Bach and my teachers

Posted on November 24th, 2012 by

“Like any violinist, Bach is the private centre of what I do. Despite playing the Sonatas & Partitas from a young age, it was not until my early thirties that I performed the cycle in public. Even today, even though I am someone who just loves to talk about music, I find that on the subject of Bach, I am silent. Perhaps this is because these works are so much my every day, like breathing, or sleeping, meaning that anything I might say on the subject will just seem trite. So I won’t say much-just some vignettes.

Beginnings. The reclusive pedagogue Beatrix Marr was the first to make it clear to me the high expectations that Bach set any musician. When I was quite young I would take the train to her 12th Century cottage, lost in a South Devon valley, to practise, to talk, to draw, to read, to walk. Lessons took place under the Hugo von Beckerath drawing of Brahms playing his Op 76, lost in rapture and concentration. ‘Trix’ would take one movement, say of the G minor Partita, and have me study and play it in 8 different ways, with different bowing combinations or dynamic gradients. Then she would send me out to hunt for Neolithic stone tools in her vegetable garden, or to walk to the medieval stone bridge which crossed the river near her land. It was clear, and remains clear, what she was showing. We do not interpret Bach, we chisel away at our understanding of him in the optimistic expectation that we might live him well, that we might stumble across something wonderful in repeated and modest traversal of these pieces.

Another memory: Ralph Holmes was quite possibly the greatest British violinist ever to have played. He died tragically young, in his mid-forties. His practice of music was filled with the art and objects that he loved-a lesson in his Kent studio involved tripping over an Elisabeth Frink on the floor, studying the Lord Leighton sketches on his walls, handing the 18th Century carpenters tools he collected. But, he taught me, there is a precise correlation between this broad view, and the rapturous precision that Bach demands. To this day, I remember a terrifying, but kind, lesson on the E major Loure. I was fifteen. He demanded that I listen to the universe that could reveal itself in the absolute control of the intonation and surface, the Stoff of every note. The piece is maybe 2 minutes long. The lesson took nearly two hours, and afterwards I sat on the steps of the Royal Academy in my school uniform, shaking with frustration. But the lesson has stayed with me, Bach’s ‘garland across heaven’ that his demands revealed remains as spectacular as ever, and I smile at the memory of this difficult violin lesson, every time I play the movement.

The reason that all of us play the Bach Sonatas & Partitas in public is the great Joseph Joachim. The very first time that this 12-year old boy appeared in London in 1844, playing under the baton of his mentor, Felix Mendelssohn, he performed the Bach solo works on stage. This was new, although the works had been played in salon environments for many years. 60 years later, he was still performing, having inspired great works from his friends and colleagues, Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann, Niels Gade and of course Johannes Brahms. He was a regular on the London stage-he loved to holiday at Broadstairs and to visit Charles Dickens at Gad’s Hill. Bach remained the heart of his work, and in 1904, when he made his only recording-just four tracks, two of these were Bach. The Stradivari you are hearing tonight, was one of his, and if you ask me, I will show you where his beard scratched the varnish by the tailpiece.

One of the ways that I return to Bach, again and again, is with the help of the living composers with whom it is my privilege and joy to work. Poul Ruders and David Matthews have shone light on the fugues for me. George Rochberg showed me new aspects of the Chaconne. Evis Sammoutis has forced me to listen with more care to the surface and colour of monadic lines. I have brought four tiny miniatures by two very different composers, Lars Bagger and Sadie Harrison. Lars Bagger has taught me to hear the meaning in the smallest gesture-his Chorale is his distilled response to a ‘prayer-ring’ in the British Museum. Sadie Harrison is writing series of pieces based on my paintings-these are two of them. “ Peter Sheppard Skærved, Autumn 2012