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Slow Views

Bach in the time of Covid

Wednesday 23 June 2021

A new play unites the director Nick Hytner and the actor Simon Russell Beale in an intense exploration of the composer’s relationship with God, chaos and family – a dramatic experience full of contemporary resonance


On one of the first miraculously hot mornings of May, I am in a rehearsal room at the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court road, watching a play take shape during what we are hoping is the final (if uncertain) phase of lockdown. This is a drama about human sorrow, resilience and artistic triumph; and – along the way – it may or may not prove the existence of God. 

It is called Bach and Sons, conceived by the director Sir Nicholas Hytner as an exchange between Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great on the nature of existence, and written by the playwright Nina Raine as a richly layered family drama. The play previews at London’s acclaimed Bridge Theatre from this evening.

For Simon Russell Beale, who takes what may turn out to be the role of his career as Bach, it is a play about a man’s feet of clay and links to the music of the heavens. 

The set features a harpsichord, a cello and a violin. Bach believed, and, in the eyes of many pre-Enlightenment believers, demonstrated that there was a musical language which echoed the vibrations of the heavenly sphere. 

I watch a rehearsal scene in which Frederick, played by the Bollywood star Pravessh Rana with charismatic cruelty, taunts “Old Bach” with the new – his shining pianoforte replacing the harpsichord – and with the notion of music as entertainment rather than as an expression of the divine. 

Bach, whose eyesight is failing, sees betrayal everywhere. Even his son is composing music for the pleasure of the Emperor rather than in service of God. It is like watching King Lear – except that Bach confounds the Emperor by improvising a three part harmony of depth and beauty. A fugue. 

It is the beginning of the Musical Offering. Bach shoots a mischievous glance at his son. Then he says to Frederick: “ You have no power over me unless it has been given to you from above”.

This is the philosophical centre of the play. Is there a guiding principle to the world, or is it all merely random? 

Frederick replies: “My view of life is that it is chaotic, accidental, and absolutely without meaning, a twisted clockwork in which we are all inanimate cogs…” 

He casually informs Bach that his favoured and despairing son Gottfried has died, the tenth child that Bach has to bury. Russell Beale’s shoulders sag. Where is God in this parade of human suffering?

Earlier in the play, Bach had explained to Gottfried how music reflects the harmony of the universe. He cited Pythagoras’s theory that mathematics is the route to divine order. 

The pitch of a musical note stands in inverse proportion to the length of the string: “Well, these same musical proportions are found in the distances between the orbits of the planets. So they are making music too… the music of the sphere. And the only reason, Gottfried, that we can’t hear it, is because we have been hearing the music from the moment we are born.” So it follows: “A world as orderly as this cannot have been created by chance alone. And this should be a great comfort to you when life seems unfair.”

What are we to make of Bach’s music in a secular age? On the one hand his music is a sum of humanity, described by one critic as almost “too much art.” Too rich, too complex, too profound, too hard

Bach was a devout Lutheran and the heart of his theology was the crucifixion. Even among the joyous trumpets towards the end of St Matthew’s Passion, he hauls you back to the Cross. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 

In a rehearsal break, I talk to Hytner, Raine and Russell Beale. The director, playwright and actor form a kind of socially distanced tableau, discussing faith while picking at their takeaway sushi lunches.

They are struck in equal measure by the language of music, by the return of live theatre, by the family drama. The play could have been titled All My Sons or indeed Father and Sons if others had not got there first. As for the women, there is a despairing line from Bach’s wife in the play: “I can’t remember not being pregnant, burying children. Am I being punished?” 

I turn several pages of my notebook before broaching the theological elephant in the room – can you talk about Bach without talking about God? On this matter, the American biographer Rick Marschall wrote wryly: “Many people behold Bach’s vast lifetime accomplishments as those of a man who took musical dictation from the Lord.” Certainly, it would not be possible to stage a play such as this without addressing squarely the question of the purpose of Bach’s art.

Russell Beale, aged 60, was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, and in 2008 presented a BBC series on sacred music with Harry Christophers from the renowned choir, The Sixteen. One of his brothers was an opera singer and performed in St Matthew’s Passion. Bach is his natural milieu. 

The actor is fascinated by Bach’s interest in “ugliness.” He cites his St John’s Passion: “The screeching, pulling around all over the place, I thought, oh God, he is doing this deliberately, putting the vocals under such strain. I thought music was necessarily beautiful but some of it is… hard.”  Hytner nods; “And hard means pain.”

The deliberate dissonance in Bach distances him from the melodic fluidity of the romantics such as Mozart. Only occasionally – for instance in his Requiem – does Mozart acknowledge the Lutheran pain of Bach. 

I ask Russell Beale if he is personally religious and he winces. Then he shakes his head: “No. I am nearly. Can’t do it. You know my background. My parents both believers. No, I can’t.” Having played Galileo on stage at the National Theatre, he is set in his human rationalism – and yet… “When someone says if there is proof of the existence of God then Bach is it, I sort of agree with that.”

So is Bach the best argument for the existence of God? I had earlier spoken on the telephone to Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the poem entitled ‘Bach for the Cello’. 

The verses run:

By mathematics we shall come to heaven.

This page the door of God’s academy,

For the geometer.

Where the pale lines involve a continent,

Transcribe the countryside of pale light,

Kindle with friction.

Passion with scorch deep in these sharp canals,

Under the level moon, desire runs fast,

The flesh aches on its string,

Without consummation,

Without loss.

The composer who wrote the music of the spheres wove into it the pain of humanity. Williams believes that Bach’s compositions are a divine expression of the universe: “I take it seriously. It is about proportion, resonance, the constant of the universe. You are tuning in to the universal and the fundamental. Music and mathematics have this relationship.” He adds: “Music doesn’t provide answers as to why the world is so painful, but it does give life and light.”

Bach’s fugues follow a pattern of reconciling dissonance and harmony. There are no happy endings, but there is resolution. Williams cites the last chorale of St Matthew’s Passion with its penultimate pain and darkness – and, finally, an ending which goes “beyond suffering.” 

It happens again in the Cello Suites: “In one sense mathematical, a set of exercises, then the chords broaden with emotional colour, then almost unmanageable dissonance, then resolution.”

Russell Beale follows the arc of Bach in the play and suggests that he has come to terms with opposing forces, the old and the new, God-given and man-created. The final words of the artist who demands layering, complexity, Godly purpose, counterpoint, end with the instruction on his death bed: “It should be simple. Very simple.”

For Hytner, Bach provides a study of creative genius. Where does it come from? Why should it suddenly descend upon one musician in one family, or upon Shakespeare? 

He came to the composer via his German contemporary, Handel. Hytner directed Handel’s opera Xerxes and deployed his music in the soundtrack of The Madness of King George (1994). Handel was rich, successful, well-travelled, feted. Somehow, he contrived to miss an encounter with Bach. Hytner muses on whether he feared being diminished by the latter’s genius.  To the director, it is Bach’s greater purpose which makes him speak to a modern audience. They may not share his religious beliefs, but they yearn for meaning as he did. 

“As a non religious person, I find a serious analogy with the way artists make art. Particularly among the younger generation in the theatre – they are perfectly capable of making art as entertainment, but they believe that theatre has a fierce social purpose. Just as Bach believed music has a fierce spiritual purpose. Bach has their seriousness and ferocity.”

Russell Beale, as we’ve seen, can’t get himself over the line on faith – and, as it happens, Bach, musically speaking at least, shares these doubts and emotional turmoil. Listen to the E Minor prelude to feel the outpouring. Too much art, too much emotion. 

As Nina Raine says: “Sin, guilt, doubt – all that is part of the religious debate and the music explores it. It isn’t just a beautiful communion with God.” Aged 45, she had mislaid her own faith about 15 years ago. “I used to believe in God in a very soft way, and it was a bit of a comfort. But then I had this crisis where I suddenly thought: ‘There is no explanation for this, I thought, this is terrifying, nihilistic, empty.’ I am beyond that now. I have to believe in something.”

Her brother, on the other hand, is reconciled to the random chaos view of the world and is perfectly sanguine about it. Russell Beale says softly: “ I would find it a relief. Your brother’s view.”

Looking upwards, Hytner says: “I find the idea of faith moving. I find the art that has been created motivated by faith moving. Craving for form in chaos is what art does, so I am intensely moved by religious works of art but what moves me is the creative genius behind it and this play is about genius.” He adds: “It is also a topical issue about what kind of behaviour is excused by talent.”

In his superb biography of Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner warns that Bach’s shortcomings should not be eclipsed by awe for his music. 

The composer’s “obsessive focus on order and structure”, he writes, hints at “his struggles to keep chaos in his surroundings – and in his inner life – at bay.”

Thus, the glimpse of heavenly life does not protect him from the torment of the earthly one. Far from it, in fact. As Eliot Gardener writes: “All the while his music beckons us to view life through his eyes, the eyes of a consummate artist, as though to imply: this is a way of fully realising the scale and scope of what it is to be human within it.”

Hytner, in other words, does not intend to lead us gently out of lockdown but to give those who have felt starved of art the full Miltonic response to such dilemmas. Indeed, the absence of art and its return form a kind of counterpoint. 

Raine wrote the play during the pandemic, not knowing when or if it might actually be performed. “I am writing a play and thinking, what is the point? What is the point of art?” she recalls. 

Hytner said that reading the play left him in tears. “Because what this play is about, is what we have not had any of.” Russell Beale cheers: “Live music!” 

Raine and Hytner prepared for rehearsals by going to listen to the Goldberg Variations played by the Canadian virtuoso pianist, Angela Hewitt. 

As Raine says: “ She played the whole of Goldberg Variations in her basement flat. And then we had an Indian takeaway.” The sublime and the human, indeed.

Sarah Sands is a journalist and author. Her book, The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life, is published by Short Books. Bach & Sons previews at the Bridge Theatre from tonight and runs until 11 September. 

Book your place at Creative Sensemaker Live this Friday, when we’ll ask whether classical music is boring and elitist