march 2011


Johann Sebastian Bach:

‘Blessed Thunderbolt of Power’

By Romain Rolland

(Romain Rolland was a French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 for his 10-volume roman-fleuve Jean-Christophe, which “brings together his interests and ideals in the story of a German musical genius who makes France his second home and becomes a vehicle for Rolland's views on music, social matters and understanding between nations,” according to John Cruickshank in The Penguin Companion to Literature 2: European Literature. The following piece on Johann Sebastian Bach is drawn from the second installment of the 10-volume series, Jean-Christophe In Paris, published in 1911.)

He could hear the thunders of Johann Sebastian Bach’s oceanic soul: the winds and storms, the gusts and scudding clouds, the peoples intoxicated with joy, fury, or pain; he could hear Christ, the Prince of Peace, soaring above them, his heart full of pity; the cities awakened by the watchman’s cry, rushing with joyful clamor toward the divine Bridegroom, whose steps shake the world; he could hear the roaring fountainhead of thoughts, passions, and musical forms; of heroic life, Shakespearean hallucinations, and Savonarola-like prophecies; of visions--pastoral, epic, or apocalyptic--that were contained within the narrow frame of the small-statured cantor from Thuringia, with his bright eyes and double chin, his upturning brows and wrinkled lids. He could readily see him--somber, jovial, a trifle ridiculous; at once Gothic and rococo, quick to anger, stubborn, serene, gripped by a passion for life and a nostalgia for death. He could see him in the schoolroom, acting the pedant with genius amid blowsy and lousy boys who were gross and beggarly besides, whose screechy voices jarred, with whom he occasionally fought like a carter, and one of whom was born an idiot. The others, good musicians, would play for him. Illnesses, burials, sordid quarrels, want of money, unrecognized genius--and above it all his music and his faith, liberation and light, the glimpse of long-awaited and finally captured bliss, which was God and God’s burning Word, almost consuming, horrifying, destroying him. …Oh, Power! Power! Blessed thunderbolt of Power!

Glenn Gould plays J.S. Bach Piano Concerto No. 7 in G Minor BWV 1058

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