Why Bother with Bach

Two weeks before the American General Election I attended the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Guillaume Tell. I left the hall with Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” ringing in my ears.

As a young classical musician, I have often wondered about the moral imperative for art in the 21st century. Born into a family of medical professionals, their contribution always seemed concrete; mine nebulous. This has come into stark relief for me lately. I am working on a new project, an album of Bach’s lute suites arranged for a seven-string guitar, and I wonder why anyone should care to support it — why value Bach over political contributions or medical research? Over the holiday season so far my own charitable giving has been around homelessness and civil rights. Both are distinctly non-musical. And yet I am also coming to see, thanks to Bach and to Guillaume Tell, that there is a significant social function for art in society that no other medium possesses: the power to generate empathy.

Guillaume Tell is the story of oppressor and oppressed: the Swiss Cantons are governed by an authoritarian Austrian dictator, Gesler. The tension of the opera lies in the complexities of the relationship between each character and her relationship with family, lover, homeland, and state. It is not the detail of the plot that I found on this occasion so significant, but rather the broader strokes of the artist’s brush: that seeing oppression thus represented helped me to understand the plight of the oppressed. In modern Britain, as in modern America, we have little cultural reference for what it means not to be free. We have a political ideology about freedom that is not based on fact or experience. It was in this work of art that I felt, at a visceral level, the danger of an authoritarian personality in possession of too much power. While this was alarming, it was also refreshing: art was filling the gaps in my own personal experience and giving me empathy towards a condition other than my own.

What I finally understood is that the news we read, hear, or see does not ultimately hold meaning; that is, true tangible meaning is elusive until it incites empathy. A bombing in Lahoor falls on deaf ears in the absence of a personal connection there through travel or relationships. While this geographic disconnection could theoretically, if impractically, be solved by ensuring that everyone in a society live for a time in a far away land, a temporal disconnection can not. This is where Guillaume Tell becomes so critical. As a young person today, my generation is the last to remember grandparents’ first-hand accounts of the great wars. They, not I, are the last to know what it means for entire societies, indeed entire continents to be uprooted, flattened, and charred. Nobody alive today remembers the rise of nationalist rhetoric, of nativism, of fear over the homeland that was so prevalent at the end of the 19th century, and we have lost the thread that lead us to war in the beginning of the 20th. We have seen it in the rise of nativist movements in Austria, Hungary, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. In recent elections in the United States and the United Kingdom arguments about political realities were mired in questions of identity. About ‘us’ versus ‘the other’. About the Swiss and the Austrians. Guillaume Tell helps us to understand how dangerous this is. When Guillaume is forced, by Gesler the dictator, to shoot an apple off of his son’s head, Gesler has turned Guillaume into his own son’s executioner. That Tell is skilled, steadfast, and lucky in not hitting his son between the eyes is beside the mark. In popular culture the scene has come to symbolise triumph of good over evil, but in the opera it is gut wrenching. It’s an all-too-urgent portrayal of what can happen when power runs amok and when revenge politics are more important than governance.

From this macro understanding of the interaction between art and global politics I have begun to see with greater clarity the moral imperative for recording Bach afresh in 2017. Two hundred sixty-seven years after Bach’s death, his music has things to teach about rhetoric, proportion, harmony, and counterpoint that help us to understand complexity afresh in a world that is increasingly privileging shorter and more easily consumable forms of media. The overt political and social moral of Guillaume Tell is absent from Bach’s abstract and purely instrumental suites, but the presence thereof in the former has helped me to understand the significance, for everyone, of the latter.

Bach’s music has been an inspiration to artists everywhere: when Mozart discovered Bach’s music as a mid twenty-something, he exclaimed “finally, a composer I can learn from!” And can’t we all.

Michael Poll’s Bach Project is running on Kickstarter until 22 December:


Michael Poll