“There are endless amounts of joy in Bach’s music. Sometimes they are hard won, and sometimes just freely given. Finding those is also a challenge. The solid music structure he continuously provides keeps you from straying off any paths and keeps you forever engaged. You just need to follow his extremely clear musical map in front of you and you’ll always know where to go!”
That’s what renowned English violinist Rachel Podger, “Queen of the Baroque”, told me when I asked what it is about Johann Sebastian Bach that appeals to her.
Podger was educated in a Rudolf Steiner school, which is shorthand for saying her early education emphasized not only developing intellect, but also educating the will and feelings. Steiner was an early 20th century philosopher, social reformer and esotericist, who founded schools based on his belief in spiritual science, in which the natural world and spiritual world co-exist. He believed that by using training comparable to that required for the natural sciences (i.e. self-discipline), one could peer into the world beyond sensory phenomena and into the world of mysticism.
So it can hardly be surprising that Rachel Podger became one of today’s most passionate advocates for Bach (the composer of choice for scientists around the world), and that her heart beats to the Baroque era, when the Age of Reason caused spirituality and science to attempt a marriage.
Last year, Podger became the first female musician to win The Bach Prize, awarded by the Royal Academy of Music & the Kohn Foundation. That put her in the good company of past winners like András Schiff, Murray Perahia, Ton Koopman, and the St. Thomas Boys Choir, Leipzig.
Podger loves to perform, to take Bach for a ride. In the early 1990’s, she co-founded The Palladian Ensemble, devoted to baroque chamber music. She was also a member of Florilegium, an early music ensemble based in London. She’s lead two other renowned Baroque ensembles: the Gabrieli Consort and The English Concert. In 2007, she founded her current group Brecon Baroque. She’s also a soloist with the Academy of Ancient Music, and guest director of Long Beach’s Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra.
This week at the Berkeley Early Music Festival, she’s playing one concert with an ensemble of Bach & Vivaldi, and an all-Bach recital. Next, she heads to the Oregon Bach Festival, where she will play her transcription of Bach’s Flute Partita in A minor.
Podger told me that with every concert “you go on a journey, a known journey, but with every audience it takes you along different turns and there are different views too–an audience makes a big difference to which route a performer might take, especially if you’re the only one up there playing! I love engaging with the audience in this subtle way.”
Rudolf Steiner’s mandates for education are hardly different from Bach’s. Steiner’s “moral intuition,” the intellectual/emotional skill to find and develop ethical principles, speaks to the same part of the brain as Bach’s statement “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the refreshment of the soul. Where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting.” Whereas Steiner calls for “moral imagination,” aka situational ethics, Bach, whom Beethoven called the “prime father of harmony,” said, “face to the reality.” Rudolf Steiner calls for a “moral technique” or a “mastery of practical skills, to help realize one’s transformation.” Bach says, “I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” Or, translated differently, “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”
Says Podger, “the complexity in Bach’s counterpoint versus clarity in his single-line polyphonic writing–huge technical challenges with enormous musical rewards–makes Bach’s solo violin music totally enriching to play and perform.”