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Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is the alpha and omega of music.

It’s one of the few things most musicians agree on. The question is whether to pay attention to the alpha part or the omega part.

For many, he’s the beginning of 250 years of the classical-music tradition: During most of that time, his music was the earliest regularly programmed and, for composers, the model of what good music should be.janus coin

Beethoven called him “the father of us all.”

But for an increasing number of listeners, he just as importantly is the culmination — the end — of the long tradition of polyphonic music dating back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Like the Roman god Janus, he faces both directions at once.

He is the hinge on which the history of music turns, the hinge between early music and our modern tradition.

J.S. Bach was born 325 years ago in the dead center of what now is Germany. In 1685, it was the town of Eisenach in Thuringia.

eisenach 1647

So many of his family were musicians — uncles, cousins, grandparents — that in parts of Germany at the time, Bach was a slang term for musician the way “Einstein” is sometimes used for a scientist. His father was Eisenach’s bandleader.

The young Bach was a spirited fellow — caught once with a girl in the choir loft; another time, he fought a duel in the streets; and later, for another offense, spent a week in jail.

He must have had a very passionate side, given his two wives and 20 children, even in a cold German habitat.

He joined the family business, as it were, and had a series of musical jobs for the rest of his life.thomaskirche leipzig2

His career can be divided into three distinct parts. From age 18 to 32, he was a church organist, mostly in the city of Weimar. From 32 to 38, he wrote secular music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Cothen. And from then until his death at 65, he was in charge of all music at St. Thomas Church in Liepzig.

At St. Thomas, he wrote a new sacred cantata every week for five years. About 250 of them survive: They make up a third of his output.

The composer didn’t get around much; few people did back then. All these places were within 50 miles of each other.

bach ms 2

The High Baroque

We call J.S. Bach a Baroque composer, but what does that mean?

Mostly, it means energy, emotion, drama and density.baroque art

From roughly 1600 to 1750, whether it is the painting by Rubens or Rembrandt, the poetry of John Milton or the counterpoint of Bach, Baroque art embraced its own artifice and reveled in florid extravagance.

You can listen to the music of Bach like any other, of course, letting it flow over you. Its tunes are memorable and its rhythms and harmonies are always interesting and pleasurable.

But Bach’s music offers special rewards that you can uncover if you try listening with your attention focused on these three things:bach canonic portrait

* Counterpoint: Much of Bach’s music is written in counterpoint, which means the playing of multiple melodies at the same time, overlapping each other. You can pick the top line and hear it as the “main tune” or you can listen to the subordinate parts and discover a tremendous richness of detail and meaning. Bach wrote many fugues, which are pieces of music in which the same melody overlaps itself in a different key, and races after itself (“fugue” comes from the Latin word for “flight,” as in “tempus fugit,” “time flies”). Listening to a fugue is like juggling with your ears.

* Bass line: Bach’s music has a forward movement driven by a clear and distinct bass line. You will find the music opens up for you if, instead of listening to the main tune, you focus on the lowest notes and see where they go: They will always guide where the top melody can settle. The 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms used to cover up the upper staves of music when looking at a new piece of music, and concentrate on the bass line. “That’s how you can tell if the music is good or not,” he said. You learn new things, like the way a football play opens up if, instead of keeping your eye on the quarterback, you follow the left tackle or linebacker.

* Dissonance: Oddly, for music that’s so listener friendly, Bach is one of the most dissonant of composers. It hardly sounds that way, because the sharp conflicts of notes are always resolved into a satisfying and harmonious manner, but the great emotional depth of Bach’s music — and its tremendous sense of humanity — comes in part from his use of dissonance as a metaphor for human suffering. (In an experiment, you might play one of Bach’s chorale hymn settings, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and play only the offbeats — it will sound surprisingly like Schoenberg.)

One of the canards about Bach’s music is that it is somehow academic and mathematical; the truth is, he was all over the map.

There is a core of irrationality in Bach’s music, a Dionysian freedom: You never know where he’s going next.

When Bach was working, music for church or concerts was polyphonic; that is, written not so much as a melody with accompaniment but as multiple melodies played one on top of the other to make a single whole.

Bach had an astonishing facility for combining separate lines and overlapping melodies with themselves, sometimes at different speeds at the same time, sometimes turning a melody upside down or playing it backwards.

There are worlds within worlds, and the contradiction of seeming to be the epitome of both order and spontaneity.WTC prelude 1

His music may have wheels spinning inside wheels, but it’s always surprising, like the C-minor prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which begins with a repeated rhythmic figure, unchanging over a constantly shifting harmony, but about three-quarters of the way through, he simply gives up on the pattern and takes off on a flourish of notes like a skyrocket spinning in air, and just when you get comfortable with that, he settles into a melismatic cadence that keeps promising to come to a rest but refuses to stop.WTC prelude 2

Or that moment in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto where everyone stops for fully five minutes to let the keyboard wander off on its own for a brilliant cadenza, essentially a rhapsody on a dominant pedal, that seems to find every possible permutation of its ideas, before the orchestra re-enters to conclude the piece.

Barroca

The word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl, and it was initially applied to the art of the period as an insult, by the calmer minds of the era that followed.

The history of art is an alternation of periods that idealized order and simplicity with a succeeding age that valued emotion and drama. The Renaissance calm gave way to a Baroque frenzy, just as the Neo-classical stability of Haydn and Mozart gave way to the Romantic yearning of Berlioz or Wagner.Greek sculptures

You can find this alternation as far back as you want: The Hellenic stasis of the Parthenon frieze in ancient Greece gave way to the wild extravagance of Hellenistic sculpture of the time of Alexander the Great, with its writhing figures and tortured faces. The dour Romanesque of the early Middle Ages gave way to the bustling aspiration of the Gothic.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche named the guiding spirits of the alternating eras Apollonian and Dionysian. They also are called Classic and Romantic.

Perhaps one of the reasons the music of Bach speaks to us again so strongly, through the newer interpretations, is that we’re currently entering another era of Baroque sensibility. The virtues of Bach’s time are re-emerging: variety and diversity rather than unity, the recycling of artistic material — Bach was not afraid to reuse material; he was one of the original samplers — and a mixing of high and low cultures. Bach used dance rhythms as the basis of much of his music, the way Duke Ellington and Chubby Checker might have.

(A modern version of the Baroque suite, with its allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, might be an orchestral suite made up of a fox-trot, a waltz, a tango and a Charleston.)

Postmodernism has become a neo-Baroque, and Bach is speaking our language once more.

brilliant bach

Bach-Werke Verzeichnis

Bach’s output was enormous: The complete works fill 155 CDs in one collection. There are more than a thousand numbered compositions, running from music for solo violin to grand vocal works for multiple choruses and orchestras. Half the music was written for church services.

Much of the music is among the best known and dearest loved in the repertoire. Even those with no interest in classical music know his Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor for organ — it’s played endlessly every Halloween — and the Prelude to his first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello can be heard in several television commercials, including one for American Express.

His music connects with a lot of different audiences.bach at organ horizontal color copy

Culture wars

The problem is, there are two primary constituencies for the music of Bach, and the difference between them might as well be between red states and blue states: It’s a culture war.bach statue 2

The older tradition plays a beautiful Bach, with long, flowing melodic lines and a profoundly emphasized bass line, with clearly delineated harmonies. It is the Bach that for many, including Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, “is the only argument proving the creation of the universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”

The composer Debussy said, “Bach is our lord of music. Every composer would do well to pray to him before commencing work.”

This is the Bach we inherited, thick with 250 years of performance tradition. It is Bach as the Alpha of our music. For this contingent, Bach is something universal, primordial, fundamental: Homer in music, or Shakespeare.

The name Bach in German means “brook” or “stream.” “He is not a brook,” Beethoven punned. “He is an ocean.”

But that’s the Bach who is the first modern composer; there’s a rising contingent that views him instead as the culmination of a century and a half of an older music tradition — The Omega. It is a Baroque style of playing completely at odds with the traditional symphonic approach.

The younger tradition mistrusts such grand religio-philosophical interpretations as pretentious piffle. And for them, as for the conductor Arturo Toscanini, “Tradition is just the last bad performance.” They want to clean the browned varnish from Bach and find the bright colors underneath.

These new historically informed performance-practice people want to dance, dance, dance, and they emphasize the rhythm and up the tempo, sometimes approximating speed metal.kimberly marshall

“Sometimes the tempi have become absurd,” says organist Kimberly Marshall. “You’d think you were playing your LP at 78 rpm, like the Energizer Bunny or something.”

The revisionists quote poet Ezra Pound, who famously averred that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance.”
And they believe they’re performing the music in a more authentic way, meaning, the way Bach would have performed it himself. Usually, on the musical instruments that Bach would have known: valveless horns and trumpets, oboes with few keys, wooden flutes and short-necked violins with light bows. They strive to recreate the sound that would have resounded in Bach’s ear.

And this is the sticking point: Like believers in competing religions, their dogmas are irreconcilable. Whose ear is more important? Bach’s ear or the contemporary listener’s ear? After all, we can never have 18th-century ears. Too much has happened since.

“The loudest sound Bach would have heard might have been a door slamming,” says conductor Benjamin Rous, who began his career leading the Boston Baroque Ensemble at Harvard University. “If you wanted to give our listeners the experience that Bach had, you’d have to create a world without the last two centuries of history.” So, pick your side and make your argument.
hamlet burton

“It’s like politics,” says cellist Blythe Tretick of the trio Paradisa. “You get into some pretty heated discussions about these things. You can’t win, because it’s a matter of taste.”

Unexamined through all this is the basic premise that music should reflect the composer’s intent. It’s taken as an axiom. But few people are asking why. We don’t insist that Shakespeare be performed outdoors, with boys playing the women’s parts and with the rhetorical delivery of its actors. We don’t blanch at Richard Burton playing Hamlet in suit and tie.

So why do we argue over whether Bach’s musicians played with a vibrato or not? Shouldn’t the music be played to mean the most to modern audiences, the way we do with Hamlet? How much is composer’s intention and how much merely the limitations and conventions of his age? And is a performance something alive, or a museum piece under a vitrine?

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Perhaps this is the underlying truth of the historical-performance people: Unacknowledged by them, they aren’t so much re-creating historical fact as reflecting contemporary taste. We have grown up with a popular music based on rhythm and energy, so we may well now prefer our Bach the same way. Perhaps our ears are attuned to the virtues of Creedence Clearwater Revival bach with electric guitarand feel more comfortable with a Bach that sounds very like it.

And, too, after a violent century, we have become a little more circumspect about claiming the great philosophical ideas and universal truths we found in Bach’s music and that too often justified war and genocide. We have been humbled into seeking a more modest music.

Yet, the emotional and spiritual profundity is there, goading us into recognizing that if the current age is modest, the universe is still infinite, and someone with the genius to write the Mass in B-minor or the St. Matthew Passion is a brilliant mirror to that something bigger than our paltry selves.

You pays your money and takes your choice

Both styles of Bach performance are generously represented on CD. Arkivmusic.com lists more than 5,700 recordings.stern st. john pair

You might compare the recording of his violin concertos by Isaac Stern (old style) with those by Lara St. John (new style). You’ll get whiplash going from the first to the second.gould copy

The older style is warmer and richer; the newer style is bouncier and more rhythmic — and a whole lot faster. Discover which performance tradition speaks best to you.

One CD everyone should own is Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations.” It’s not only one of the greatest Bach performances on disc, it’s one of the greatest recordings of all times: exuberant, manic in places, and with its counterpoint always clear. It has never been out of print. It’s neither old school nor new school: It is Gould school. Sui generis.

Here are other recordings to check out.

3 traditional recordings you can’t do without

old bach trio

* “Bach: The Great Solo Works,” with Rosalyn Tureck, piano. Tureck was a Bach specialist, and here she shows just how Baroque the composer could be, in a disc of lesser-known works. A must-have.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor. This is old-style Bach, including a piano instead of a harpsichord in the Fifth Concerto (played by the great Rudolf Serkin).

* “Well Tempered Clavier, Book I,” with Daniel Barenboim, piano. Barenboim uses all the possibilities of the piano — pedal, arpeggios, strong bass notes — to make a heroic performance of this iconic music.

Revisionist Bach

new bach trio

* “Six Suites for Violoncello Solo,” with Anner Bylsma, cello. The music is played on a Baroque-style cello (the Stradavarius “Servais” instrument from the Smithsonian Institution) and shows it off at its best.

* “The Brandenburg Concertos,” with Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Harnoncourt is one of the leaders of the “original instruments” movement, and he buffs up and shines Bach’s chestnuts with a fresh vision.

* “Bach Cantatas,” with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, Ton Koopman, conductor. This DVD includes performances of five of Bach’s church cantatas, including the famous Nos. 140 and 147 — with the chorus “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” — and his secular “Coffee Cantata,” which was essentially a singing commercial for the composer’s favorite coffeehouse.

Bottom line

The fact is, the music is so strong, so compelling, so moving — so graceful and so inevitable — that almost any performance will leave you in awe of the imagination and humanity of the grumpy little burger who wrote it.

It hardly matters if its the clever intertwining of voices in a Two-part Invention or a cantata in praise of a good cup of coffee or the cosmic agony of the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion. graph

A former editor of mine created a little mind-game of an intellectual Cartesian co-ordinate system. Up and down its ordinate you map a person’s depth — how profoundly he or she can think and feel, and avoid cliche and generalization, with maybe Justin Bieber on one end and, say, Nelson Mandela near the other. And along its perpendicular abscissa you can map a person’s “width,” or how broad are his or her interests and competence.

There are people with great depth in a narrow band. They have a Ph.D. and know everything there is about the design of active site-directed irreversible enzyme inhibitors, but never heard of the infield fly rule. And there are those with a tiny dabs of knowledge in a very wide field — “Jack of all trades but master of none” — but very few, as my old boss pointed out, that score in both depth and width.

There is Shakespeare; there is Homer; there is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Alpha and Omega.

 

AS pingpong

No major composer suffers from worse press than Arnold Schoenberg.  His music is vilified, blamed for being ugly and for destroying classical music. But how many of those who think they hate Schoenberg’s music have actually listened — and listened with an open mind and open ear — to what he actually wrote?

The problem is that one’s expectations of the music so color its perception, it can be difficult to actually hear it. Ideas about the music clog the ears.

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

(A parallel case, though less debilitating, is the myth that J.S. Bach’s music is somehow “mathematical,” when the truth is, as a high Baroque composer, his music is often wildly irrational and excessive — the Baroque is, after all, a Romantic phase of cultural history in the eternal pendulum swing between the classical and romantic sensibilities. Listen to the C-minor Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, which starts out as a repeated pattern of shifting harmonies, but then breaks into a series of appended and unrelated cadenzas. Bach tends to pile it on, not work out formulae.)

So, it is the myths about Schoenberg’s music that are the problem, not the music itself, which, given a fair hearing, is instantly communicative.

It is, however, different and unfamiliar.

“I feel air from another planet.”

These are the words the soprano sings in Schoenberg’s second string quartet (1908). Yes, a singer in the string quartet. Makes you reconsider what a string quartet is.

Although he’s one of the major composers of the German tradition, he also wrote music that dispensed with the familiar keys of, say, C-major or d-minor and developed a system for using all 12 notes — both the black and the white keys on the piano — of the octave, arranged in a series, instead of a melody. This atonal music still sounds strange to the ear, as if it came from another planet.

Hence the charge that his music is ugly; that he destroyed music; that it’s not music, it’s mathematics.

None of these canards is true, but they are persistent myths.

Myth 1: Schoenberg is all head and no heart.

If you look at the totality of his output, it becomes clear that Schoenberg is among the last great Romantics. The music is powerfully emotional.

Perhaps because Schoenberg became such an important subject for music theorists that this myth began. They analyzed the music without ever discussing the emotional content of the music. That’s not the composer’s fault: You need to listen to his music — all music — with not only open ears, but an open heart.

Those theorists looked at the basic features of Schoenberg’s theory of 12-tone music and discussed them as if they were the point of the music. AS smiling

That’s like discussing a person’s DNA but not the person’s character. No wonder it seemed to them mathematical and brain-oriented.

In fact, it may be that what really puts some people off is just how emotional it is: deeply and profoundly so, but its emotions are often painful ones rather than simple and happy ones. There is angst, pain and suffering as well as brilliant moments of transcendence, as in his early Transfigured Night. These are emotions particularly appropriate for the violent, chaotic 20th century.

He is more Bergman than Fellini.

Myth 2: Schoenberg destroyed tonality.

The problems with tonality occurred before Schoenberg. Western classical music had become so harmonically complex that often it was difficult to tell what, if any, key a piece was really written in.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, sometimes wanders into the far reaches of tonal ambiguity. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is structured around the tritone, of all things. Rather than trying to destroy tonality, Schoenberg was trying to find a solution to a problem that already existed.

Schoenberg saw what he thought was a directional arrow in musical progress, with each generation from Bach through Wagner more tonally complex and equivocal. He decided it was his duty to take music to the next step: atonality.

But he never destroyed tonality.

“There’s plenty of good music still to be written in C-major,” he once famously said, and much of his later music went back to tonal writing.

Myth 3: Schoenberg was an elitist.

The idea that the composer was an egghead has more to do with his bald pate than his actual demeanor.

He had an interest in many things, including playing ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin. Gershwin painted Schoenberg’s portrait. When Gershwin died, Schoenberg wrote the eulogy.

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

He designed toys for his children and made them peanut-butter sandwiches cut in the shapes of animals. He enjoyed going to amusement parks, and he enjoyed jazz and socialized with Artie Shaw.

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

For his Society of Private Music Performances, which he and his colleagues arranged in Vienna before the Nazis drove them to flee, he arranged Strauss waltzes and songs from operettas.

It is silly to think he had nothing to do with the lowbrow.

He didn’t even have a high-school diploma, and when he was in school, he was an indifferent student.

It’s true that he believed music should always be the best it could be, but how elitist could it be if one of his ambitions was to score films? Although it never came to pass, he was considered for scoring the 1937 Paul Muni film, The Good Earth. Hardly an art film.

Myth 4: Schoenberg’s music is ugly.

Certainly beauty is in the ear of the listener, and some of Schoenberg’s music can be challenging, even to a seasoned audience. But there is little in music as ravishingly beautiful — in a perfectly traditional sense — than his Gurrelieder symphonic song cycle, which out-Wagners Wagner.

And even in the later, atonal and 12-tone music, there is great beauty to those who can get past their initial shock: The piano concerto at times sounds almost like Rachmaninov.

Listen to Hillary Hahn play the violin concerto: Ravishing.

In part, it is a matter of letting our ears become acclimated to the air from another planet. For some listeners, it may take years, but at some point, you wake up one day and say, “Gee, I’d like to hear Schoenberg’s string trio.” And it will give deep pleasure.

Myth 5: Schoenberg killed classical music.

Poet T.S. Eliot once complained that Milton had ruined English poetry for 250 years. Milton’s powerful voice left its imprint on all who came after.

Ironically, Eliot’s distinctive voice has been likewise imitated by everyone, especially by the bad grad-student poets in academic programs everywhere.

But you can’t blame Milton or Eliot for being good and therefore influential.

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

And it’s true that a generation of American college music programs were miserably stunted by the hegemony of 12-tone theorists in the postwar era. It is not Schoenberg, but rather that academic music that is mathematical and not emotional. That’s the music that really is ugly.

But Schoenberg himself would have been horrified at what has been done in his name since his death at 77 in 1951.

At the end of his life, when his disciples once told him that there were now more and more composers writing 12-tone works, he asked, “But, are they also coming up with music?”

Scholars will discuss the minutiae of dodecaphonic theory, but anyone willing to take the chance will learn that the real Schoenberg is one of the great composers of the tradition, whose work is moving, beautiful and — most surprisingly given the myths — deeply and profoundly beautiful.