Thanks to YouTube, I’ve been watching a performance of St Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. It is an enormous work, both in length and monumental-ness. It is not often performed because of its demands on choir, soloists, orchestra and, I suspect, audience but, once it becomes familiar, it is a marvellous piece.
Bach’s music, especially his choral, is complex and dense. It is an ‘opaque’ music, a bit like a heavy, embroidered wall hanging that is warm and comforting but definitely present. Many lines of counterpoint, basso continuo and rich, shifting harmonies that precede jazz by about two hundred years, create a web of utter music which, for the uninitiated (and perhaps those who have listened more), can seem a little impenetrable.
I have been watching a particular performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. It is arresting in its quality. The more I watch, the more I think about why it is so good. I have come to a conclusion. The real strength, the real genius, lies, not so much in the music (although that is outstanding) , but in in the silences – the spaces between phrases, the no-music between sections, a complete lack of panic in stillness. None of this silence is overdone or emotional. It is pure, does not interrupt the flow of the music but, and I think this is the essence, it gives a way in to the fullness of the sound.
I wonder whether moments of silence can provide pathways into other things. Of course, I think about art. Unpainted sections, windows if you like, can invite a viewer into a dense piece. Maybe in our lives, hectic times can be mitigated by periods of silence. Perhaps still moments, no matter how small, can make things more accessible and less daunting.
That’s why I have visual paragraph breaks, I suppose. They are moments of visual and mental silence within a written piece.