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  • Ralph Allen

Pandemic Relief: Anner Bylsma plays Bach

It is easy to lose perspective during this wild year, with the pandemic keeping many of us at home, many of our usual structures altered by the pandemic. We at Roosevelt Island Concerts want to wish you, our beloved audience, supporters, and patrons, health and well-being during these trying times, and a healthy and prosperous 2021. And to that end, here is a playlist of some music I’ve been listening to, along with thoughts about this music.

First up is Anner Bylsma playing solo Bach in a very old German church—the church Bach was married in, according to the notes. Anner Bylsma, who died in 2019, was a wonderfully imaginative, deeply curious person, and an extraordinary musician, a pioneer in the Early Music performance practice movement wherein musician scholars used historical resources—paintings, treatises, letters—to investigate how music from earlier eras was played at the time it was composed, and using this way of playing to breathe new life into well-known works. Anner played on strings made of animal gut rather than the metal-wound synthetic strings used today; he held the cello between his legs, rather than with an end-pin, and he tuned to the lower-pitch A that was used in Bach’s time. He released the dances in the cello suites that had been played with heroic, Romantic reverence, and spoke musical lines conversationally rather than singing them operatically. Of particular interest to me is how Bylsma uses the bow—he wrote a book, Bach, the Fencing Master, about the bowings in these suites, with the hypothesis that Bach was a master of the bow and intentionally bowed these suites in a way that we perceive as unorthodox to tease out ever more creative ways of hearing the music. Watching and listening to Anner Bylsma’s bowing is mesmerizing; his up-bows can talk back to his down-bows, so that sequences have a tennis-like back and forth rather than just going in one direction; he weaves in and out from the bridge to vary the resistance the string gives the bow, allowing him to play many notes or just one note with the same amount of bow; and there is always a dancing aspect to the rhythm which comes from playing with the resistance of the bow against the string that stimulates an internal physical reaction so that Bach sounds of this earth, physical, alive. Releasing the physicality of baroque music makes the music engaging to listen to.

I got to know Anner Bylsma a bit when Iris and I lived in Holland. I studied violin with his wife, Vera Beths, and I’d go over to their Amsterdam house for lessons. He was always in the middle of a thought, and eager to share the pleasure his thoughts gave him. He was wonderful at decoding Dutch culture for a foreigner—“laws are to keep the neighbors in check,” he’d say of Dutch liberalism—in Holland, everyone is free within their own tight space—and enjoyed reading aloud Dutch poetry, explaining the nuances lost in translation. Once, when we were in a doctor’s waiting room at the same time, he told me he’d written a poem that morning. “Een vogel zit in een boom. als de boom valt, vliegt de vogel weg.” (“A bird sits in a tree. If the tree falls, the bird flies away.”) His books about bowing in the cello suites and violin Sonatas and Partitas have a conversational tone, and his playing is alive with the pleasure of exploration. “Music, where is it?,” Vera Beths asked me once. “It is here, and then it vanishes, on the wind, like magic. And this,” she held up her bow, “this is your magic wand.” (Anner Bylsma obituary)

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