Monday, September 26, 2011

800 Words: Our Frenemy Bach

(Ol’ Man Klemp doin’ what he does. Legend has it he fell asleep while conducting the opening fugue in this recording. Further explanation unnecessary.)

I have been listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass on a nearly non-stop loop since Tuesday night. I listen to it in my room, while watching TV, while I read, while I write, while I work, occasionally while I sleep. If I’m listening to a friend, it’s usually with only one ear because the other is hearing a theme from it. To find my old Barenreiter score, I‘ve sifted through all the boxes of books, CD’s and scores I’ve stored so that I can move in a few weeks. Fifteen years after I first heard it, nine years after doing an individual tutorial on the late music of Bach with Professor Abraham, I think I’m finally beginning to understand Bach’s B-Minor Mass.

I’m just not sure I like it.

Clearly, it’s gotta be doing something good for me. I’ve either listened to or sampled about two-and-a-half dozen recordings of this piece in the last five days (online streaming is a glorious thing). I seem to be thinking about it as I eat, sleep and breathe. Somebody, please, turn it off. Make it stop. I'll do anything, even listen to Carmina Burana!

(Me with the B-Minor Mass)

I know this feeling well. This is exactly the kind of obsessive fixation I get when I’m on a Wagner binge, a Stravinsky bender, a Mingus kick, a Dylan fling. We all have music like this. You listen to certain pieces of music obsessively because it makes you feel something that is completely alien to your nature. If you stopped listening to it, you’d stop feeling it. Bach, for me at least, is the kind of extraordinary music that you become in thrall to because the experience is not quite human. To love this music is to realize that it’s not so much a love as an infatuation. To me, as I’m sure it eventually does for most music lovers, Mozart and Beethoven take on the qualities of old friends. No matter how imposing their music can be, there is a ‘way in.’ You can relate to their music as you would to an equal. More than ever I’m convinced that Bach’s music, at least the choral music, is unrelateable to humans, nor is it meant to be anything else.

(Dona Nobis Pacem. Like the dome of a Cathedral reaching toward heaven. What about us on earth?)

To be sure, there is expression aplenty in Bach. But it’s not the expression of human beings. It’s the expression of the divine: divine joy, divine sadness, divine compassion, divine anger. These emotions sound both purer than the emotions of humans and less real. There is little of the messiness of human emotions in Bach’s choral music. The expression is so artful that it seems artless; as though assembled by a divine computer who can assemble music so perfect that no one would ever feel the need for a human element. What Bach’s music expresses is perfection. Without the image of the Divine, what can Bach’s music express?

(World Champion Bachian Helmuth Rilling’s lecture on the b-minor mass that inspired my craze for it this week. Don’t let the doddering demeanor fool you, the insights here are unbelievable.)

I know, I know. It’s sacrilege to say that Bach is anything but the most human composer who ever lived. When so many millions (billions?) have drawn human strength from his music, when so many experts call Bach the greatest composer who ever lived, how can anybody but a crank compare Bach to Charles Mingus? And even as I write such boorish statements, I can think of dozens of exceptions to this rule that Bach writes ‘unhuman’ music. How can this be said about the writer of the Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Chaconne for Violin, the Violin Concertos, the Anna Magdalena Notebooks?

(Crucifixus. The dark emotional heart of this work, immediately followed by.......

Et Russurexit. If you know exactly what’s coming, doesn’t it limit the range of responses the listener can have?)

The answer is, I don’t know. I have no answers, only complaints. But if no one else has ever asked, let me ask you this: where is the sense of humor in Bach? Where is the fallibility? Where is the doubt? Where is any of the blotchy grub it takes for us to be human beings? From one point of view, Bach’s music is the ultimate standard in profundity, human expression, formal construction and musical imagination. From an ever-so-slightly different angle, Bach’s music is utter kitsch.

(Incredibly profound or religious kitsch?)

Now, there are far, far worse things in the world than kitsch. But what else is there to call a church composer who wrote over 200 extant cantatas, many of them seemingly interchangeable to any but the most die-hard fanatic. How else can you describe a composer whose every piece of music for the church is constructed around obscure theological interpretations? How else can you perceive a composer who always seems to insist that there will always be a force who has heard our suffering and reward us for having been through it? Who else (but Wagner) writes music of such unremitting ultra-profundity without throwing us a bone to change the mood for a little while. Even Beethoven will give us an intermezzo now and then.

Bach’s music is not only without blemish, it is also without vulgarity. And that’s the most vulgar quality of all. His music not only manages to suggest the entire universe in its scope, but also that a force so large can only be benevolent, orderly and loving. It’s entirely possible that through both the incredible vastness and orderliness of his music, Bach can simultaneously be inestimably great and unmistakeably tawdry. Surely there are elements of both in his makeup.

(Is this melody profound or trivial? Is it both?)

But there’s one other element. An unmistakable element so disturbing that nobody will ever willingly talk about it; yet it’s stares at us with all the lumbering discomfort of Saint-Saens’s elephant. Bach’s music can be......really boring.

You’ve experienced, I’ve experienced it, anyone who has ever listened to Otto Klemperer’s Bach has experienced it. Many of Bach’s greatest works follow the same formula: the better part of three hours are spent listening to small pieces of music that if heard on their own would be the aural equivalent of manna from heaven. But when listened to in sequence the pieces blur together to a point long past one that you no longer care what you’re hearing. It can be works that were probably meant to be heard in sequence like the Art of the Fugue or A Musical Offering. Or it can be works that were clearly meant to be experienced separately like the Well-Tempered Klavier or the Sonatas and Partitas for solo Violin. Or it can be dramatic works in which the individual numbers are not even supposed to sound like one another, as in the Passions and the B-Minor Mass. But regardless of how the piece is constructed the problem remains that all this music eventually sounds the same. I know that there are plenty of arguments that works like the St. Matthew Passion and the B-Minor Mass have overriding architectures that endow them with momentum, but I simply don’t care. The reason? I don’t hear the momentum in the music.

(A Bach Moment. Courtesy of Phillipe Herreweghe, one of Bach’s better ambassadors)

And yet, every person in the world who’s heard more than 20 minutes of Bach is guaranteed to experience a ‘Bach moment.’ He is the only composer whose music is guaranteed to console. No matter how great the tragedy, Bach will make it seem insignificant next to the rewards which his music invariably seems to promise. With Bach, bad moods are made better, good moods are made great, great moods are made perfect. His music is so perfect that it gives us an infinite space to contemplate. When one hears Bach, God, Eternity and/or Infinity seem not only possible but downright likely. His music is like a palatte cleanser for the soul; a machine that will grant you catharsis merely by stepping into it. But this is not the singeing, stark catharsis of Beethoven. This is the warm, consoling catharsis which only Bach can provide. Beethoven purifies you through fire. Bach purifies you with a washcloth. The only problem is...after you’ve experienced the purge, there’s still another two hours left in the concert.

We have no idea how or if Bach managed to make each number sound like something individual in his own day. All contemporary performers can do is go by the only authenticity that matters: good musicianship. Lest you think this is going to turn into an anti-Historically Informed Performance (HIP) rant, I can guarantee you that it won’t. Authentic performance practice has precisely the same ratio of rare greatness to general dumbassery as every other branch of classical music. For better or worse, the sins of authentic performance against Bach go in an entirely different direction.

(Too fast but still very good with Rene Jacobs.)
The very greatest HIP performers: towering musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wanda Landowska, Rene Jacobs, Cecilia Bartoli (just to name the first four who come into my mind) understand that there is a higher authenticity than being true to the style of the period, the style of the region, or even of the composer. The most important component of an artist’s makeup is to be true to him or herself. The illumination a listener derives from hearing music on original instruments lasts exactly as long as it takes to hear each piece played by them once. After that, the only value we gain in HIP is in hearing interpretations of true individuality. Just as it is in non-HIP performances.

But the value of a new interperative idea lasts for exactly one performance if it’s not a great idea. And nowhere is this more true than in Bach. Fifty years ago, Bach in the concert hall used to mean a stodgy 200-musician performance that would occasionally give us a glimpse of eternity in the middle the eternity the piece took to end. Today, it means little more than efficient, trivial Baroque dance music.

(How not to play Bach’s Mass. Too fast, choppy, underpowered. Period Practice at its worst)

There simply isn’t enough time to go in depth into the old performance practice debate. But to state it simply, the HIP crowd has decided that big pieces are played by far too many musicians at far too slow tempos with instruments that are far too plush. There’s a lot that’s attractive about this new style of Bach. It’s engaging, charming, with minimal longeurs. The only problem is that it’s not Bach by any definition I understand. It sounds like second-rate Baroque music that could have been written by half-a-dozen other composers.

(You gotta be kidding me....this should be roughly half the speed played here.)

As period practice has gradually taken over Bach performance, we’ve lost the sense of why Bach was rediscovered in the first place. When the original generation of authenticists - Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Franz Bruggen, Helmuth Rilling and Neville Marriner (yes, the last two count) - were first heard, they were a most welcome corrective to the snoozefests of 19th century-style Bach. But their successors go for just as much gaudy excess as we hear in those 1930’s 500-musician Bachfests. We now get ultra-fast, ultra-lean, ultra-dancey performances of Bach so terrified of challenging a listener’s attention span that the work is completely drained of any spiritual overtone. The possibility of a ‘Bach moment’ in these performances is virtually non-existent. In this new vision of his music, what separates Bach from the work of Telemann, Kuhnau or Pachebel? If this is the way Bach meant for his music to be interpreted, then Bach is indeed a second-rate composer. Next to Vivaldi and Handel, this Bach has all the power of a wet noodle. Perhaps this is why Bach was forgotten for 75 years in the first place. Flashy Bach makes about as much sense as Tasteful Journey.

(From the department of Period Practice Asshattery comes one-voice-Bach. Even if Bach performed his own work with only one-voice-per-part - and the evidence is specious - how can one voice be heard over an orchestra playing at this volume without electronic manipulation? Just stupid.)

Perhaps a key to the fact that Bach’s music is truly as great as people say is because it is so difficult to perform. To perform it competently is easy. To perform it as though every note matters and rings true is among the hardest things to do in all of music. Of all the recordings of this work I’ve heard, knowledgeable listeners would never guess which one came out best. The one recording that best provides the catharsis of Bach’s awesome spirituality without the dreary heaviness? It’s Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. There are probably 80 orchestral musicians and a choir of 150. To be sure, the sound can be enormous. But when required Karajan makes them sound as though they are only thirty musicians in a small church. It almost pains me to say that this recording is in a class by itself, but it really is.

(Is Karajan the only conductor in history to ever give the opening fugue some shape?)

It’s incredibly odd to ever think that glossy old HvK would have more insight into this mammoth monsterpiece than anyone else. But then again, maybe not. For all his associations with the Nazi party, Karajan hated the Teutonic heaviness which German musicians used to attach to every piece regardless of style. And the authentic performance revolution was only gathering steam on the margins of classical music when he was already the world’s most famous conductor. He was too young to be lodged under the thumb of the old Bach dogmas and too old to be lodged under the new. Few conductors can get both shape and spirituality from Bach’s music. Karajan manages it and the thought that an unprincipled man like Karajan can make such spiritually inspired music should make us all uncomfortable.

But then again, it’s just another example of an uncomfortable truth in the world of Bach which we all choose to ignore. For nearly 200 years, Bach has been synonymous with musical comfort. Why should music disturb when we have music like this that is so pleasing to the ear? If the music world wants to be comforted and have its prejudices coddled, then Bach should remain the dominant composer in classical music’s canon.

But if we want something more out of music than comfort, then we have to face an uncomfortable truth about Bach:

Music has evolved past him. He is still the de-facto standard for how university music departments teach harmony, form and counterpoint. Without Bach, we wouldn’t know what to teach music students. But today, music students are as likely to be influenced by scales and modes they hear from music all around the world as they are by common practice tonality. Bach is no longer music's lingua franca. In an age when music is better experienced by MP3 than it ever could be in a lecture hall, teaching ‘common practice’ tonality as the standard for how all music is made is no better an idea than teaching a science class for which the curriculum is Aristotle.

No matter how much we want to uphold Bach as the example of everything which music should be, we need to move past him. we can’t simply pretend that he is the greatest musician of all time anymore. He’s had his day as a soloist. It’s time to make Bach take his place in the chorus. As a great composer, Bach will never date. As the all-time greatest, Bach is long since a period piece.

(The best way I found to enjoy Bach’s B-Minor Mass on youtube. Good old reliable Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Big without being bloated. Stripped of all the boring movements. 50 of the best minutes of Bach’s B-Minor Mass).

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