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OPINION

Music to soothe these beastly times

Can Bach and his interpreters save the world?

Yo-Yo Ma performs the Bach Cello Suites at Tanglewood in August 2019.
Yo-Yo Ma performs the Bach Cello Suites at Tanglewood in August 2019.Hilary Scott

It is no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that the Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang chose last weekend to release his first-ever recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Lang, 38, initially approached the Variations as a 10-year-old boy but is releasing his recording now because, as he told the Agence France-Presse, “Music is a good remedy in these particular times. . . . Bach, if we compare him to other great composers, has an even greater healing power.”

Lang joins a long procession of great musicians who have turned to the 18th-century Leipzig composer for succor in difficult times; the original bridge over troubled waters. Perhaps most notably, future Nobel Peace Prize winner and medical missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer traveled to Europe in 1935 to record and perform Bach’s famous organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

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Dubbed “the greatest man in the world” by Life magazine for his humanitarian work in Africa, the German-born Schweitzer had embarked on a mission to save his native continent. Paul Elie, the author of “Reinventing Bach,” observed that in 1935, with Nazism firmly embedded in Germany and Benito Mussolini about to invade Ethiopia, Schweitzer feared that European civilization was “beginning to melt away in our hands.”

Schweitzer, a prolific author, chose that moment to communicate with music. The recordings would “set the past against the present,” according to Elie, and “would put forward the music of Bach as a counterpoint to the age, a sound of spiritual unity to counter ‘a period of spiritual decadence in mankind.’ ”

Two years ago, cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited Leipzig as part of his six-continent Bach Project, a virtuoso tour that symbolically saluted the six magnificent Bach cello suites that Ma has recorded three times in his career. (He compares his own performances in this fascinating episode of the podcast Song Exploder.)

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In Leipzig, Ma’s longtime manager, Mary Pat Buerkle, told The New York Times that the suites’ performance “helped me through challenging times, with a death in the family. . . . It completely calmed me of ridiculous jitters the morning of my wedding. I was more than a little jittery, and I asked my husband to please put it on for me.”

The coronavirus pandemic halted the Bach Project tour, but Ma repurposed the lustrous cello suites into one of the most famous performances of his career. In late May, he played the suites alone, in front of five robotic cameras at GBH’s Fraser Auditorium in Brighton. Billed as a memorial for coronavirus victims and as a tribute “to the resilience of our communities,” the concert aired live to a YouTube audience of 40,000 and was simultaneously broadcast and streamed by about a hundred classical music stations across the country.

“There’s not an untouched person in all of this,” Ma said at the time. The music “allows for the idea of solace to take place. You are in despair; you’re not alone. Things are terrible, but you might see light at the end of the tunnel.”

According to GBH music general manager Anthony Rudel, Ma played the suites straight through, for 2 hours and 20 minutes; “He had it in his fingers.” No rehearsal, no re-taping, and no recording. You and I may have something in common; we missed this transcendent moment.

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Can Bach and his interpreters save the world, or at least soothe these beastly times? Maybe yes, maybe no. But we owe a massive thank you to all of them for trying.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.