The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Bach is in the news with Garrison Keillor, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Auster. But which Bach pieces and why?

August 5, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

A reminder: This Friday night, Aug. 6, at 7:30 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave., the Isthmus Vocal Ensemble under conductor Scott MacPherson will perform a concert of “Songs of Advent and Christmas (in August).” Works will be by Praetorius, Rachmaninoff, Paulus, Lauridsen and others and will be recorded for upcoming release.  Tickets are $15 for adults; $10 for seniors and students; free for children under 13.


Some current or relatively recent events have put the composer Johann Sebastian Bach in the news — if not in the headlines.

Here is what Garrison Keillor (below) — today’s Will Rogers and the host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” — recently said in an op-ed column “BP and Bach” for the New York Times:

“I can’t think of anything better to do right now than to sit in my backyard and look at the Mississippi and listen to Bach cello suites and enjoy a dish of ice cream with fresh raspberries.

“As the Gulf turns dark and the polar ice cap melts, I intend to listen to Bach more and listen to the news less. It’s good to know that, in the midst of vast indifference and mediocrity and narcissism, mankind did manage to produce the “St. Matthew Passion” and the Mass in B minor.”

The very musical Keillor clearly knows his Bach and makes first-rate choices. Here is a link to the full column, in case you missed it:

Lippy political bad boy Christopher Hitchens (below) was on a book tour for his bestselling memoir “Hitch 22” when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and cut the tour short to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

But in the book (below) he says his two favorite composers are Bob Dylan (no surprise) and Bach (surprise).

Yes, J.S. Bach.

Well, maybe that’s a just choice. After all, Hitchens is kind of like Bach. He too was an energetic and profliic radical in his youth, but came to be seen as conservative  and even old-fashioned and out-of-date as he got older.

But, sadly, Hitchens doesn’t elaborate.

I would like to know which Bach works Hitchens likes, especially as he seeks comfort during his unfortunate and uncomfortable ordeal. I would bet he is more inclined toward instrumental music or non-religious vocal music, given his militant atheism. But then, as we know, atheists can appreciate religious music without believing its “message” or text.

And I would like Keillor to write more about the classical music he loves. You can tell from his singing and even from his radio voice as well as his own writing that he has a terrific an ear and sense of cadence.

His choices, I bet, are not only telling but excellent.

Maybe he can follow up by booking someone on “A Prairie Home Companion” — pianist Emanuel Ax has appeared on his program — to play some Bach: solo cello or violin suites, piano music, vocal music, whatever. He should know many of us feel as he does.

Finally, the latest novel by Paul Auster (below) — “Invisible” —  has been released in paperback. One reviewer called it Auster’s best so far, and I found it a great read.

In the novel (below), Auster twice refers to Bach’s “Two-Part Inventions,” without specifying which one or ones. One reference (on page 133) is made as a comparison to a movie. Another reference (on page 220) refers to what he asks a young  French girl to play, which she does.

But the image of a Two-Part Invention also seems a perfectly apt metaphor for Auster’s own approach to writing fiction and movies. He is metacritical, as they say, in that he comments on his own writing and often intertwines two different stories or, as he does in this novel, two versions of the same story.

I like it when literary people use reference to classical music.

I just wish in the cases of Hitchens and Auster they had each had been more specific and written more in detail about the music. Classical music just doesn’t get better than Bach.

Which Bach would you recommend to Garrison Keillor?

Which Bach would you suggest Christopher  Hitchens should listen to?

Which Bach do you think Hitchens likes?

And do you have a favorite Two-Part Invention that would be good for Auster’s purposes?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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