There you will find everything   Leave a comment

image009I’ve spent much of this week slowly coming down from our excellent rendition of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor with the Cantori Domino Choir and the CalArts Orchestra Sunday at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Santa Monica (I had the privilege, honor and joy of playing harpsichord continuo). It’s a real trip to do such exalted music at such a high level with this great choir. Wasn’t perfect by any means, but Bach’s sublime music burst forth nevertheless. One feels one can see The Other (heaven? God? the next life? the entire universe? the purpose of life?) with such music.

Through history many others, including Bach’s musical descendents and those from other fields, have felt and seen Bach’s greatness and his preeminent place in music and art. Some of these quotes are, admittedly, a bit exaggerated and may not always transcend their own time. But the two most famous quotes about him are probably those by Mozart and Beethoven, and still ring true:

Mozart, on hearing or looking through Bach motets in Leipzig: Now here is music from which a man can learn something!

Beethoven, punning on the word ‘Bach’ meaning ‘stream’ or ‘brook’ in German: His name shouldn’t be ‘Stream’ –  it should be ‘Ocean!’

The Romantics and moderns also weighed in. Composer Robert Schumann, who wrote six fugues on Bach’s name for the now-obsolete pedal-piano, gave at least two opinions on the subject:

Religion owes as much to Bach as to its founder. And, Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numbskulls.

One should not unduly extrapolate beliefs from what may well have been spontaneous, off-the-cuff, unguarded remarks. But I understand the sentiment behind both of those statements. In fact, some of the Cantori Domino choir did a tour of Germany years ago, which included singing a concert at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach, only third in line in the auditions for this position after Handel and Telemann, labored in relative obscurity in this cultural backwater for many years (but that’s a whole other story). In fact, he was buried in another churchyard and probably never had a headstone, so the exact site became lost for many years, and only rediscovered and authenticated in 1894. Now, of course, there is a large imposing statue of him in front of the church. But I digress.

Anyway, after the concert the choir was invited to take Communion – gathered around Bach’s grave, now in a prominent and appropriate place inside the Thomaskirche. How I envy them and that occasion. Talk about transcendental, renewing, and life-changing. Maybe someday…

Many musicians, especially creative ones (including this one) can relate to Schumann’s ‘numbskulls’ statement.  In grad school I heard on good authority that the contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki said that he can never listen to anything by Bach while composing – if he succumbed he would just throw up his hands in despair and give up for awhile!

So, Bach to a few more quotes (sorry, couldn’t resist any longer, and don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming!):

Karl Barth: Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure. Could be – when Charles Marie Widor gave organ recitals, he played few other composers (besides his own organ symphonies, including the famous Toccata) - but always Bach!

Hector Berlioz: Bach is Bach, as God is God.

Claude Debussy: …if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.

Somerset Maugham (from ‘The Alien Corn’): She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space.

Carl Friedrich Zelter (the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn), in a letter to Goethe: The poetry, the atmosphere, the intensity of expression, the beauty of the preludes and fugues grip, overwhelm, and stimulate us. Let us not be afraid of the supreme contrapuntal science of the fugues, nor be overawed by the stern appearance and heavy wig of Father Bach. Let us gather around him, feel the love, the noble goodness that flow from each one of his phrases and that invigorate and bind us by ties strong and warm. 

Felix Mendelssohn, who led a Bach revival beginning in 1839: …[Bach's music is the greatest in the world - ] if life had taken hope and faith from me, this single chorus would restore all.

Pablo Casals: Bach is the supreme genius of music… This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.

Paul Hindemith: Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.

Aaron Copland: If one were asked to name one musician who came closest to composing without human flaw, I suppose general consensus would choose Johann Sebastian Bach…

And finally, the sublime…

Helmut Walcha, renowned German organist: Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is meaning to life after all. 

Quote from a German opera house: Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire, God gave us Music, that we might pray without words. Somewhat ironic, since Bach never wrote an opera!

And the pointedly humorous:

William F. Buckley:  If Bach is not in Heaven…..I am not going!

Contemporary composer Michael Torke (b. 1961), whose style includes jazz and minimalism: Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass? 

Lewis Thomas, eminent biologist and author, when asked what message he would choose to send from Earth into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft: I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. After a pause, he added, But that would be boasting.

Finally, two by the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe and The Salmon of Doubt, among others:

The fact that I think Bach was mistaken [with regards to religion] doesn’t alter the fact that I think the B minor Mass is one of the great pinnacles of human achievement. It still absolutely moves me to tears to hear it.

Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.

I could go on and on -  there are lots of great quotes on the Web about Bach’s importance, from Rimsky-Korsakoff, Reger, Gounod, Mahler, Albert Schweitzer and others.

The last word should go to a composer who is musically almost a direct descendent of JSB:

Johannes Brahms (possibly the best-educated composer of all time:) Study Bach. There you will find everything.

Posted March 26, 2014 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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Farewell   Leave a comment

A good friend of ours, David A. Gell, died on March 2. We will be attending the memorial service tomorrow.

David, a Canadian by birth, was organist at Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara for many years. We first met in 1997, when the Cantori Domino choir (from here in LA) was doing its first workshop with Sir David Willcocks, at the Casa de Maria in Montecito (our services were at Trinity). I was doing some of the organ playing for this and subsequent workshops, so was in contact with David.

Quickly we became good personal friends as well, and he liked my playing enough to kindly invite me to perform on Trinity’s Advent organ concert series several times in subsequent years. He singlehandedly ran this series, one of the finest parts of the music scene in Santa Barbara, always followed by a festive dinner, hosted by his gracious wife Carolyn, at their home.

He also had me play an evening concert on Trinity’s excellent new console just last November, for which he kindly turned pages. Little did I know that would be our final collaboration.

I will remember him for his great enthusiasm and optimism for his profession, his breadth of repertoire, and sense of humor. There is a slogan: “Don’t let your music die.” David didn’t.

I know the memorial service, with Emma Lou Diemer at the organ and the excellent choir of Trinity directed by Grey Brothers, will be both appropriate and memorable.

Well done, David. We’ll miss you much. Ave atque vale!

EVENSONG!   Leave a comment

Very excited to be doing a Lenten Evensong service with my new and splendid choir at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar, this Sunday, March 9, at 4:00. It’s our first such outing and the first Evensong I’ve directed in many years.

Evensong is one of the greatest glories of Christianity. Its majestic liturgy and music has called forth (and continues to call forth) some of the greatest church music ever written.

Our service includes music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Orlando di Lasso, Craig Phillips, Richard Proulx, and J. S. Bach. The church’s website and address are here. Join us in this wonderful way to end a day!

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A Milestone   3 comments

Today I completed about 25 years at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes Estates, CA. This is the longest I will be at any church, and is likely to be the longest organist tenure for this particular parish. I worked with three of the church’s four rectors, several associates, and two interims. I played for untold numbers of weddings and funerals.

Of course I have many deep roots there, and many memories of the place and the people. And the vast majority are positive and uplifting!

I want to acknowledge and thank all those who have expressed their sadness that I am leaving and wished me well. And more broadly to those I worked with directly: my choir singers of all ages, and the parents of the choir kids, who got them to the rehearsals and services (I was there long enough to see at least two of my choir kids recently bear children of their own!).

It’s been a good run. Now, onward!

Posted January 5, 2014 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

Concert!   2 comments

Next week is a big one for me – I’m changing music positions, AND playing a recital two days after I start!

The concert isn’t at my new church, but at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica, where I’ll be starting off their Mid-Week Concert series for this spring.

The concert is Wednesday, January 8, at 12:10 – 1008 11th Street, Santa Monica, and will last about 30 minutes. Parking is available across from the church, on 11th Street.

I’ll be playing quite a varied program of organ music by Bach and Widor, more recent composers Daniel Pinkham, Los Angeles’ own Craig Phillips, David Cherwein, and between the old and the new, organist and composer Louis Lefebure-Wely, the 19th century Liberace of the organ – some obscure names, but very good composers, every one!

Many thanks to the church staff, and especially Music Director Jim Smith and administrator Sarah Rold, who edited the program.

I’m very excited about the concert, as this series is a new venue for me, and both the organ and the building are very good indeed.

Hope to see you there!

An Early Christmas Present   7 comments

Some of you know by now that I’m leaving my longtime church, St. Francis Episcopal in Palos Verdes Estates, CA. I’ll be starting early next month as Minister of Music at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar, which is in southern Orange County near Newport Beach and Irvine. My wife and stepdaughter tell me it’s the setting for the TV show Arrested Development!

My final Sunday at St. Francis is January 5. I’ve been at this church for close to 25 years, and some of my deepest roots, musical and emotional, are there  – the building with its marvelous acoustic, the people, and the South Bay area. I met my wonderful wife there, and our dear daughter, now a college freshman, wouldn’t exist if the Rector at the time, The Rev. Robert Dunn, hadn’t hired me, ‘way back in 1989!

It’s been a long and basically a good run, and I’ve had many great experiences there. But now with our daughter gone we are semi-empty nesters. It seemed time for a major church move for me, this position came up, et voila!

I am excited about it – I’ll be playing a fine organ in a fine acoustic, and directing potentially the best adult choir I’ve ever had, with four section leaders and the ability to hire other musicians, both vocal and  instrumental, for occasional services (recently I went unannounced to a Lessons and Carols service there which was quite good).

There is also a bell choir, in which a former Associate at St. Francis and a longtime friend, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Stewart, is a member. They also have a children’s choir, and a Friends of Music group with an active concert series (I’m already booked for a program with a string quartet next May!). And there’s a Corona del Mar Baroque Festival I hope to get involved in.

So, I guess that’s God’s Christmas gift to me! Happy holidays to all of you!

The Huron Carol   3 comments

One of my great joys is to produce music for choirs to sing – and from the sound of this, Cantori Domino is enjoying singing it, too!

Be sure to mark this concert on your calendar – December 8, 2013, at 4 pm, at St. Augustine by-the-Sea, 1227 Fourth Street, Santa Monica.

You can find a special ticket offer, and be sure to visit Facebook for more previews and fun information.

I’ll be there, playing the organ and accompanying this great group. See you Sunday!

(yes, there I go, walking in front of the camera, to get the full effect of hearing from out in the audience)

Posted December 5, 2013 by Ray Urwin in Uncategorized

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