I’m going to start this class by playing the first prelude of Book 1 from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You have all heard this piece, but it’s highly possible that you have never heard it played this badly. I haven’t practiced at all in days, and I have never properly practiced this piece at all except to play it from memory, and I always screw it up after about 75 seconds. I’m not sure I’m going to get through this music in one piece. But there’s a reason I want you all to hear it played by me. So much music, whether it’s Bach or Bob Dylan, is in some sense more meaningful when it’s played badly and you hear the struggle of the musicians to master it. Today’s classical music is usually played by professionals in a well-furbished concert hall, but hardly anyone except for professionals truly lives with this music anymore. For hundreds of years, what we now call classical music could only exist in people’s homes, played mediocrely by amateurs who loved this music all the more because they rarely heard it except in bad performances. When a good performer plays great music, he may well be sleepwalking through it. But when a bad performer plays great music, you know he must love it.
While we do this, I want you to look at the score. Even if you don’t read music, I think you’ll see that a three things are immediately apparent.
- How many different voices play simultaneously? (Is it one, two, three, or five?)
- Are there chords in this piece of which we can properly speak?
- Does this piece have an immediately discernible melody?
This work may seem baby simple, and if I told you that this could be the most complex and influential piece of music ever written, you’d probably think I’m out of my mind. But it’s nevertheless true. What Bach achieves in this piece is a miracle, and set the stage for every musical development which came after it.
Look at the score to this piece again? And let me ask again, what are we listening to? Is it a melody? Is it a series of chords broken up? And look at the note values. You may have noticed that I played it somewhat differently than you’ve heard every piano student play it. Usually it’s just a series of five note chords swallowed up by the pedal so that every note has an equal sound. But look at every measure. Bach clearly wants something different. He wants the first two notes of the measure held through, and every other note articulated as a short note. When you hold every note, it sounds like five intersecting lines that blend into a pool of sound. But are we in fact three different intersecting lines playing against each other, two of which are simply one note in every every measure?
The answer is that it is all three. Let’s look at Milan Kundera’s definition of musical history which he provided in his amazing novella-length essay Testaments Betrayed:
In a 1931 radio lecture, Schoenberg speaks of his masters:..."in the first place, Bach and Mozart; in the second, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms." In concise, aphoristic remarks, he goes on to specify what he learned from each of these five composers. Between the Bach reference and the others there is a very great difference: in Mozart, for example, he learns about "the art of unequal phrase lengths" or "the art of creating secondary ideas," that is to say an utterly individual skill that belongs to Mozart alone. In Bach, he discovers principles that had also operated in all the music for centuries before Bach: first, "the art of inventing groups of notes such that they provide their own accompaniment"; and second, "the art of creating the whole from a single kernel"-- These two sentences summarizing the lesson Schoenberg drew from Bach (and from his predecessors) can be taken to describe the whole twelve-tone revolution: in contrast to Classical music and Romantic music, which are built on the alternation of differing musical themes occurring one after the other, both a Bach fugue and a twelve-tone composition, from beginning to end, develop from a single kernel, which is both melody and accompaniment.
Never mind who Schoenberg is, what is the single kernel from which Bach builds the music we’ve just (perhaps tortuously) listened to me play?
Twenty-three years later, when Roland Manuel asks Stravinsky: "What are your major interests these days?" the latter responds: Guillaume de Machaut, Heinrich Isaak, Dufay, Perotin, and Webern." It is the first time a composer proclaims so firmly the immense importance of the music of the twelfth, the fourteenth, and the fifteenth centuries, and relates it to modern music (to Webern's).
Some years after that, Glenn Gould gives a concert in Moscow for the students of the conservatory; after playing Webern, Schoenberg, and Krenek, he gives his audience a short commentary, saying: "The greatest compliment I can give this, music is to say that the principles to be found in it are not new, that they are at least five hundred years old"; then he goes on to play three Bach fugues. It was a carefully considered provocation: socialist realism, then the official doctrine in Russia, was battling modernism in the name of traditional music; Glenn Gould meant to, show that the roots of modern music (forbidden in Communist Russia) go much deeper than those of the official music of socialist realism (which was actually nothing but an artificial preservation of romanticism in music).
Let’s hear some of this Webern, just to get a sense of how radical it would be to play it in the Soviet Union.
Never mind that this comparison is unfair to Soviet music, let me just ask: Is the American musical tradition hewing to older traditions in a similar way that Schoenberg’s is? Or is American music generally a mirror image of Socialist (Capitalist?) Realism?
The history of European music covers about a thousand years (if I take as its beginnings the first experiments in primitive polyphony). The history of the European novel (if I take as its start the works of Rabelais and Cervantes) covers about four centuries. When I consider these two histories, I cannot shake the sense that they developed in rhythms resembling, so to speak, the two halves of a soccer game. The caesuras, or halftime breaks, in the history of music and in that of the novel do not coincide. In the history of music, the break stretches over a big part of the eighteenth century (the symbolic apogee of the first half occurring in Bach's The Art of Fugue, and the start of the second half in the works of the earliest Classical composers); the break in the history of the novel comes a little later: between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries--that is, between Lados and Sterne on the one side and, on the other, Scott and Balzac. This asynchronism shows that the deepest causes governing the rhythm of the history of the arts are not sociological or political but aesthetic: bound up with the intrinsic nature of one art or another; as if the art of the novel, for instance, contained two different potentialities (two different ways of being a novel) that could not be worked out at the same time, in parallel, but could be worked out only successively, one after the other.
Has America been around long enough that we can divide various contemporary American genres into two halves? Or are the arts in America a tribuary in a larger stream that history will show over a much longer timespan?
The metaphor of the two halves of a game came to me some time ago in the course of a conversation with a friend and does not claim to be at all scholarly; it is an ordinary, elementary observation, naively obvious: when it comes to music and the novel, we are all of us raised in the aesthetic of the second half. A mass by Ockeghem or Bach's The Art of Fugue are for the average music lover as difficult to comprehend as Webem's music. However enchanting their stories, the novels of the eighteenth century intimidate the reader by their form, to the point where they are much better known in movie adaptations (which necessarily denature both their spirit and their form) than through their written texts. The works of the eighteenth century's most famous novelist, Samuel Richardson, cannot be found in bookstores and are practically forgotten. Balzac, on the contrary, even though he may seem old-fashioned, is still easy to read; his form is comprehensible, familiar to the reader, and even more important, it is for that reader the very model of the novel form.
Think of film or popular music for a moment. What are examples of film and popular music that seem completely remote to us today? As though they come from the first half of the story. And what changed to make such work remote to us?
The chasm between the aesthetics of these two halves makes for a multitude·of misunderstandings. Vladimir Nabokov, in his book on Cervantes, gives a provocatively negative opinion of Don Quixote: overvalued, naïve, repetitive, and full of unbearable and implausible cruelty; that "hideous cruelty" makes this book "one of the most bitter and barbarous ever penned"; poor Sancho, moving along from one drubbing to another, losing all his teeth at least five times. Yes, Nabokov is right: Sancho loses too many teeth, but we are not in the world of Zola, where some cruel act, described precisely and in detail, becomes the accurate document of a social reality; with Cervantes, we are in a world created by the magic spells of the storyteller who invents, who exaggerates, and who is carried away by his fantasies, his excesses; Sancho's three hundred broken tooth cannot be taken literally, no more than anything else in this novel. "Madame, a steamroller has just run over your daughter!" "Yes, yes, I'm in the bathtub. Slide her to me under the door." Must we bring charges of cruelty against that old Czech joke frommy childhood? Cervantes' great founding work was alive with the spirit of the nonserious, a spirit that was later made incomprehensible by the Romantic aesthetic of the second half, by its demand for plausibility.
Is there such a thing as realism in music?
The second half not only eclipsed the first, it repressed it; the first half has become the bad conscience of the novel and especially of music. Bach's work is the best-known example: Bach's renown during his lifetime; Bach forgotten after his death (forgotten for half a century); the slow rediscovery of Bach over the length of the nineteenth century. Beethoven alone almost succeeded toward the end of his life (that is, seventy years after Bach's death) in integrating Bach's experience into the new aesthetic of music (his repeated efforts to insert fugue into the sonata), whereas after Beethoven, the more the Romantics worshiped Bach, the further they moved away from him in their structural thinking. To make him more accessible they subjectivized and sentimentalized him (Busoni’s famous arrangements); then, reacting against that romanticization, came a desire to recover his music as it was played in its own time, which gave rise to some notably insipid performances. It seems to me that, having once passed through the desert of oblivion, Bach's music still keeps its face half veiled.
Let’s listen to one such ‘vulgarization.’ This is an orchestration of Bach’s Passacaglia for Organ by Ottorino Respighi. It’s incredibly exciting, but as we listen, let’s ask, why, if any reason would Bach object to this legitimately?
Rather than discuss the forgetting of Bach, I could turn my idea around and say: Bach is the first great composer who, by the enormous weight of his work, compelled the audience to pay attention to his music even though it already belonged to the past. An unprecedented phenomenon, because until the nineteenth century, people lived almost exclusively with contemporary music. They had no living contact with the musical past: even if musicians had studied the music of previous times (and this was rare), they were not in the habit of performing it in public. During the nineteenth century, music of the past began to be revived and played alongside contemporary music and to take on an ever greater presence, to the point that in the twentieth century the balance between the present and the past was reversed: audiences heard the music of earlier times much more than they did contemporary music, and now the latter has virtually disappeared from concert halls.
Is the situation Kundera’s describing now the situation of American music? Since classical music is saturated to the gills with tradition and history, has the world moved out of that storehouse to create a new one without tradition? And most importantly, are we beginning to feel cramped in this storehouse too?
Bach was thus the first composer to establish his place in the memory of later generations; with him, nineteenth-century: Europe not only discovered an important part of music's past, it also discovered music history. Europe saw that Bach was not just any past but rather a past that was radically different from the present; thus musical time was revealed abruptly (and for the first time) not just as a series of works but as a series of changes, of eras, of varying aesthetics. I often imagine him in the year of his death, in the exact middle of the eighteenth century, bending with clouding eyes over The Art of Fugue, a composition whose aesthetic orientation represents the most archaic tendency in Bach's oeuvre (which contains many orientations), a tendency alien to its time, which had already turned completely, away from polyphony toward a simple, even simplistic, style that often verged on frivolity or laziness.
Who are some examples of American artists who, like Bach, conservatively (at least aesthetically) maintained their status quo because the new developments seemed intellectually lazy.
The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress. Indeed, the future that Bach could discern in the art of his contemporaries and of his juniors must to his eyes have seemed a collapse. When, toward the end of his life, he concentrated exclusively on pure polyphony, he was turning his back on the tastes of his time and on his own composer sons; it was a gesture of defiance against history, a tacit rejection of the future. Bach: an extraordinary crossroads of the historical trends and issues of music.
Do we have a Bach-like figure in the American popular tradition, who synthesizes all sorts of different techniques and creates a new music out of it?
There is an enormous amount of information in this quote, and we’ll have to disregard some of it today, though we’ll come back to an enormous amount of it in the future. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on that football metaphor: two halves of a game. It’s a good metaphor. People often have contempt for artists for pretending that art is more important or intelligent than sports. In a sense, they’re absolutely right to say that. Art is a game like any other game, but the difference is that art gives you many, many more games to appreciate and master than sports does. Every single work of art is its own game that makes its own rules, and every time that one particular work of art is presented, that’s little different in its own complexity than playing a game of baseball or football.
But let’s just say, for the moment, that the entire history of every art form is no more complex than a single game of football or soccer. In such a metaphor, the only rule of play in the history of music is that music must remain music, and otherwise the game simply develops as it does. It starts with a single idea, an idea like perhaps Gregorian Chant.
A few themes, repeated endlessly in the church over a period of nearly a thousand years, with no particularly new musical developments except perhaps in the oral tradition, of which, of course, we have no record.
But then, a figure like Leonin, or Magister Leoninus as he was known in Latin, appears, who comes up with the idea of putting one theme over another. It serves to remind us that once everything, even the most basic things we take for granted, was a revolutionary change. This was a new, linear concept of music in which our ears can perceive an evolution rather than simply hear it declaimed in a manner that mimics conversation. Music before Leonin was music for the Age of Arithmetic, music after Leonin was music for the Age of Algebra.
A hundred years later comes Guillaume de Machaut, a musical genius so profound that he can sustain four different lines of counterpoint over a period of a half-hour, and with this four voices, creates the rules of modern composition and the modern choir as we still know it today. Let’s listen to a bit of his music:
As the decades and centuries pass, these four lines of counterpoint get increasingly complicated. They reach a kind of apogee in the music of Josquin dez Prez, the fifteenth century composer revered by Martin Luther, among many others, as the greatest who ever lived. Before Josquin, these lines generally had many of the properties of melody. But in Josquin, these lines of counterpoint cease to seem like melodies at all. They are merely small cells of notes arranged in such a way that each voice imitates the cell, states it backwards and upside down, and sings the cell in quick sequence. It is a new kind of development, in which the composer’s technique was the entire point of the composition.
Chronologically, the distance between Josquin and Bach is the same as the distance between Machaut and Bach. And there are enormous developments we won’t cover. But let’s say for the moment that Leonin and Machaut are the beginning of a professional sports game, and if the game we’re playing were to be basketball, then let’s posit that Josquin is the beginning of the second quarter. But let’s say that this basketball game is also a bit like a cricket game, and the game is more than a week long without a stop. At the end of the game, or even halfway through it, we would barely be able to remember what happened toward the beginning of the game. Moreover, if basketball players had to play for as long as cricket players do, then would be so exhausted that if they played without interruption, they’d be dead. Carry that metaphor over to real life. As shockingly different as the music of these two masters would appear to the people of their eras, they both seem a bit like ancient history to us, and we can only appreciate the differences between them with enormous effort.
But Bach seems to mark the beginning of music for most people that they can appreciate with pleasure, and without any academic knowledge. Even if his music sounds demonstrably different than any later composer’s music and bound up in old styles, his language is still our language. Let’s listen to that recording of the Art of the Fugue which Kundera talks about.
But Bach seems to mark the beginning of music for most people that they can appreciate with pleasure, and without any academic knowledge. Even if his music sounds demonstrably different than any later composer’s music and bound up in old styles, his language is still our language. Let’s listen to that recording of the Art of the Fugue which Kundera talks about.
On the one hand, this sounds completely melodic, almost romantic. And yet you’d never mistaken it for something by Chopin or Liszt. Even by the standards of our day, it’s completely melodious, and yet, it’s a completely different type of melody than any we’re accustomed to hearing. The music’s constructed out of all those broken fragments you hear in Josquin, but it’s so ingeniously assembled that it sounds little different than a romantic melody. Insofar as I could ever give you the secret to Bach’s greatness, that is it. Bach sounds like no other composer because he operates by rules completely different than any later composer did, and yet his style still sounds like our own. Because with the rules of his time, he recoded music to mean something completely different. He organized music so brilliantly that his music almost always serves that double-purpose. From Machaut until Bach, the goal to which all the greatest composers seemed to aspire was to inspire in the ear the kind of awe which people derive from cathedrals and castles with their eyes. But Bach, an austere Protestant reforming the relatively gaudy styles of Catholic composers before him, didn’t just want to create something that awed the listener with its glory. Good Lutheran he was, he wanted the listener to feel a personal relationship with God in the same way we might with a parent or child. He certainly created all those cathedrals in sound, but more important was that he brought to this extremely technical music the kind of expressive melody which we find familiar from today’s music, and which in his day was more familiar from folk music than it was from the church or concert hall
The way to explain how he did this is to go back to that Well-Tempered Clavier prelude. Bach wrote many towering works, but there isn’t a single one that towers in music history like the Well-Tempered Clavier, and frankly, not a single one that towers more than this extremely simple prelude. This prelude is, at least in my opinion, the end of music history’s first half, and the beginning of the second half.
Why is this simple work so important and complex? Because, just like in the rules of music’s first half, the music is its own accompaniment and the whole thing comes simply out of three notes - the simplest possible notes in the world, a C-major chord, which are plucked on the piano as though it were a guitar for two minutes. And like music’s second half, the rules of music by which we still play, it is clearly a melody with a harmonic chord, requiring nothing but itself to feel complete. The harmony just happens to be the melody itself. And without going through them all, the harmony which Bach creates in this piece is every rule of harmony by which we still play today. After Bach, the old scales of the Church (play them) that go all the way back to Gregorian Chant are done away with. Bach wanted a music in which every possible harmony can be interrelated to every other, and if you listen to the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, you realize that he succeeded. I have no idea what the greatest piece of music ever written is, but I’d name this one the most miraculous.
This piece is so simple that the great French composer, Charles Gounod, created a melody around it and formed a second immortal piece of music. Here is Bobby McFerrin performing a second miracle around Bach’s.
So who was the man that created all this? In order to answer this, let’s first listen to some of PDQ Bach’s “A Bach Portrait”, based actually rather closely on Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Let’s see what you think of it.
I think this is truly an amazing work of parody. Aaron Copland wrote A Lincoln Portrait during World War II to show us an inspirational man. Peter Schikele, better known as PDQ Bach, wrote A Bach Portrait, to show us that this great man, who’s served as an inspiration to just as many people as Abraham Lincoln, not only has very little memorable to say in words, but that what he did have to say makes him sound like an especially peevish bureaucrat.
First, let’s take a look at these pictures.
Can anyone tell me what kind of man Bach looks like? What qualities does he exude?
Bach is one of those figures, like Homer or Shakespeare, about whom we know next to nothing. He’s not quite as well-concealed as some older masters, because we have plenty of circumstantial reports about Bach. What we lack is first-person testimony, and we have very little testimony of friends or family. Except for some mild anger, he revealed very little in his letters about what kind of person he was. So here are the basic facts of Bach’s character that we know:
We know that he was an orphan by the age of ten and had to spend his adolescent years living with his older brother. We know that he was a member of the Bach family, a venerable clan of German musicians that stretched back two-hundred years, consulted each other on music, and pulled strings to get one another the best possible jobs. We know that as a student, he was difficult to get along with, because there are reports of his getting into fights, most famously with a bassoonist whom he referred to as a ‘Zippelfaggottist’, which, as literally as can be translated, means ‘nanny-goat bassoonist.’ We know that he was often at loggerheads with his various employers, and was even thrown in jail by one of them for a month. We know that he never left a 200-mile radius of what we’d now mostly think of as Eastern Germany. We also know that he possessed a fantastically elaborate library for his time of musical scores from as far afield as Italy and England, and wasn’t above plagiarizing them (in Bach’s defense, neither was any other musician of his time, none moreso than Handel). Also, contrary to what a few scholars allege, we can assume pretty safely that Bach was fanatically religious, because he accumulated a collection of religious volumes that rivaled any in a mid-size German church. The irony of Bach is that he was a tradesman first and foremost, not an artist. It would probably have scandalized him to know that history now views him as one of the three greatest composers who ever lived. On every church score he completed, Bach wrote the inscription ‘Solo Dei Gloria,’ which means ‘to the Glory of God alone.’ Success to Bach was not counted in any worldly matter, it would have been counted by how many souls his music saved.
He was born to the lower-middle class, and like the lower-middle class of seemingly all cultures, his feelings towards authority was one of profound gratitude, because like so many lower-middle class Christians of today, he viewed his social betters as having saved him from poverty. Even after having been thrown in jail for a month by the Duke of Weimar for trying to seek better employment, his letters to the aristocracy read like non-stop grovelling, so much so that you begin to think that he really must believe in what he’s saying. But there is no authority in the human mind which figures higher than God, and Bach’s belief in God was absolute. if we had to venture a guess as to his religious belief, it would probably be that he was a Lutheran of the most orthodox variety. Martin Luther had been dead for two-hundred years when Bach was alive, and even before the Enlightenment, people thought of Luther as a fanatic. But the evidence would seem to point to that Bach believed in every word Luther wrote as though Luther were preaching personally to him.
We also know Bach liked sex, because he had twenty children, yes, twenty, and was once admonished as a student for bringing a woman into his church’s organ loft. We also know that only nine of his children survived him. We also know that Bach once returned from a journey only to find that his first wife was dead and buried for a month. All this means that Bach was intimately acquainted with the severest tragedies life has to offer. Let’s listen to the famous Chaconne for Solo Violin, which every true music lover loves desperately and every violinist fears horribly. But this is a recording with a difference. Twenty years ago, a German scholar named Helga Theone discovered that within the harmonic scheme of the Chaconne, you can find four separate Lutheran chorales which fit perfectly in the harmonic scheme of this music, all of which are about death and resurrection.
Given that we live in the post-industrial age, with lower early mortality rates, how much is the kind of tragedy which Bach lived with from day-to-day still a concern for us?
There is no mistaking Bach’s view of the world as anything but tragic, just as there’s no mistaking Mozart’s as anything but comic and Beethoven’s as heroic. But the best testimony to Bach’s character will always be to listen to his music.
And if we go by the music, then Bach’s true religion was order. He believed in a Leibnizian God who runs the world as though it’s as perfect as a grandfather clock. All the suffering of our lives is just the briefest test we must undergo to prove ourselves worthy for the joys that come from an eternal world. A God of an eternal heaven must run the world in such a way that his infinitely complex greatness is always manifest, even if the ways he displays his glory can be elusive in the extreme. Bach’s music was a mission to discover the extremely elusive glory of his god, and in order to expose such glory, his music had to be craft itself. And Bach wrote music not as an artist, but as a supreme craftsman, an engineer and architect in sound.
Form is what gives music its physical definition, and when it came to creating the finite limitations which gives music its substance, Bach’s craft is truly infinite - a craft never beaten in any artistic realm, and probably not equaled (Dante?). Just as Newton discovered the formal patterns and possibilities of physics, Bach laid bare the formal, contrapuntal, and harmonic patterns and possibilities of music - he marked the end of a counterpoint-dominated music and the beginning of a harmony-dominated one. He also marked the end of an old concept of form, but he did not mark the beginning of a new conception. That was left to the next generation.
Let’s listen to a very brief piece of pure harmonic invention. Another piece of music so completely simple, and yet you hear Bach testing out every possible harmonic crevice to milk and wring every possible emotion over two minutes. If you’ve seen the movie Before Sunrise, you’ll recognize this immediately.
How would you describe the emotions present in Bach’s music?
To me, a few fundamental facts about his music stand out. One is to stand the absolute command of musical form with the almost complete lack of concern when it comes to what instruments play his music. So much of Bach is simply written for whatever is available to play. The prelude I played earlier could just as easily be played by a harpsichord. It’s hard to imagine a composer who would devote so much effort to getting every detail of the notes on the page exactly right, and then care so little for who plays it and how it’s played. But that seems to be the case with Bach. Bach wrote these absolutely amazing musical forms, as the musicologist Jan Swafford said, no composer ever wrote better notes than Bach. And it really is true. But qualities beyond the notes - the tone colors, the tempo markings, the dynamics, are next to non-existent. How can a composer be so careful and still leave so much to chance? So let’s listen to a piece which shows just how endlessly adaptable Bach was.
Is the fact that Bach can sound this good in a manner he never could a thought of a strength or a weakness of his music?
Part of the reason was, of course, that Bach never expected many other people to play his music. He knew the musicians who were playing, and he did his best to write according to their abilities. And when you played keyboard instruments as virtuosically as Bach did, what point would there be in asking someone else to play? And just to give an example of how great a keyboardist Bach must have been, let’s hear the last few variations, from the Goldberg Variations. But before we do, I just want to point out a few small details of this perfect piece of music - and it’s about as close to perfect as music gets. The Goldberg Variations is comprised of an aria, or song. The song is repeated once at the beginning and once at the end, in the middle are thirty variations (which means a restatement of the main theme, but in a completely new musical guise that follows the theme’s outline without imitating it). So in the Goldberg Variations, there are 32 movements. Each of these movements is 32 bars long. Furthermore, each of these thirty-two bars are divided into two sections, an A and B section like any pop song, each are sixteen bars long. But Bach leaves instructions for each section to be played twice, which means that every section within every variation and song is 32 bars. Music does not get more perfect than the Goldberg Variations, but the perfection is its own kind of limitation if you don’t have a performer who’s willing to conjure up the imagine of Bach improvising like a madman on a keyboard, varying the music even after he wrote it to be completely consistent. The approach it demands is not too far away from jazz. Jazz rarely approaches this perfection if it ever did, but playing Bach usually requires Jazz’s vitality and freedom anyway.
As we said, nobody wrote better notes than Bach. And it’s really true. If music simply existed in two-dimensions in which we could hear notes written on a page in our heads, then there is no question, Bach would be the greatest composer of all time. But when it came to the more ineffable qualities of the music, the instructions on how it’s played, Bach was anything but perfection. Recently, a famous Bach conductor suggested that perhaps Bach suffered from something not unlike ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder). Personally, judging by the almost fetishistic quality, I can’t help wondering if Bach instead had Asperger’s Syndrome, in which semi-autistic people can function incredibly well in a given subject, with skill well beyond the capacities of even the most gifted normal humans, but with limited sympathy for people, or anything outside their given field of study.
Perhaps this is why, in another one of those great ironies which would probably have enraged Bach, Bach is fundamentally known for his secular, instrumental compositions. Bach saw himself first and foremost as a composer for the Church, and there’s an enormous amount to love in his his 200-odd surviving cantatas and his two surviving passion plays and hundreds of organ improvisations around church chorales and so much else. There are plenty of people who love his church music above all, but the vast majority prefers his instrumental compositions. I think most people would agree that there is something about a lot of the Church music that is limited by the religious dogma it carries. All the talk about Christ and the Resurrection doesn’t do nearly as much for people as instrumental music in which there is no religious limit to what it can express. Bach’s instrumental music has all the fanatical conviction of everything he wrote, but people don’t have to be believers in order to be moved by his conviction. There was a famous conductor named Thomas Beecham who was a great exponent of Bach’s exact contemporary, Handel. He was once asked what he thought of Bach and why he didn’t play Bach nearly as much, his answer was “Too much counterpoint. What’s worse, Protestant Counterpoint.”
Like so many artists, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Bach’s religion got in the way of his music-making. Many composers have died too early, but Bach died a different death. The Church was always at the center of Bach’s inspiration, but Bach was so committed to the church that his last twenty years were by-and-large spent not composing. Until his final three years, Bach spent his more venerable years training and educating his choir boys and simply recycled his church music for the next time it was required for performance. When Bach exchanged the court instrumentalists for the church choir, the quality of his music already took a step back from the ‘divine’. Whereas his music could once stretch out to the infinite with instrumental suites and partitas, it became beholden to the dogmatic strictures of whatever Biblical lesson he had to impart for that week’s homily.
Imagine if Bach could have taken a step back from his Church obligations and become a bit more liberal in his secular sympathies as he aged. Imagine if he were not quite so intractable about his conception of music and allowed himself to write in the new styles. Perhaps we could have Bach symphonies, Bach operas, Bach string quartets. All those forms already existed during Bach’s lifetime, even if no great composer yet put their stamp on them. But like many great classical musicians of our day, Bach had a tin ear for new developments, and perhaps the loss to music and posterity is incalculable.
But at the same time, it was Bach’s dogmatic Christianity which gave him the devotion he needed to write the music he wrote. Like so many conservatives, Bach helped facilitate the destruction of exactly what he hoped to revive. His music was so good that music could no longer be seen as a subservient art to other more important concerns like God and Drama. Thanks to Bach, music began to declare its independence from everything except music. He wanted to create music so great that it saved your soul, but instead he created music so great that it stirred people to listen to greater music.
Bach, or at least the Bach everybody loves, is a creation of the nineteenth century. In the 1820’s, a young composer and conductor named Felix Mendelssohn decided to mount a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 in a performance that may come down to us as the most influential performance of any piece of music ever. Bach’s music, which never seemed to move listeners more than any other good composer during his lifetime, made people weep openly. Let’s listen to the opening number, perhaps the grandest piece of music Bach ever wrote and the piece that started the Bach revolution. But let’s listen to it in a souped up, nineteenth century-style performance that shows exactly what it was that people loved about him.