It’s a given. Bach only died biologically. But his musical legacy is very much alive, the standard he set in the 17th century perhaps eternally unsurpassable.
I’d like to wrap up this year’s sporadic blogging with a shout-out to my friend Stephen Lyman. Steve is an American guitarist from Utah who came to Paris in 2010 and hit on the purpose of his life there: playing Bach anonymously, on the street. He first played off the streets two days after arriving here, later gravitating towards several churches, until he discovered the Eglise Saint-Germain de l’Auxerrois and felt an immediate spiritual connection to the place. Like clockwork, he still plays there today, twice a week, offering to whomever will listen the four Lute Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach adapted to the guitar, as close as he will ever get to what he calls the Muse.
There is something appealingly obsessive about a musician devoting his entire creative time to celebrating the art of a composer who died four centuries ago. Of course, Steve is an accomplished guitarist well-versed in the classical repertoire, and who has performed professionally in various music styles for the better part of his life. But at this particular point on his journey, Bach seems to tie it together for him and represent the culmination of what he as a performing musician can achieve in his pursuit for artistic beauty. He will only play the Bach from here on out. Who could fault him for such a lofty commitment?
Though the music of Bach has experienced a resurgence in recent years, Baroque music getting seemingly more and more popular, the composer’s prolific oeuvre has often been reduced to its mathematical logic and formal precision. Granted, I’ve looked at Bach scores for keyboard and even played some when I was little, and it’s pretty discouraging. Visually distressing. I mean, all those 16th notes, come on…
Listening to Bach on guitar is an educational experience, though. It lets you hear a side of Bach you may not have thought about before: the simplicity and purity of Bach’s artistic statement, the greatness of his work for unaccompanied strings laid bare in front of you. The fugal quality of the writing dear to the composer is revealed in its beautiful architecture. The left hand moving across the different registers of the fingerboard, breaks down the magical relationship between the harmonic line in the low and middle registers with the fugal melodic statements weaving in and out on top. You can actually see and hear that and it all makes sense.
And how appropriate to celebrate Bach at this church. Here is where the bell tolled for the thousands of Protestant Huguenots who died during the infamous Bartholomew’s massacre in the 16th century. But if even you didn’t know it was there the first time, as I didn’t, it’s hard not to feel the particular aura radiating from this historic landmark. When you first walk in and hear the sound of a classical guitar playing somewhere down the nave, you will want to go there, its resonance will coax you over. It is the sound of a musician who is giving you Bach and expects nothing in return. The guitar case is open if you want to drop a coin but that’s not the point. Steve has worked on and polished up these pieces for over thirty years and still feels like he is a beginner with them. Whatever wrong or fluffed note may occur, and there are usually very few of them, Steve has developed an intimate relationship with these technically demanding but magnificent pieces. He practices them everyday rigorously and only performs them “when they’re ready”.
Steve has a CD out, Recital in the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, a recording on which he plays the Chaconne from the d minor Partita for Violin BW 1004, the Lute Suite BWV 995 and the Lute Suite BWV 997, in that order.
Christmas is only 10 days away, so if you’re still not sure what to put in your loved ones’ stockings, give them a little Bach and support one of his most admirable devotees.
Note: Stephen Lyman performs twice a week at Eglise Saint-Germain de l’Auxerrois, 2 Place du Louvre, 75001 Paris, France. Tuesdays & Fridays, 2pm-3pm. However, due to the low temperatures in winter, Steve’s impromptu recitals may be more few and far between.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Stephen Lyman
Recital in the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Pitié Salpêtrière, Chaconne, Lute Suites BWV 995, 997.