a leading-chord, potentially the most ‘open-sounding’, ‘unresolved’ chord in the book, if resolving then mostly up a 5th, i. e. your Cm7 wld preceded Fm then revert to a straight chord set Bb-Eb-Ab-Fm-G-Cm. Back to base. It has always attached me in isolation as well though.

    April 11, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      ii V I … no revelation as that is the very essence of bebop and jazz [ as well as more sophisticated blues and tin pan ally ] .

      In as far as the minor ii7 being the most ‘ open ‘ chord … that position is firmly occupied by the 2 chord ( a2 A2 ) minor or major … where the second replaces the third of the triad

      Rock On – Jazz On – Remain Calm ( despite it all ) .. and do please all .. Carry On

      Happy … errr … easter … Eostre ? From someone ” Losing My Religion ” ( though not my faith ) each and every day in this era of incompetent sycophant church leadership ..

      Hmmm … in regards to the bard ( Micheal Stipe ) … ” It’s the end of the world as we know it …. and I feel fine ”

      Stay healthy

      April 12, 2020
    • Thanks, Tot. What I feel is that a flattened 7th in the 18th century meant something very different from a flattened 7th in the 20th century, when flattened 3rds and 7ths were the signature of the blues and gradually permeated all music. In the 1720s it must have been a hell of a shock.

      April 12, 2020
  2. Geoff Fiebig #

    The Beatles opened A Hard Days Night with their famous chord.

    April 11, 2020
  3. Tim Clark #

    An excellent piece, Richard! Happy Easter from another atheist son of an Anglican priest….

    April 12, 2020
  4. Ed Grummitt #

    Good piece Richard. Also, irrelevantly, thanks for the Moss obit. Sad, but what a man and life.

    April 13, 2020
  5. Peter Brown #

    If that’s so, Richard, it’s very imaginative, either of Bach or the oboeist. I’ve listened to a few recordings and I can’t hear a minor seventh. The piano accompaniment clearly shows a B natural grace note, which I think does the uncertainty trick to which you refer. But I bow to your ears and authority. It may be a bit of baroque and rolling with it. Stay safe.

    April 13, 2020
  6. Christer Borg #

      Dear Richard,

    I only discovered ”The Blue Moment” some months ago. I used to read your writings/reviews in the “Melody Maker” during the late 1960’s. I think you are one of the music journalists who greatly influenced my listening habits. As I remember, your review made me buy Albert Ayler “Spiritual Unity”, Charlie Haden ”Liberation Music Orchestra” and several other “free” jazz albums. So it was very nice to find out that you are still writing about music!

    I just found a copy (I have kept in my garage) of a review of the Rolling Stones album “Exile On Main Street” I not 100% sure but I believe this is your review from M. M. in the summer of 1972! I think you really nailed it! Other reviews at that time were not so positive. But since then the album has been widely praised as one true rock’n’roll classic and is generally concidered one of the best albums by the Rolling Stones. But, as I said, you nailed it at once!

    Best wishes

    Christer Borg Stockholm Sweden

    >> 11 apr. 2020 kl. 20:50 skrev thebluemoment.com : >  >

    April 14, 2020
  7. John Evans #

    Are you sure that Klemperer’s SMP (a cornerstone of the EMI catalogue) has been reissued by Regis? The original Columbia LPs ran to nine sides of five discs, the first disc having one blank side with a label saying “Do Not Play This Side”. The mid-price reissue (which is where I first encountered this recording) squeezed the work into eight sides of four LPs. The CD reissue with the best sound quality is the one in EMI Classics’ “Great Recordings of the Century” series, digitally remastered in 2001.

    The first section of the SMP that I encountered was the chorale that appears in Vaughan Williams’ “English Hymnal” in various harmonisations, some of them “only to be attempted by very advanced choirs”. Not being an advanced choirboy, and certainly not a religiously minded one, I furthered my musical education by reading RVW’s introduction to the hymnal and getting to know the music in it, which was much more interesting than the vicar’s sermons.

    Bizarrely, the first recording of the SMP that I heard was Mengelberg’s 1939 Concertgebouw recording, which my father must have bought when the Philips LPs were remaindered. This has all the recitative sections and all the chorales (at a pace even slower than Klemperer’s) but omits most of the arias. I had been listenening to it for a few years before I came across the mid-price Klemperer reissue and suddenly discovered all the arias for the first time (what a revelation!). After that I borrowed a variety of other recordings from public libraries but retained a preference for the Klemperer for many years.

    An important turning point for me was hearing Masaaki Suzuki’s 1999 recording with the Bach Collegium Japan, which for my money is the nearest thing there is to an objectively definitive recording of the SMP and a handy neutral reference point to use when comparing and contrasting other recordings. Suzuki has recently released a new recording made in April 2019, which he discusses in a podcast on the Gramophone website. He has been performing the SMP every year on Good Friday, but presumably couldn’t do so this year after Japan was locked down.

    Over the past 20 years I have acquired quite a few more SMP recordings (and have been to a variety of live performances), learning a little more about the work each time. It can be fast or slow, large-scale or pared-down, but if it maintains a structural consistency the music will always draw you into the unfolding drama. I love Paul McCreesh’s minimalist version, and I like the very traditional performance of an early variant (BWV 244b) by the Thomanerchor Leipzig, released on the Rondeau label.

    A further revelation for me was seeing the DVD of Simon Rattle’s 2010 Berlin recording of Peter Sellars’ “ritualisation” of the SMP, which added an extra dimension to the drama of the work. And the ultimate high-point of my engagement with the SMP came in September 2011 when I saw Jonathan Miller’s extraordinarily powerful staging of it at the National Theatre. The conductor was Paul Goodwin, whose 1994 recording of the Miller production was released on audio CD by the United Recording Company. The 1994 television broadcast was available to view on YouTube the last time I checked.

    April 15, 2020
    • John Evans #

      To answer my own question about a Regis reissue, I see now that one is indeed available online as a download, although I haven’t seen a CD version in stock anywhere. Incidentally, the web address regisrecords.co.uk currently redirects people to an online garden products site, selections.com.

      April 15, 2020
      • My 3-CD box is definitely on Regis. Seems to have been released in 2013 (at least that’s when the sleeve note is dated).

        April 15, 2020

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