Dialogue Meeting 2005

First Johann Sebastian Bach Dialogue Meeting

Oxford, 12-13 November 2005
Trapp Room, Wadham

Report on the meeting

The First Johann Sebastian Bach Dialogue meeting of BNUK, convened by the trustees, began on 12 November 2005 at 4.00pm in the Trapp Room, Wadham College, with a welcome to the 13 participants from the UK and Ireland, Germany and Sweden. After introductions, Ruth Tatlow addressed the meeting in the name of the trustees, thanking all participants and presenting an outline of the new organisation and its genesis. This was the first “Dialogue Meeting”, which should be followed by others in a regular rhythm. This weekend’s discussions would be important as they would influence the aims and ideas of BNUK and all its members. Through its website and activities BNUK might be able to facilitate dialogues between the academics and musicians who have found an authentic voice in Bach’s world and music, but who frequently have to operate in isolation. BNUK could encourage the cultivation and study of Bach in many constituencies, and develop a new model for musicological debate in the twenty-first century.

A ‘Musical Moment’ was offered at 5.00pm in the antechapel of Wadham College, where Laurence Dreyfus (viola da gamba) and John Butt (harpsichord) performed the prelude and fugue XIV in F sharp minor from WTC II and the G major sonata for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027. This recital was attended by the participants and by members of Wadham College free of charge. It was followed by a reception for participants, their guests and College members in the Trapp Room.

On Sunday, 13 November, the participants discussed two major topics proposed by the BNUK convenors: ‘Mediating a message’ (11.00am-1.00pm) and ‘How to speak to each other’ (2.30-4.00pm).

‘Mediating a message’. The aim of the first discussion was to enquire about the role of the music of J.S. Bach in modern/postmodern society and to move towards a description of the responsibility of scholars and performers towards this heritage and to today’s audiences.

In a first brief presentation, John Butt compared Bach reception today with that of his contemporaries and asked about the nature of the ‘special case’ of Bach in the traditions. Attitudes in education today (at least in the UK) seem remarkably close to those of Johann Adolph Scheibe in his critique of Bach. If this is so, Bach might well, in turn, provide us with a critique of our current condition, but it is uncertain how local or global such a critique might be. Bach scholarship needs to come to terms with the fact that there might be many ways in which Bach is justifiably not appreciated by large elements of the contemporary musical community. By acknowledging that there might be something culturally very specific about Bach’s achievement we might begin to enquire what that achievement is. It would surely have something to do with the way the composer mediates between the traditional and expressive, the rational and the emotive, the natural and the artificial – a broad sense of counterpoint which integrates elements from a variety of provenances. Similar qualities are surely central to the success of western modernity, a success that has, in turn, led to the sort of cultural relativism that now robs Bach of his essential universal appeal.

In a second short presentation, Reinhard Strohm argued that most Bach specialists today were not the heirs of an unbroken tradition, but interlopers of one sort or another, and that both the ‘universal’ and the ‘local’ traditions of Bach cultivation were largely products of the Romantic/modern era. There was no unequivocal ‘message’ that could be defined in its original terms; it was no longer credible to address the world as missionaries of a certain Bach heritage. Rather we needed to listen to the approaches which today’s constituencies had to offer.
In the ensuing lively discussion, not all agreed that the Bach heritage was entirely formed by historical contingencies. The present-day diversity, however, was noted, with examples of various newer constituencies of Bach cultivation (Japan, Soweto, etc). It was also described how the heritage had successfully been redefined in German culture after 1945, for example. Despite some complaints about perceived dangers of literalistic and fundamentalist approaches, there was agreement about the renewability of Bach studies and performance under changed global circumstances. Even phenomena such as the new awareness of antisemitic aspects of certain works (St John Passion) were not necessarily detrimental to dialogue and mediation. Barriers could already be broken down on the level of education; a certain challenge to young people in learning the ‘new dictionary’ required by such music might be a positive moment. Performers had particular experience of the varying communities and constituencies worldwide. There was not much agreement with the suggestion that BNUK might set out to investigate today’s receptional variety as such; this would require social studies methodologies rather than musical ones.

The discussion then also considered issues of text, meaning and listening. Much of Bach’s music and its texts can cause bewilderment to listeners (an example given was “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” from the St John Passion); its allegorical relationship with religious or other messages deserves more exploration. The music was not just an exegesis of the texts, however, but was telling its own stories. The discussion produced some energetic pleas for a substantive, rescuable message in the music itself as well as in its cultural specificity; it also addressed some of the channels by which to gain access to the mentalities of Bach’s own time: an example given was Zedler’s Groβes vollständiges Universal Lexicon aller Wissenschafften und Künste, Leipzig/ Halle, 1732-1754, on-line: http://www.zedler-lexikon.de

Meanwhile, the terminology of ‘message’, ‘mediation’ and even ‘network’ did not escape critical comment. Most participants agreed, however, that there was a unifying, if very general, notion of a representation of ‘being human’ in Bach’s music which deserved the commitment of specialists – a commitment which should open itself up to dialogues and to much broader discourses, but without a dilution of terms and standards. It was also agreed throughout the discussion that the addressee or audience of all the activities had to be the wider public as well as the specialists.
The lunch break was spent together in a nearby restaurant. Before the beginning of the afternoon session, participants gave brief individual statements about their personal research interests and motivations.

‘How to speak to each other’. The discussion was introduced by three short presentations
John Eliot Gardiner addressed the communication problems among Bach scholars and performers (particularly the former), giving concrete examples of the need for a “de-ghettoization” of the activities. In this context, the dialogue between researchers and performers was paramount. Others specified that this process was to be seen as a circular motion, not as a transfer of knowledge or interpretation from one side to the other only.

Laurence Dreyfus then gave a vivid picture of the self-consciousness of artists when faced with demands of a scholarly nature, stressing that the freedom of pursuing one’s own artistic belief was ultimately more valid than the conformity to agreed historical notions. In the discussion of these matters the Early Music movement predictably played a major role, coming under scrutiny mainly for its aspects of diluting and discouraging individuality and exploration.
The third short presentation, by Anne Leahy, outlined the activities of the Bach research group at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). The institute’s educational role was paramount and much was being done to develop musical skills (among students of all ages), but research was now also encouraged. Funding was received nationally and, it is hoped, from European Union sources. The present, interdisciplinary research project focused on the German cultural and religious context of the seventeenth century.

This presentation led to a consideration of the technical and conceptual means of communication in or between such networks. Other important groups and activities included, for example, the bibliographic Bach database at Belfast and the Leipzig Bach-Archiv. The results of a formerly German-based group working on theological aspects of Bach needed to be processed and disseminated. The need to be fully interconnected by website links was taken for granted; in addition it was proposed that the DIT group would be ‘represented’ on dedicated pages of the BNUK website, and vice-versa. A group such as DIT was able to provide support to others through its student members and digital resources; members of BNUK could be asked, on the other hand, to give expert advice or presentations, for example.

Hans Walter Gabler then described his own role as an advisor to a German database/edition (“Hyper-Nietzsche”) which has advanced into multi-medial presentation, using for example pictures of manuscripts in addition to transcriptions. The texts to be published themselves also included commentaries and new contributions, which were regularly being integrated into the database and searchable with it. It had already been mentioned in the discussion on performance that multi-medial communication would also be beneficial to the aims of BNUK, for example by presenting performative approaches or new solutions in sound (and even in picture). While maintaining full editorial control, the website editors could develop dialogues that actually incorporated musical performances.

Summing up (as far as possible), Reinhard Strohm identified the following targets for BNUK’s structure and activities in the near future, as they had emerged in the discussions:

  • Explore multi-medial means of communication on the website, and related innovative methods of dissemination;
  • publish the results of scholarly research (individual papers, etc) on the web in a separate publication category (a web journal entitled “Understanding Bach”);
  • present a plan for the constitution of memberships and for the urgently needed fundraising;
  • publish coherent bodies of work or resource materials in the database category;
  • generate and convene direct interactions and dialogues between individuals and groups, including the convening of further dialogue meetings;
  • represent the DIT and other similar groups on the BNUK website and vice-versa;
  • subject all scholarly publications and public statements to peer review, and seek or provide expert advice among the best Bach specialists.

Finally, it was concluded that the interests of present participants, as articulated at the beginning of the afternoon, encouraged two distinct research projects, which should be discussed in two further dialogue meetings:

  • a project researching the analysis of Bach’s music in its aural as well as notated forms, and the contribution of performers to the structural understanding of the music;
  • a project investigating the relationship of text and music in the communicative (allegorical, rhetorical, etc.) process involving Bach and his listeners.

The meeting concluded on 13 November 2005 at 4:20pm.