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One Musician Says Bach's Music Has A Special Place In Easter

DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST:

So we were sitting around the other day, my colleagues and I were wondering what's some new amazing music that would sound perfect this Easter evening? So we looked and looked and we listened to all kinds of contemporary music. And then we decided there's really nothing more beautiful than this old music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GAILBRAITH SONG, "VIOLIN SONATA NO. 3")

ZWERDLING: That's Bach's "Sonata No. 3 For Violin." But Paul Galbraith is playing it on his custom-made eight-string guitar. Paul Galbraith joins us now from Basel, Switzerland. Hi, welcome.

PAUL GALBRAITH: Hi Daniel. Thanks for having me.

ZWERDLING: I've read that Bach a thousand works - is that right? - and that three-fourths of them he wrote specifically to use during worship.

GALBRAITH: Yes.

ZWERDLING: And I take it that you feel convinced that he wrote these - the violin sonatas and partitas specifically - or at least partly - to evoke Easter.

GALBRAITH: I feel with Bach that his religious feelings - spiritual feelings were so strong that they spilled over pretty much into everything that he was writing. The sonatas as much - for violin in particular - have an extremely strong spiritual resonance to them. When I played them as a work - as a complete work - I had a very strong intuition that they told a New Testament story. There's a tremendously dramatic introduction...

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

GALBRAITH: ...As if to say this is the life of the man. And you see the whole passion right from the start. And then he goes into very joyful and nativity music, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

ZWERDLING: So what do you hear that evokes, for example, Christ, you know, trudging with the cross?

GALBRAITH: Well, there's a fantastic movement coming straight out of the chaconne, the third sonata. They go sonata, partita, sonata, partita, et. cetera. And the third sonata begins with this incredible adagio oscillating in sort of pained rhythm. And that's very pictorially. You really feel the - that that's the weight of the cross. You even have three moments where you feel there are three falls where the momentum stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

ZWERDLING: That's kind of heartbreaking. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I can almost see the man, you know...

GALBRAITH: Yes.

ZWERDLING: ...Groaning under the weight.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

GALBRAITH: Yeah, it's extremely evocative.

ZWERDLING: Now, I talked to a Bach scholar this morning. And he said well, Paul Galbraith's theories are theories. There's no strong proof that Bach was thinking of all this when he wrote these pieces. He said on the other hand, there's no strong proof that he was not. And he supports (laughter) your democratic right to hear this - these pieces as you do. So when do you hear the resurrection?

GALBRAITH: The fugue which follows that very pained adagio is incredibly joyous. And this is the point where I really felt that there was complete relief. And at that moment, there was resurrection in this narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

ZWERDLING: So I take it that Bach saw music not just as a way to get us in a spiritual state of mind. But he wrote - and I'm quoting now the translated version, of course - "at a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence." So it sounds like Bach thought music was actually a way of communicating with God.

GALBRAITH: Yes. I mean, he was brought up in the Lutheran tradition. Luther had the idea to bring the liturgy off the page and into life through using music, through using melodies. And the liturgy becomes memorable through a memorable melody. The message is delivered.

ZWERDLING: You've spent so much of your life - maybe every day your life with Bach and his music and transcribing it. So how does Bach's music affect and nourish your spirituality?

GALBRAITH: Well, many performers have said that they communicate with God when they play Bach. And there is something definitely there that you feel as if you touch on something mystical when you're involved in that music. I think it's practically unavoidable. You could be an out-and-out atheist (laughter) but playing Bach, you feel that there is definitely some energy there which is just not the everyday energy. There's an energy beyond thought. And you touch upon something sublime in this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS")

ZWERDLING: We've been talking with Paul Galbraith, the guitarist, and we've been hearing excerpts from his amazing CD "Bach: The Sonatas And Partitas For Unaccompanied Violin Complete." He's been speaking to us from Basel, Switzerland. Paul Galbraith, thanks so much.

GALBRAITH: Thanks very much, Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL GALBRAITH ALBUM, "BACH: THE SIX SONATAS AND PARTITAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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