Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bach and Emotion

Johann_Sebastian_Bach Today there is no question that Johann Sebastian Bach has become a part of our classical canon: his works are regularly performed, most people can probably recognize the vocal lines of his most famous chorales, and probably everyone who collects classical music recordings has a CD of Bach laying around, or at least a few MP3s that they play from time to time.

Despite the fact that nearly everyone can recognize Bach’s name, I still think that his reputation hasn’t completely emerged from the onslaught of
Romanticism. Romantic music, by which I mean the classical music that appeared from roughly the time of Beethoven to the early twentieth century, has forever changed the landscape of the way that we listen to music, and what we expect from it. In a previous blog post, I remembered being in a master class for the piano in which no one except me even liked playing Bach on the piano. Everyone wanted to express the passion of Beethoven, or impress everyone else with the fast piano techniques required to play Chopin, Rachmaninoff, or Scriabin, and thought of Bach’s music as a boring collection of technical exercises. Although I think everyone in that class was wrong – they were expressing a far too limited conception of what Bach is about – it underscored for me the fact that Bach is often misunderstood, and often for quite specific reasons. The truth is that while there are plenty of opportunities for expressing emotion in Bach’s music, the way that you express it is very different from the way emotion is expressed in Romantic music.

Specifying these differences is actually not an easy exercise, but I want to take a few minutes today to explore this. I think the most fruitful place to begin talking about Bach is through the thing that he was most famous for in his day: his organ skills. Although he was modest in his conception of his own abilities – he famously once said that anyone could be as good an organist as he was with enough hard work1 – the truth is that there were very few people who could match his skills in a time when playing the organ was taken very seriously. Legend has it that the one time when he had scheduled a competitive organ recital, at the behest of others, he so terrified his competitor, that the poor man ran away rather than face a musical dual with Bach.2

Now, it takes a unique skill set to play an organ at Bach’s level. In some ways organs can be forgiving when compared to other instruments. Unlike a piano, you can strike a key in a variety of different ways in order to get the same tonal effect, you can hold notes indefinitely if you’re feeling lazy, and you don’t have to worry about using the tips of your fingers to control dynamics. But on a number of parameters an organ can be absolutely unforgiving. If your rhythms are not perfect, the sound you will produce will become a dreadful mess, and if you hold a wrong note, it will produce a screeching sound that even a cat in heat couldn’t match. Compare this to the vocal music of
Palestrina or Monteverdi: in this music you actually could sing a wrong note or mess up a rhythm and still sound reasonably OK; all you would have to do is wobble your pitch slightly or change the dynamics. But you have far less opportunity to do this with an organ fugue. Hence, a composer for an organ has to put extra care into the construction of chords, and pay particular attention to the way the different rhythms interact.

Bach’s polyphonic music seems to me to be a natural outgrowth of an organ’s demands. Two of the key characteristics of his works are the interestingly complex rhythmic structures, and the way all the harmonies often fit together perfectly. Compare this to Romantic music: although it is true that a performance of a symphony has to have nearly perfect synchronization, and most people can recognize when a wrong note is played, nevertheless, by varying the tonal qualities, it seems to me that Romantic music is far less demanding harmonically. And when we turn to later music with 13th chords and 15th chords, it seems clear that we are more willing to accept dissonances for their own sake. To be sure, there are lots of dissonances in Bach, and he has chords that can rival some of the most complex chords in
Stravinsky, but in general they occur less frequently, in part, I imagine, because they would not sound as good on Bach’s main instrument. I think that Berg wrote some of the most beautiful music out there, but just try playing it on an organ with all the stops out, and you have a mess.

Discussing the organ leads me to one of the most crucial questions in Bach interpretation: the independence of his voice lines. Instructors frequently observe that it is important to keep Bach’s voices separate in a way that is very different from the music of subsequent eras. As it is normally described, this requires pianists to think “horizontally” rather than “vertically”: to pay more attention to how each voice develops independently rather than to emphasize the chordal structures. The best interpreters such as
Rosalyn Tureck have inventive techniques to achieve this end. Forcing a pianist who is used to playing Chopin and Beethoven to do this will be a painful enterprise, and it is not at all obvious initially where the emotion is going to come in. Unlike music from other eras Bach doesn’t let you express emotion by simply playing louder and faster.

While there is a lot of truth to saying that one should play Bach horizontally rather than vertically, this independence can often be taken too far. It is worth remembering, that perhaps more than any other composer, Bach could keep two opposing forces in perfect balance: although he writes individual parts that are independent, and have profound vocal qualities of their own, he is always acutely aware of the collective effect he is producing with all the voices. I take this to be one of the most fruitful products of his time on the organ, and it appears throughout the music he wrote for other instruments. Anyone who has played even a smattering of Bach’s keyboard works can recognize this, because in almost all of his works there are moments when the voices come together and produce a collective sound that is very different from what one would expected from the individual melodic lines alone. Consider the effect of the entrance of the second voice in the second Invention, or the wonderful counterpoint that occur in bars 10-12 of the First Invention. My favorite moments of these effects are in bar 17 in the first Fugue of the first book of the
Well-Tempered Clavier (Something Rosalyn Tureck brings out to great effect in her recording), and the haunting melody in the 17th bar and following of the last Fugue of that work (a moment Barenboim plays exceptionally well). This last work provides particular testimony to Bach’s ability to think in two directions at once: he almost miraculously pulls out a lyrical melody from what is ostensibly a 12-tone theme worthy of Schoenberg. If we turn to his choral works these moments are even more dramatic and obvious: consider the magnificent rhythms from the middle Coro of Aus der Teifen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131).

All this is to say that the best interpreters of Bach can keep the voices independent while acknowledging these moments of sublime beauty. Of course, there is a range of possible interpretations in any given work. For piano works, I tend to like the balance that Rosalyn Tureck achieves in the piano works rather than the remarkable independence that
Gould can achieve. In vocal works, I’ve come to like the emphasis on the individual voices found in Rifkin and some of Fisher-Diskau’s recordings, if only because most recordings sound too monotonic.

I think this contrast between independent and collective action lies at the heart of what I find most powerful about Bach’s work. There are many composers who can manage to carry you through a broad range of emotional responses in the half hour that you give them. Some of our most beloved composers fall in this category:
Beethoven was a masters of this in his piano and orchestral works, Schumann in his piano works, and composers such as Verdi and Puccini in their vocal works can write music that can put a tear in the eyes of the most stoic of listeners (especially if they are played well). But although it is a fool-hearted task to try to rank composers of this caliber, I would venture to say that except for the sphere of string quartets, and especially the late quartets of Beethoven, few of these composers can match Bach at his most powerful. Although I’m sure reasonable people will disagree with me on this, one of the reasons I think this is that at those climactic moments in Bach you can feel that intensity not only in the collective effect, but simultaneously in a different way in the conversational interactions between each individual voice. And in fact, the emotional quality comes less from the individual dynamics of the individual musicians, and more from the abstract relations between the members and their relations to the overall monophonic effects. The clarity of the architectonics of the work emphasizes the emotional power.

It is worth making a side note on string quartets, since it does seem peculiar that they form an exception to the generalizations above. Actually, I think that there is a lot of similarity between some of Bach’s music such as works in the Art of the Fugue, and the best string quartets, such as the late quartets of Beethoven. To be sure, there are important differences between these two composers, but in the music of both, there are moments when each respective master does a fantastic job of both producing complicated collective musical effects while still giving each voice independence. I suggest that the uniform quality of the sound of a string quartet, in which all the sound is produced by prolonged contact with strings, finds a parallel in the uniformity of sound of a Baroque organ, in which all the sound is produced by prolonged sound from pipes. The effect in both of these cases is to force a composer to devote more attention to counterpoint and collective harmonies. This also underscores the persuasiveness of
Albert Schweitzer’s observation that Bach learned a lot about the melody of vocal lines from the Italian masters of the violin.3

The twin impulses of Bach to let each line sing with its own voice, while producing large-scale effects may ultimately explain why those students in my piano master class did not like Bach. Bach does express intense emotion, but you can’t produce it without first mastering the architectonic structure that forms the basis of the pieces, for that very structure serves as a tool for emotional expression. Consequently, it takes a lot of work in order to get to the point of being able to express emotion in Bach: a performer can’t simply rely on the easy way of expressing emotional intensity, by simply playing faster and louder. The emotion comes from within the structure of the music itself.


1. ^
Forkel Johann NikolausJohann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work, translated by Charles Sanford Terry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920. pp. 45ff.

2. ^ Schweitzer, AlbertJ.S. Bach, translated by Ernest Newman in 2 Volumes. New York: Dover Publications, 1966.v. I. p. 153)

3. ^ Schweitzer, Albert, J.S. Bach, translated by Ernest Newman in 2 Volumes. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. v. I pp. 196-198. Schweitzer infers this, but it seems reasonable.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Listening to Ancient Philosophy

Aristotle Often I hear the distinction between "doing philosophy" and "reading philosophy." This contrast is spelled out in a variety of different ways by different people. Many people want to contrast philosophy proper with some more nebulous activity such as the history of ideas: whereas the former is an enterprise for creating new ideas and new modes of thinking, the latter is supposedly the activity of just collecting the outmoded ideas that have led us to the place we stand in history. As the language in the preceding sentence should make clear, there is often a criticism embedded in this classification from practitioners of the philosophy side of the division. However, anyone who holds to this division will probably also recognize that there is not a firm dividing line between the two sides. In order to come up with new ideas we inevitably have to think through the views of our predecessors, and whenever we try to understand a past philosophical conception we inevitably incorporate some aspects of our own views into the interpretation.

Since I work on ancient philosophy, I often find myself at a strange intersection between these two camps. On the one hand, as a classicist I'm supposed to work to understand the views of philosophers who lived 2000 years ago as correctly as possible. In order to do this I end up spending hours reading "outmoded" conceptions of philosophy, trying to use my knowledge of ancient languages and the milieu of that time period in order to provide a reading of a philosopher that minimizes the influence of my own philosophical views. On the other hand, unlike a classicist, I am supposed to engage in a dialectic with these philosophers and challenge and criticize their views in order to come up with novel philosophical observations. It is apparent that this leaves me in a dangerous and difficult situation: the more successful that I am in one side of this endeavor the less successful I am likely to be on the other. For instance, a wonderful piece of insight may come from deliberately misreading a passage in Aristotle in a way that makes it inconsistent with everything else in the corpus. In this case, the classicist points out the discrepancy and argues that my interpretation cannot possibly be right. In another case I may develop a consistent reading of a word's use throughout the Platonic corpus, and consequently write 50 pages of interpretation that is so bland and uninteresting, that the philosopher thinks it is a colossal waste of time.

In this respect doing historical philosophy contains a divide that may be even more significant than the divide between the so-called "analytic" and "continental" philosophies of the Twentieth Century: at least in the case of that latter divide, everyone agreed that the activity being practiced was philosophy, even if each respective camp thought the other camp was doing things badly. In historical philosophy it is the very category of philosophy that is up for grabs. Like the apikoros* in the joke who loses because he was so successful (Ted Cohen, "Jokes," p. 68), the historical philosopher also can lose in the same way. It becomes incumbent on an ancient philosophy student to show that what she's doing is a worthwhile endeavor.

I happen to think ancient philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor, which is why I study the subject. I think a great deal of this worth comes from the very tension I have been describing. For I think that philosophy, at least when it is practiced well, should be both an active and passive endeavor, and just as important as it is to speak coherently about a topic, it is just as important to be able to listen and understand views that you don't necessarily agree with. Ancient philosophy, by forcing its practitioners to do a little of both of these activities, becomes a very good way to achieve this balance.

Already I may be walking into dangerous territory by making these assertions. Although presumably very few philosophers would argue that it isn't important to listen to other people's viewpoints, there is a tendency for philosophers to become strong advocates for their own viewpoints, and to ridicule people whose views differ. Thus a group of Davidsonian scholars at one school might have inside jokes about how wrong Anscombian philosophers are at another, and vice versa, and followers of Nussbaum may be ridiculed in introductory philosophy courses at one school, just as Kripke's possible world semantics might be ridiculed at another. 

Now, there is some benefit from this distribution of philosophical schools and camps: since schools tend to attract and produce philosophers with similar philosophical commitments, it means that the positive consequences of these philosophical commitments can be explored deeper and more effectively at these institutions. If you want to study McDowell's writings, you shouldn't go to a school that thinks his work is hogwash. This compartmentalization of philosophy into schools has the further interesting consequence that when practitioners of different schools meet at conferences, the debate can be carried out in a rich and powerful way. In these respects philosophy tends to be analogous to free-market capitalism, and has similar advantages: a diverse range of philosophical positions are explored, views get developed quickly because of the increased competition, and a wide range of positions and schools are available.

Yet, as I began to discuss above, there is a cost for all of this: different schools often listen to their competition less than they should, and philosophical gains in one school are often overlooked, and consequently fail to be adopted by other schools. Philosophy becomes less of a progressive enterprise like science, and more of a diverse collection of bickering schools, like one might have found in the so-called Pre-Socratic period. There is no reason that philosophy should aspire to become a science with dogmas and canonical modes of thought (as some might characterize Scholastic philosophy), but at the same time, I think it should be a collaborative enterprise in which different schools provide benefits to one another. I guess, my ideal philosophical landscape is more like free-market socialism than laissez-faire capitalism.

Anyway, if you can understand my perspective, and see the value in listening to the beliefs of people with very different philosophical views, then ancient philosophy, and in particular, ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and its heirs becomes a very interesting case to study. By reading these works you encounter views that were held 2000 years ago, before the advent of modern science, before the development of market theories, and before we learned many important facts about the world around us. For these reasons, the practitioners of ancient philosophy necessarily had very different views from those we hold today. However, the rigor with which ancient Greek and Roman philosophical beliefs were argued, and the fact that contemporary philosophy can find its roots in these styles of argument, make them particularly amenable to the styles of philosophical engagement that we use today. All of these features mean that if one wants to develop really good abilities at understanding how other philosophers think, studying ancient Greek and Roman philosophy becomes a wonderful way of doing this.

Of course, these listening skills are not necessarily inherent in ancient philosophical texts, and it is really easy to read an ancient philosopher's writings without developing this kind of understanding. One can encounter this kind of superficial understanding in any philosophical writer that merely seeks to apply ancient beliefs to modern contexts or to apply modern approaches to ancient contexts. Some really great philosophers participate from time to time in this sort of "applied philosophy," sometimes with rich philosophical benefit. Although what he writes is interesting, I think we find these sorts of distortions when Heidegger reads ancient philosophy, or when Hegel attempts to write the history of philosophy. Of course, such distortions are not confined merely to the "continental" camps, and Quine appears to do the same thing when he reads Aristotle's syllogistic, or Van der Waerden when he reads Archimedes (Unlike some, I think creative mathematicians deserve the title of "philosophers"), and there are many more contemporary examples that I will pass over for the moment.

My problem with many of these interpretations of ancient texts is not with the usefulness of the theories that they develop, but with the further claim that these extensions and applications of ancient philosophy somehow track the meaning of ancient texts, and show a genuine understanding of the views of those ancient authors. It is in this claim that I see an inability to really listen to the ancient philosophers in question. Perhaps, I'm guilty of some degree of lack of comprehension of the more modern authors I cite in the last paragraph, but I think that in each of these cases an ancient philosopher is in a unique position to track these distortions. Unlike more contemporary philosophers, a good ancient philosophy student is always aware that there is an ineliminable historical-linguistic element at play whenever we comment on an ancient text. We are aware of this because we all had to spend years studying ancient Greek and Latin, and whenever we go astray from ordinary Greek, there are classicists waiting in the wings of the theater to call us back to task. Further, the existence of the classicist side of the division means that textual proficiency is prized, and if someone brings forward an interpretation of Aristotle, there is often someone in the audience who can cite the Greek text from memory that contradicts it, often by page and line number. This means that a good practitioner of ancient philosophy does not have the luxury of ignoring the nuances of language, or the details of a text. We have to listen.

Do you need to study ancient philosophy to develop this ability to listen? Of course not. Anyone who works very closely with a philosophical text or author can develop this ability. Anyone who reads the works of any other philosopher, or finds herself in a debate with another philosopher, or even in a debate with herself, should realize that she has to hone her ability to balance listening to the views of others with actively developing her own. What ancient philosophy does more than other enterprises is bring the contrast between listening and talking to the very forefront of the philosophical enterprise. 

And this is a point that is worth underscoring: learning to do ancient philosophy well is no different from learning to do philosophy well. And it is for this reason that ancient philosophy should never be blindly relegated to some historical fringe of the discipline of philosophy that merely collects the outmoded ideas of the past. Philosophy, just as Aristotle himself described the task on several occasions, is an active dialogue with the philosophers of the past. And as in any dialogue with another, there is an ethical imperative to try to understand the views of one's opponents as correctly, and in as philosophically rich a way, as you possibly can.

* * *

*OK, here's the joke from Ted Cohen's book:

Once a perverse young Jewish man in a small village in Poland enjoyed his role as apikoros. But after some time annoying his fellow villagers, he decided he needed to expand his talents, and so he took himself off to study with the man he had heard of as "the great apikoros of Warsaw." After arriving in Warsaw he found the man in question and followed him around for many days, observing what he did. Then he approached the man, saying, "I don't see that you are such a great apikoros. You observe the holidays, you attend shul, you keep a kosher house. I am already a better apikoros than you."
"Oh?" inquired the older man, "what do you do?"
The young man replied proudly, "I sneak treif into the butcher shop, I rearrange the pages of the siddur, I re-roll the Torah scrolls so that the wrong portions are read. Things like that."
"I see," said the older man. "Let me tell you: I'm an apikoros; you're a goy."