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 Nikolaus, Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work, translated by Charles Sanford Terry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920. pp. 45ff.
2. ^ Schweitzer, Albert, J.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.