Bach ReInvented ~ About the Music
In 1737 Bach suffered a strongly worded attack upon his inability, or perhaps, refusal, to compose in the new, fashionable ‘galante’ style by the composer and critic Johann Adolph Scheibe in the publication Der Critische Musikus:
“This great man would be the wonder of entire nations if he were more pleasing and if he did not deprive his pieces of naturalness by a swollen and intricate style and obscure their beauty by all too great art…One admires in [him] the laborious work and exceptional pains, which yet are applied in vain because they conflict with reason…He who manifests musical rules ever so well with respect to purity and art, but does not at the same time think naturally and straightforwardly, will doubtless arouse admiration through his painstaking work, but by no means touch his audience.”
Simply stated: Bach’s music suffered from an excess of art.
In stark contrast is this 1930 response to a questionnaire entitled Bekenntniss zu Bach (Commitment to Bach) by Kurt Weill:
“Whenever we say today ‘Art must be useful, but it must also uphold its standards,’ then Bach provides the best evidence for the validity of this demand. For him these two concepts are inseparable. His work possesses the highest degree of purposefulness. For (and not despite) this reason, it upholds a unique standard.”
And so the table is set for our artistic debate and indulgence this evening. It is indeed an embarrassment of riches that collide and collaborate: Bach composing in a fashionable, operatic style; Kurt Weill fusing opera, jazz, cabaret and a parody Bach chorale with satirical sass; the architectural splendor of Emmanuel Church transformed; and the grace, line, power and imagination of Betsi Graves and Urbanity Dance.
Bach The Contest between Phoebus and Pan, BWV 201 (1729)
Based upon the Greek myth, translated through the Latin poet Ovid, and ultimately adapted to contemporary purpose with a libretto by Picander, The Contest between Phoebus and Pan, BWV 201, was probably first performed in Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee garden in Leipzig towards the end of the 1720s. The essence of Picander’s and Bach’s creation is the friction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and who should judge it. This same sort of Ovidian contest of singers is found as late as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.
The Contest between Phoebus and Pan can easily be thought of as Bach’s pre-emptive response to Scheibe’s criticism. Here, the ‘recreational’ Bach takes jabs at the simplistic galante style with his own satire written in a fashionable, operatic, faux-galante style. For audiences accustomed to the serious, sacred cantatas of Bach, his comic secular romp can be a tough nut to crack! To acheive Scheibe’s goal of ‘naturalness’ and Weill’s ‘purposefulness,’ the recitatives will be sung in an English translation by Sheldon Harnick (yes, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof).
Kurt Weill The Seven Deadly Sins (1933)
The son of a cantor, Kurt Weill was actively composing and performing by his mid-teens. He studied with Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni and grew up in the German theater system. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Judaism and the caustically radical stage works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were declared undesirable, the composer and librettist fled the country. Between 1927 and 1931, Brecht and Weill had collaborated on some of the most successful and characteristic theater pieces of the Weimar Republic — The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
The Seven Deadly Sins introduces the basic duality of practicality and sanity versus beauty and craziness. This dualism resides at the heart of the work’s origin. The collaborators not only shared an estrangement from Germany, but from one other. Weill and Brecht had fallen out in 1931 while working on the Berlin production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. For the job of devising the libretto, Weill turned to Brecht with the hope of revitalizing their partnership. Weill wrote the part of Anna I for his wife, Lotte Lenya, from whom he was separated. The British impresario Edward James, who financed the production, saw the ballet as a way to win back the affection of his estranged wife, Tilly Losch, who danced the part of Anna II.
It was conceived as a satirical ballet chanté and first commissioned by Boris Kochno and George Balanchine in 1933. The work had been largely forgotten until Balanchine revived it in a 1958 New York City Ballet production choreographed by Balanchine and sung by Lotte Lenya with a new English translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman (used in this evening’s performance).
Kurt Weill ultimately settled in New York where his theater experience and instincts served him well, writing such works for the stage as Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Lost in the Stars, and Street Scene.
Dear Beloved Bostonians,
It is with tremendous excitement that Urbanity, a cutting-edge contemporary dance company, collaborates with Emmanuel Music, a Boston institution, in order to bring you the one-night wonder that is Bach ReInvented.
I felt weak in the knees at the thought of choreographing The Seven Deadly Sins in the wake of George Balanchine. He collaborated with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht on the original production, shortly after the two fled Nazi-occupied Germany for Paris. Ironically, the “sung ballet” takes place in seven U.S. cities, yet these three creators never stepped foot on U.S. soil. Balanchine brought back the ballet in 1958, after Weill and Brecht had passed away, as he chose not to reprise it in their lifetime.
As I began weaving my own choreographic aesthetic with the original artistic choices, I kept seeing parallels between the world of these artists and our own today. The same questions arise decade after decade: How far will we go to sustain a system whereby personal profit reigns supreme at others’ expense? Are there times when we, as a local, national and global community, remain silent while the Annas of the world must turn their moral code upside-down in order to keep sending money home? Are we as a culture “gnashing our teeth” in our incessant drive towards upward mobility? I believe this production has the power to shed new light on these questions.
Phoebus and Pan encapsulate the age-old rivalry of learned music versus popular, high-brow versus low-brow, reason versus emotion, the highly artistic versus the merely pleasant. I personally enjoyed that Bach, obviously partial to Phoebus’s methods himself, indulges his audience in an absolutely divine “pop” representation with Pan’s aria. But as we look deeper, we realize it’s still Bach: catchy yet wildly intricate, artistic, metrical and learned. In the end, I fall for both Phoebus’s intricate melodies and Pan’s simple song.
I would like to extend heartfelt gratitude to Ryan Turner, Pat Krol, and the Emmanuel Music staff for inviting us into their home and taking a chance on dance. It is an honor to collaborate with you. Thank you to the Urbanity Board of Directors, Anmol Mehra, our donors, our staff, and of course the beloved dancers of Urbanity and musicians of Emmanuel who helped manifest this crazy artistic vision of mine. Thank you to Urbanity’s students and dancers in the community who help us fulfill our mission to inspire, engage and empower through the art of dance. And lastly, I extend heartfelt thanks to you, our audience, for supporting innovative artistic collaboration and a vision for a world-class arts ecosystem here in Boston.
And so, my lustful Bostonians, whether you like it high-brow or low-brow, Baroque or waltz, I invite you to satiate your desire for fine art here with us tonight—and to come back hungry for more.
All my love,
P.S. Please continue the conversation about #bachreinvented with us on social media! We’d love to hear your thoughts.