Marathon man

There was no getting away from Bach in London over Easter weekend.

The banks were closed for the holiday. The Circle and District lines were closed for repairs. Le Pain Quotidien at Goodge Street was closed due to a water shutoff. Costa Coffee near Harrods had three patrons and a barista. But the Royal Albert Hall was open for Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Marathon. Even scaled down from 12 hours to nine due to a funding cut, it was a true marathon and a true holiday - what another Eliot called “pentecostal fire / at the dark time of year”. 

For the millennium celebrations 13 years ago, Gardiner and his perpetually Bach-ready ensemble presented Bach's surviving church cantatas on the right feast days in churches from London and Paris to Cracow and Iona, and wrapped it up with three performances at St Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue in New York in late December 2000. At the end of a century of Bach relentlessly made new (a story I have sought to tell in my book Reinventing Bach) this Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was ambitious in the extreme, and not just because of all the gear lugged and miles logged. With it Gardiner took hold of a lifetime of musical experience in Bach and rooted it in our common life by incorporating it into the most history-conscious of journeys, a pilgrimage.  

Set against the Pilgrimage, the Easter Monday Bach Marathon was a sprint. But it’s better to change comparisons altogether. Where the Pilgrimage presented Johann Sebastian Bach in situ, the Marathon took shape as Bach in the round. One critic saw the elliptical Hall only a third full and called the concert an event without an occasion. But from the stage (where I took part in two panel discussions) it seemed plenty eventful, an occasion all its own. Instead of fitting Bach into an established pattern - Good Friday, or Whitsunday, or the Proms - Sir John Eliot came up with a fresh one. Into the fag-end of Easter, the seam between winter and spring, the gap between sacred holiday and worldly getaway to Spain or wherever - into that liminal space he brought the music of Bach.

That’s what he has been doing all along. Though not openly religious, he puts the sacred side of Bach’s music front and center, evangelising for Bach (as in his documentary Bach: A Passionate Life, which aired on BBC2). Though intent on Bach, he is no Bach specialist; he holds his identification with the composer in check, and the name of his group - the Monteverdi Choir - keeps it there. 

The Marathon was a Gardiner production through and through, and yet the differences from his usual approach were obvious. Renowned for his work with choir and orchestra, he opened up the program to instrumental soloists: pianist Joanna MacGregor, violinist Viktoria Mullova, cellist Alban Gerhardt, and pipe organist John Butt (who has led performances of Bach's sacred works in church, concert hall, and recording studio).  The effect was striking. Not so often have audiences had the chance to hear Bach's great going-down-to-Hell cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden (1708) followed by Bach's chaconne for solo violin, composed a few years later; pretty rarely are the Goldberg Variations and the Mass in B minor, both from the 1740s, featured on the same programme. Side by side in the Bach biographies, side by side in our record collections, those works don't get to jostle against one another in the concert hall.  Here they did, and the music sounded different for it. The cantata and the chaconne struck bottom contrapuntally as works of mourning.  The Goldbergs and the Mass rang out as a double dose of brightness - music which, like the amp in This Is Spinal Tap, “goes to 11”. 

The juxtaposition of the life in Bach's music with life outside the Royal Albert Hall was telling, too. A church musician for most of his life, Bach was never so busy as at Easter, and here and now the yearly musical run-up to Easter can be a marathon in its own right. In London before Easter I ran into Bach wherever I turned. There he was at Handel House (which seats 24) in a recital by the lutenist Yair Avidor and the improvisatory violinist Jennifer Bennett. There he was at the BFI in a screening of Pasolini's great film of the Gospel According to St Matthew, which uses the St Matthew Passion in the soundtrack. There he was in two different ballet series advertised along the escalators on the Underground. There he was at Trafalgar Square in a St Matthew Passion recording run under the bloody live re-enactment of Christ's suffering and death beneath Nelson's Column. There he was in a church from his own time - St George, Hanover Square (built 1724) - as the Passion (composed 1729) marked Good Friday.  There he was on my publisher's phone line: the cello suites as music to hold on to. The Bach Marathon managed to situate Bach in Holy Week and in the turning world, too.  

A conductor is a shaper of sound, and with the Bach Marathon Sir John Eliot shaped a highly original Easter Monday. It was an occasion all right, and the couple of thousand of us who were there were a crowd - more Londoners than I had seen all weekend out in the city. The people wheeling their suitcases through Heathrow and Euston that day couldn't have known what they were missing.

Paul Elie is the author of "Reinventing Bach" (Union Books, £25).

Portraits of J S Bach (left) and his father (Photograph: Getty Images)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era