Bach in St Barts

Posted on January 28th, 2010 by

The priory church of St Bartholomew-the-Great Smithfield, is one of the great acoustics. It has been my privilege to play in this wonderful space many times-a lot of Bach and Telemann, but also many premieres-new music by David Matthews, Gloria Coates, Liburn Jupolli, Jim Aitchison, Michael Alec Rose…

Some links to performances in this wonderfilled space…


Bach always seems to ‘talk’ to the building in which I play him, and I always remember individual works in the context of the works in which I have most loved to play them. The great ‘Ciaconna’ will always be tied to the great Romanesque church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfields. This church is one of the hidden treasures of the City of London, the ‘square mile’. By the 16th century, the church was so dilapidated, that Bishop Grindal urged that it be demolished and the adjacent abbey refectory be turned into a church: “I assure you, without partialitie, if it were roofed up, it were farre more beautiful and conveniente than the other.

 Luckily this suggestion was not taken up, but the neglect continued, till, in the 19th Century, there was a blacksmith’s forge in the north transept, a carpenter’s workshop and a hop store in the sacristy and a fringe-making business in the Lady Chapel. The church today provides a good clue as to what the interior of Old St Pauls might have looked like prior to the fire of 1666. It was spared that conflagration, because the flames famously stopped at ‘Pie Corner’ which is commemorated around the corner St Sepuchre’s, the ‘Musicians’ Church’. I have a dim memory of my mother playing Mozart’s ‘Vesperae solennes de confessore’ and ‘Church Sonatas’ there, when I was seven or eight. I remember that I was terrified by the massive, lurching Norman pillars, the crooked ‘dog-toothed’ arches soaring over the ‘crossing’, but most of all enchantmented by my mother’s limpid  violin tone drifting around the soot-blackened ambulatoria up to the clerestory above.I did not re-visit the church until I was in my late twenties, and immediately determined to play there. I had been asked to play the Bach ‘Sonatas and Partitas’ at the Norwich Festival, so I asked the verger of St Bartholomew’s if I might play the cycle there first, alongside some favourite Telemann ‘Fantasies’ and Locatelli’s bizarre ‘Laberinto armonicao, facilius  ingressus, difficilius exius’, on a series of late summer lunchtimes. The concerts were not advertised. I was honestly more interested to learn what this great Romanesque building could teach me about Bach, about music, than to play to hundreds of people.

 But it is the ‘Ciacconna‘ in St Bartholomew-the-great that I will always remember. The ‘Chaconne’, as it is usually know in English, is as series of sixty-four variations or ‘couplets’, based, not on a tune, but on a descending bassline. Essentially, it does nothing but repeat itself 64 times with no real modulation until a revelatory shift from the darkness of D minor to D major, the sun coming out. It was precisely such a sublime moment of transfiguration in Schubert’s Winterreise  that inspired David Matthews to write his ‘Winter Journey’. Curiously, the extremely rigid structure, the potentially mind-numbing repetitions, gave Bach infinite ‘space’ for the subtle exploration of ideas and emotions.

 As I played in the looming church, I found that I was dwelling on the shape of the building wrapped around me. The pews are arranged like a college chapel, lengthways along the main aisle, allowing procession the whole way along the middle of the church. This gave me the chance to stand right in the architectural heart of the building, under the ‘crossing’, with the bulk of the tower over me, rather than, in typical concert style, at the east, altar end. Standing there I realized that there was no ‘right’ direction in which to face. Like the wonderful Church of S.Antimo that Charlemagne built near Montalcino, St Bartholomews is graced with the classic Romanenesque Ambulatory, piled up ranks of rounded ‘Norman’ arches, three stories high, sweeping around behind the altar. The simplicity of this form, with no real variation save decoration and nuance, seemed entirely apt for the revolving eight-bar tread of the Bach. I  was struck by the sense of a slow ‘movement’ in the building, that the music seemed to trace from apse to apse behind the colonnade. This combination of stone and sound intoxicated me.

 As I neared the end of the Ciaconna, which, for me takes an unbroken, silence-less ten minutes or so, I realized that my eyes were closed. I had no idea what I would see when I opened them, and no memory of where I was. Nervously, as a trickle of applause spattered around the basically empty space, I opened my eyes, and found that I had spun completely around, one hundred and eighty degrees, and was now facing the west end of the church. Unbeknownst to me, a number of people had crept in to listen, while I had played in my music-architecture trance, and my audience, though still comfortingly modest, had doubled in size.