Sunday, December 13, 2009

Last night a friendly group of amateur players and singers joined me for an informal reading of two Bach cantatas. We had a splendid time, largely because of the complete absence of pretension in the room. Everyone knew it was impossible, under the circumstances, to do a "perfect" job of this demanding music, yet we all participated wholeheartedly.

The absence of rigidity brought out some of the essence of the two masterworks. Both are about time as embodied in the liturgical season of Advent. It is a time within time, a time of waiting. Waiting for what, exactly? And how will we know when it is here? These mysteries are present in the odd metrics of the two cantatas (Nos. 1 and 140). Strange entrances, rests in odd places, phrases in augmentation and diminution--devices questioning the nature of musical time, another kind of time within time.

How frequently one hears this music reduced to a routinized meter in which predictability is the standard and the message--the very opposite of the music.