Bach in a time of lockdown

When I was a choirboy at Worcester Cathedral we sang for the 90th birthday of the composer, conductor and organist, Herbert Sumsion. I heard a story around then that, even at 90, he rose every morning and did what he had always done: sat at the piano and played a Mozart sonata. Who is your go-to composer to play live? For me it is Bach, partly because I feel physically comfortable playing his music; partly because I used to sing professionally as a solo bass-baritone and I loved singing him more than any other composer. In the lockdowns, I have reached for the St John Passion, sat, played and sung! Just typing that makes me breathe deeper.

Bill Carslake

In early March 2020 I was fully set to embark on a UK tour playing Bach’s St John Passion, one of my favourite pieces of all time. But of course this, like all other live performances, was cancelled, and there was a huge Bach-shaped hole in my calendar. Easter, for me at least, was not going to be the same without numerous performances of at least one of the Bach Passions! As is often the way at that time of year, many of the tunes from the St John Passion were revolving around my head, so my first lockdown project was to record a version of 'Es ist vollbracht’ ('It is accomplished' / 'It is done’), from the St John Passion, part 2 no. 30, the aria sung by Jesus as He dies on the cross. I recorded it onto an app on my phone, layering up the parts painstakingly one by one, and eventually recording the vocal part too, my debut in classical German singing. I managed it just in time for Easter, which felt like a way of remembering the Easter story, even if just for myself. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken solace in Bach’s music, either through playing or listening. Each piece by Bach seems to open up a huge array of emotion, from awe, to grief, to joy, to peacefulness (to name just a few), and each revisit, a greater depth of feeling and sense of being held by a force so much greater than myself.

Flora Curzon

My keyboard sits in a corner of the flat, overlooking the neighbours' gardens and the terraced houses opposite. Some mornings I'll sit and watch the birds landing and taking off from the trees, the occasional cat or fox skulking over garden sheds and under dividing walls, and leaf through Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, picking my way through a Prelude and Fugue or two. Some of these are etched deeply, note for note, in my memory, having been brought out time and again as performance staples; some are still unfamiliar enough to force me to really concentrate, brow furrowed, fingers flailing as I try to track the multiple sinewy, criss-crossing lines across the page. For the first lockdown, my wife was working from home and therefore was an involuntary audience for all of these domestic performances. Now there are three of us, and our three-week old daughter Eleanor is perfectly capable of signalling any discontent at an over-long fugue or poorly executed cadence! More pragmatically, Angela Hewitt's more assured recordings will be providing a soothing aural backdrop to various fits of crying, nappy changes, and the occasional bliss of looking into a newborn face full of total restfulness, calm and contentment.

Peter Yarde Martin

The last Bach I performed was BWV 114 and its alto aria Du Machst O Tod with my Baroquestock friends, and I am currently singing Erbarme Dich from St. Matthew’s Passion as I teach it to one of my online students. Many classical musicians would opine about Bach’s intellectual merits, but I always found his importance as a composer and his position as the ‘father of western music’ daunting as a performer. I was taught that Bach made the rules and therefore only he could break them. As I slowly approach adulthood I have begun to associate Bach with much happier (and not intellectual) things: auditions, gainful employment, friends and coffee. Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht BWV 211 (the coffee cantata), which features a love song to coffee, gives me permission to maintain my addiction over lockdown.

Emily Gray


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