Perhaps it was owing to his ignorance of music that he had received so confused an impression, one of those that are none the less the only purely musical impressions, limited in their extent, entirely original, and irreducible to any other kind. An impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, sine materia. Doubtless the notes which we hear at such moments tend, according to their pitch and volume, to spread out before our eyes over surfaces of varying dimensions, to trace arabesques, to give us the sensation of breadth or tenuity , stability or caprice. But the notes themselves have vanished before these sensations have developed sufficiently to escape submersion under those which the succeeding or even simultaneous notes have already begun to awaken in us. And this impression would continue to envelop in its liquidity, its ceaseless overlapping, the motifs which from time to time emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown, recognised only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instill, impossible to describe, to recollect, to name, ineffable— did not our memory, like a labourer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves , by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow. –Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (Swann in Love)
When the last century was in its mid-70s and I in my early 20s, I left my home state of New York and moved far south with only a backpack, duffel bag and guitar case holding what I needed to set up home in a graduate-school dorm. My roommate and I shared a radio and, later, a turntable for entertainment. I couldn’t afford to have my collection of LPs shipped to me, so the turntable didn’t get a lot of use.
In a converted old department store building in the middle of the one-block downtown of this college town, a fellow named Phil, who wore his hair very long and his denim shorts very short, sold used albums across the floor from a deli and beer tap. On Wednesday afternoons I’d buy myself a beer and browse through Phil’s selections of discarded Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers without ever feeling much temptation. Then one day I came across a brand-new double-LP for $1.95 and decided to splurge. It was John Williams Plays Bach: The Complete Lute Music on Guitar, on Columbia Masterworks.
To this day it remains one of my favorite recordings and tops my classical charts. Sadly, the vinyl was never quite reproduced on CD. Columbia re-issued Williams’ recordings of the four Lute Suites (BWV 995, 996, 997, and 1006a). However, most likely for reasons of length, this release left off three compositions from the LP set: the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat major (BWV 998); the Prelude in C minor (BWV 999); and the Fugue In G Minor (BWV1000). In 1997, Sony collected all of these tracks together again, added Williams’ transcription of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) and a miscellany of short pieces on which Peter Hurford accompanies Williams on organ.
That original vinyl recording became the soundtrack for my first year in graduate school. I’m a mediocre musician at best, a self-taught guitarist of limited skill with an equally limited ability to read music. I could follow along on a score borrowed from the library, but just barely. And my knowledge of musical form is more limited still. In this respect, I am much like Charles Swann in the excerpt quoted at the beginning of this post. Given sufficient exposure (which I certainly had) I learned the music’s path; annoyingly, I can whistle along with the melodies that flowed from Williams’ guitar. I learned to struggle clumsily through the first half of the Bourrée from the Suite no. 1 in E minor (made famous to my generation of rocknrollers by Jethro Tull’s adaptation of it on Stand Up). But I’ve never gained mastery of this music in any real sense.
Nonetheless, it moves me deeply; it evokes a sense of the dance, as in the pair of Gavottes from the Suite no. 4 in E major (BWV 995). The first gavotte sounds stately and lilting at the same time; it evokes a sense of elegance that I can’t explain by reference to the notes printed on the page, or even by quoting (whistling) the progressions it moves through. It is serene, and I feel buoyant when listening to it. And when the second gavotte slips in, with its cascades of quarter-note triplets, my mood becomes one of swirling and sliding, of sounds that somersault by until a sudden descending run of notes on the bass strings signal a change, and then I marvel at the crispness of Williams’ performance, the way that the bass notes punctuate, staccato and decisive, the slithering runs through the treble registers. But that’s as close as I can come to a critical evaluation of the music.
Here’s a student performance of the Gavotte II; there are one or two moments when he chokes a string, but it’s a lovely performance overall and one that is clearly influenced by Williams’ interpretation, both in tempo and in the clarity with which he articulates the notes. There are moments where Williams’ vibrato is lost, but I suspect you’d have to have listened to Williams nearly as often as I have to detect that.
I see that I’ve now written close to a thousand words about my inability to say anything about this music that moves me so deeply, that has been in my head for two-thirds of my life. Why do I feel the need to write about the unwritable?
Primarily, I think, because I want to honor the music and the performance in my own small way. Listening to it I sometimes wondered if this was guitar for four hands, but it was simply Williams setting a standard of excellence I’ve never found anything comparable to. And so it became the closest thing to an ideal in our imperfect world, and every time I listen to it I am transported out of whatever shreds of life surround me into a realm where simple perfection seems capable of realization.
Perhaps for the same reason, and because I stumbled on this recording at a particularly lonely period of my life, living in a new part of the country, only slowly making new friends to replace the cohort with whom I celebrated my undergraduate years, Williams’ Bach suites are a lifelong source of solace. They have the ability to assuage me when I’m sad; they make me dance when I’m happy.
This record also opened the world of classical music to me. Of course I’d grown up with snippets of Beethoven and Strauss, but I held the ordinary American teenager’s contempt for the genre. I eventually owned a few cheap Nonesuch recordings of Telemann that served as background music while I wrote term papers. But Bach crept up on me unawares. I think the first time I ever wondered about his music was in 1968 when I heard the “Brandenburger” movement of the Nice’s Ars Longa Vita Brevis, and as bastardized as Keith Emerson’s noodling of the Allegro from the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto was, it tickled my imagination. W. Carlos switched on a sound that in retrospect resonates more with Emerson that with Bach. Then came Tull’s E minor Bourée.
When I discovered the “original” on John Williams Play Bach, only then did “the motifs which from time to time emerge, barely discernible, to plunge again and disappear and drown, recognised only by the particular kind of pleasure which they instill” to return to Proust’s formulation, only then did those motifs incite a hunger to appreciate Bach’s achievement. I started by listening to other guitarists, but Julian Bream’s interpretations had too much Spanish flair to them for me, and the high notes sound almost metallic. Williams’ teacher Segovia captured a romance in the music, but I don’t expect, or want, romance from the Baroque. Williams’ approach to Bach might be like Glenn Gould’s on the keyboard: it is all about mastery, precision, exactness. But where Gould playing the French Suites can sound lifeless and robotic to me, the richness of tone coming from Williams’ guitar, the delicacy of his phrasing, the way he hits those damn bass notes, gives these pieces an emotional heft that enriches the precision and makes me sing. I can’t sit still listening to this music.
I guess my real point is to say that John Williams Plays Bach: The Complete Lute Music on Guitar is that one album I’d want to have with me on the clichéd desert island: it offers endless variety, an intricacy that I’m still unraveling forty years later.
Here are the four lute suites. Have a listen for yourself: