Free As A Blackbird: From Bach To Beatles And Beyond

The first signs of seriousness from the little students of music are noticeable from the moment when, under their still shaky fingers, the sounds of Bach’s inventions are heard from keyboard for the very first time. At that moment, from their earliest age, Bach enters their lives so that he could stay there for good.

Although they didn’t learn the piano in music school, the two teenagers from Liverpool played a bit of Bach’s Bouree in e minor at the end of the 50’s, wanting to show-off a bit with their knowledge of classical music. A few years later – when there will be no need for trying to impress because their very appearance (along with the rest two members) will lead to the complete exaltation of the audience, unseen in history of rock – the song Blackbird will be created. It was written by Paul McCartney based on a few first chords which he had practiced with Harrison at the aforementioned young age, and the song was released on the  White album. All that time, Bach was present somewhere subconsciously. It was just necessary to get through to him, to grow up’’ enough so the need for him would return.

With classical musicians it’s different, there are some which have the basic need to play Bach every day, because that way they become aware of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being’’, like Pablo Casals once said. The famous cellist is an example of that – For the past 80 years I have started each day in the same manner (…) I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot imagine doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house.’’ (BBC has the radio program called Bach before breakfast, where they broadcast some of Bach’s music every day before 7 p.m.).

One of the things that connects Bach and the Beatles is exactly that unexplained secret ingredient thanks to which their music will still be performed, most certainly, for the next 300 years in various interpretations and genres. There is no musician out there without at least some Bach’s influence – from classical composers, through jazz musicians to rock and metal performers. As for the same (non-classical’’) group of musicians there is almost no one that didn’t pass through Lennon/McCartney school as well.

Is there something in common for the music of the 17th Century, that came from a man who felt deeply connected to God and composed in His glory, and the British rock’n’roll lads who were in their own words more popular than Jesus’’ in their time and not very close to Christianity, to put it more subtly than Lennon. The answer to this question can be found in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s view of Bach’s greatness: Bach’s music was made through faith, but it transcends faith. He humanizes the Lutheran theology of his time and makes it approachable. He makes it so it speaks to people of all beliefs, and of none. This earthly element to Bach’s epic spirituality is a wonderful paradox. There is so much wit. It’s real.” The similar opinion had the unsurpassed Glenn Gould saying that it is all-encompassing’’ and valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that – its humanity.’’ 

At the beginning of the 21st Century it seems like humanity is just what the music and life are generally lacking, and when we look back at the 60’s  and the songs of the Beatles we find it right in front of us. It’s not just because of the sentimentality for old times, but because the familiar voices of this charming four still have the healing effect on many of us around the globe. Although it gives us another kind of piece from Bach, one thing is common – when you listen to both of them you have a feeling that you are home and that everything is going to be O.K. Blackbird covered with Bach’s silhouette is the perfect example for it. Even though it’s less popular then the songs like Yesterday, Hey, Jude, Let it be, Here comes the Sun, A day in life…  it got the ticket to eternity thanks to the ‘‘baroque” qualities  the simple melody instantly goes into your ear’’ and can be repeated indefinitely and constantly rediscovered. Without ever boring us, Blackbird sounds equally good played by Paul, just on a guitar or in a cappella version. Thanks to it’s powerful message and magical serene melody, we could easily imagine Blackbird echoing between the church walls, rising and disappearing in the direction of the painted ceiling.

There is no simple answer why Johann Sebastian Bach is considered to be the greatest composer of all time. The musicians that tried to give some of the possible answers always leave the space for the three dots that cannot be completely determined, adding in case of Gardiner that If we could define what it is that moved or uplifted us in Bach then we’d have killed it off.’’

One thing is certain – Bach will move you, maybe even bring you to tears simply wit his pure music and nothing else. I alone was caught in tears when, on one occasion , I entered Hamburg’s cathedral right at the time of the rehearsal of St. Matthew Passion  – when the soloist was singing Erbarme dich, meine Gott in a voice of an angel. I came to Hamburg by the way, with the idea of passing through the same paths Beatles did before they became ‘’The Beatles’’, and I actually met my piano teacher from childhood again. Once more, Bach was waiting for a chance to show his presence in the most human shape of all.

Ivana Ljubinković

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