Wednesday, October 22, 2014

800 Words: Robin, Woody, Joanie, and Bill (part 1)

We live in a great time to love standup comedy, but it’s a horrible time to be a standup. We live in an era when Louis CK has more influence than any standup comedian since the 1970’s heyday of Pryor and Carlin. Within his kingdom is a treasure trove of great, slightly more minor comics: Stewart and Colbert of course (though you can’t really call what they do Standup…), Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifinackis, Maria Bamford, Ricky Gervais, Kristin Schaal, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Issard, Tig Notaro, Brian Posehn, Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Chelsea Handler, Doug Stanhope, Adam Carolla. Among the veterans, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Lewis Black, Lisa Lampanelli, Colin Quinn, David Cross, and Jeff Garlin are still going strong. Until recently, Patrice O’Neal, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, and Greg Geraldo were going strong, and Bill Cosby and Dave Chapelle both look determined to make a strong comeback.


And yet, it must be a stressful, anguishing time to be a comedian, because nothing is guaranteed to be funny anymore. Whether or not the outrage is justified (and I’m willing to acknowledge that much of it is), we live in a society of perpetual anger, perpetual grievance, and perpetual victimhood. Much of the anger, grievances, and claims to victimhood are entirely justified, and the voice which the internet gives to such people is so long overdue in coming as to render it an historic event in human history. When women, gays, and ethnic minorities have been bullied for a million years of human existence, it’s rather understandable that when given a medium which allows new levels of independence, they might overreact to some provocations. But our concern here is neither the long view of human history nor the history of twitter outrage, it’s merely standup comedy. Comedians can now stream their own albums with no intermediary, their work can also be scrutinized by more people than ever in the history of comedy, and combed through for matter which gives offense to anyone looking for it. This may spur comedians to still greater flights of creativity, but it must also makes their job that much more terrifying. There is already no job in the arts more punishing than the standup comic. Only foolhardy people would ever countenance becoming one, and in our day of internet searches and viral content, the burden of that job just became that much more onerous.


Nothing in entertainment or the arts dates faster than comedy. Routines from favorite comics which seemed hilarious three months ago can leave you in stunned silence as you wonder how you could ever have thought that bit was funny. Fifteen years ago, Bill Maher was considered the vanguard of comic performance for the morally righteous. Today, both most comedians and most progressives view him as an embarrassment for his sexism, his racism, and his pomposity. Whenever Conservatives need a straw man to show that liberals are ‘just as bad’, they use Bill Maher. But Bill Maher is merely an extreme example: every major comedian has a few bits that in retrospect make some among their listeners cringe - Louis CK has a bit about fantasizing about murdering his children, George Carlin had a bit about how rape could be funny, Sarah Silverman has a joke about how 9/11 is the worst day of her life because she found out that a Starbucks soy chai latte has 900 calories.


The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate.


Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it.


In the last year, the world lost two comedic icons, and it’s in the process of losing a third. Weirdly enough, not a one of them is Robin Williams. You don’t lose an icon through death, if you did, then we’d have to remember David Brenner (does anybody?). You lose an icon by the icon ceasing to stand for what made him iconic. We lost Joan Rivers to death, though perhaps we lost her as an icon a number of years before. Back in Februrary, the world re-lost Woody Allen as an icon, just as it prepared itself to re-embrace his hallowed status. And as of this week, we seem to have lost one of the biggest icons of them all: Bill Cosby. Both Woody Allen and Bill Cosby are still alive, but everything which made them such legends is dead.


On the other hand, we will never lose Robin Williams. Through suicide, Robin Williams underwent an amazing transformation. Just three months ago, he was a washed-up hack. He is now an Icon of American History. He was more than simply a Shakespearen/Mozartian talent of comedy, however ill-utilized, he was a primal archetype. He was the father my generation wished we had, who loved us unconditionally and always knew what to do to cheer us up. He bridged the divide between children and grownups, assuring us we didn’t have to be terrified of the adult world. But the adult world is a terrifying place, and to the end, Robin Williams was clearly half child. And like a child, when he realized that the world might not love him unconditionally, he couldn’t help but take it as a personal offense. It must have been terribly difficult for an unhinged talent like Robin Williams to process rejection. I can’t imagine that he wasn’t devastated by the downturn in his fortunes. I imagine him in his final years being something like TS Eliot’s infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing. Surely Williams had a dark side, but he admitted to it, and never excused himself for his flaws. In later years, his standup specials were virtual catalogues of his various human frailties. And even so, he never glorified in his failings. He wanted to be known for being a better man than he was, but since he was not a better man, he would be forthright about who he was instead.  


In death, as in life, he generated more love than any other person ever could. In its way, his death was as devastating for my generation as John Lennon’s death was for our parents. It’s the ultimate wakeup call - our youths are over because Robin Williams will never give us any new consolation. We now have to fend for ourselves, and Robin Williams belongs to the Ages. In a hundred years, people will still watch his routines and marvel that this comedic volcano could possibly exist. What other comics had to log hundreds of hours honing and sharpening, Robin Williams seemed to do with no edit button necessary. Comedians like Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld gain tremendous respect for using no vulgar language - ‘working clean’ they call it - and supposedly that is the hardest thing to do in comedy. But I would argue that Williams worked clean in a much deeper, harder sense - he barely made fun of anyone except himself, and yet he was still the funniest man alive. His comedy was utterly without compromise. It hardly made fun of no one but the most powerful people, he never used it to project an image of himself as anything but the trainwreck he was. What he did was not only pure comedy, it was pure integrity.


But to Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, we now learn that there is very little integrity to what they do, and that the truth about them is unfortunately more interesting than the front they no doubt slaved to project. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to wonder how more people didn’t see the truth about them before.

It would seem as though every decade had three comics which dominate: the white comic, the black comic, and the female comic. The audience for comedy is sufficiently small that the same people usually listen to the same comics. But the traditions and concerns which they represent are so different that there always seems to be room for all three at the top of the food chain. And yet, today, the dominant comic is so obviously Louis CK that it seems tough to remember that there are other comics. But even today, clearly Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman together tower over female comics in both recognition and respect, but the comic who would probably be today’s dominant black comic is Patrice O’Neal, but he died quite painfully and tragically a few years ago. Perhaps Hannibal Burress will soon take his place, or perhaps Key and Peele. But think of the 00’s, clearly Jon Stewart was biggest white male name, and clearly Dave Chapelle was the biggest black Male name, and clearly Margaret Cho was the biggest female name. In the 90’s, you could clearly see that Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres were the most important names. In the 80’s it was Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopie Goldberg. In the 70’s, it was George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers. In the 60’s, it was Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Phyllis Diller.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Clas 7: Handel, Our Contemporary

We will get to Handel shortly, but in order to talk about Handel, we first have to talk for a few minutes about Bach.


It’s said that Bach is the foundation of all music which came after him. In fact, it was said by me last week among many many others. And I stand by that, but there are signs that the influence of Bach is waning.


If Bach is the foundation of all music that comes afterward, how do you account for this?




How is Indian classical music different from Western classical music? (twenty-six tones due to ‘just temperament’, monophonic, single drone instead of moving bass line)


Or this:




How is traditional Japanese music different from Western classical music? (pentatonic scale yet feels as though missing nothing no intervals, comparitively homogenous timbre, but contrapuntally very sophisticated)


Or for god’s sake, what about this?:




(where is the variation in the music of Tibetan chants?)


Or even this one?




How close do you think Balkan Gypsy music is to classical music?




It’s so obvious that we live in a global marketplace that it’s become cliche, and it would be idiotic to think that the global marketplace doesn’t apply to music too. The old definitions of what defines music have to be thrown out the window, whether it’s European classical music, or the American popular music which derived from it, it’s not only Western-centric, it’s also patently untrue.


I’m not sufficiently broad-minded to stop myself from saying that the Western European tradition is still by some distance the richest musical tradition in the world. But the entire world is catching up very quickly. The Western tradition is now just the dominant part of a global tradition, and composers now have the option of fusing together music from parts of the world that a century ago knew absolutely nothing about each other. And since the rest of the literate world probably knows more about our music than we know about theirs, it’s highly probable the next waves of truly great composers will probably come from a far off places around the globe who can fuse diverse sounds together in ways we can’t yet fathom.


In a world where Western conceptions of harmony and rhythm were dominant, Bach was the king. Bach lived his whole life in a 200 mile radius around the German principalities, but he also knew music from Italy, France, and England, and he synthesized all their influences into one seamless system which was so powerful that music virtually started over from scratch. We get virtually our entire system of harmony on the Well-Tempered Clavier, we get all our counterpoint from later works like the Art of the Fugue and A Musical Offering. But Bach could never account for cultures which evolved in completely different directions from the ones he knew about.


One day, perhaps one day soon, there will be another Bach-like figure who will incorporate all the different musical traditions of the world into a single overarching system, but until that day, Bach will still be the King. Even so, his empire is clearly declining. It’s hard for me to believe that he won’t eventually just be another great name in music history - one of hundreds, a member of the choir rather than a soloist.


Meanwhile, an exact contemporary of Bach is emerging from a long stay for at least a brief solo bow. Assuming there is no one much over the age of fifty in this classroom, there are two composers whom music lovers have almost thoroughly rediscovered in your lifetime. One is Gustav Mahler, whom we won’t cover in this class for a few more years. The other is the subject of today’s class. Of those two, the reappearance of Handel was much less likely, mostly because he had just died. Handel was the composer of the British Empire, one might even say that he served the same role to British Imperialism that Wagner served to German fascism. Let’s listen to a bit of Handel right now.




This is a recording of Handel from 1888. Believe it or not, what you’re hearing is the sound of 2,700 singers. Handel was, and to at least a smaller extent still is, a community institution in England and among a certain breed of white bread person in America. For two-hundred years, the Handel oratorios have been the foundation of every community choir in the English-speaking world. Part of the reason that he’s enormous fun to sing. He lets you shout at the top of your lungs in eight-part harmony. The only problem with this mode of experiencing Handel is that he comes across as amazingly long-winded. Here’s what George Bernard Shaw had to say about the experience:


Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution. When his Messiah is performed the audience stands up, as if in church, while the Hallelujah chorus is being sung. It is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to England Protestants. Every three years there is a Handel Festival, at which his oratorios are performed by four thousand executants, collected from all the choirs in England. The effect is horrible; and everybody declares it sublime. Many of the songs in these oratorios were taken by Handel from his operas and set to pious words… If anyone were to take the song from the oratorio and set it back again to secular words, he would probably be prosecuted for blasphemy. Occasionally a writer attempts to spell Handel’s name properly as Haendel. This produces just the same shock as the attempts to spell Jehovah as Jahve. The effect is one of brazen impiety…


Handel’s music is the most English music in the world. If Doctor Johnson had been a composer he would have composed like Handel.... Yet in England his music is murdered by the tradition of the big chorus! People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder. You can hear the footsteps of four thousand people any day in the Rue de Rivoli - I mention it because it is the only street in Paris known to English tourists - but they are not so impressive as the march of a singe well-trained actor down the stage of the Theatre Francais. It might as well be said that four thousand starving men are four thousand times as hungry as one, or four thousand slim ingenues four thousand times as slim as one. You can get a tremendously powerful fortissimo from twenty good singers… because you can get twenty people into what is for practical purposes the same spot; but all the efforts of the conductors to get a fortissimo from the four thousand Handel Festival choristers are in vain: they occupy too large a space; and even when the conductor succeeds in making them sing a note simultaneously, no person can hear them simultaneously, because the sound takes an appreciable time to travel along a battle front four thousand strong; and in rapid passages the semiquaver (sixteenth note) of the single farthest from you does not reach you until that of the singer nearest you has passed you by. If I were a member of the House of Commons I would propose a law making it a capital offence to perform an oratorio by Handel with more than eighty performers in the chorus and orchestra, allowing fortyeight singers and thirtytwo instrumentalists. Nothing short of that will revive Handel’s music in England. It lies dead under the weight of his huge reputation and the silly notion that big music requires big bands and choruses.


Here is what one aria from Messiah used to sound like. This aria is based on Psalm 2: Why do the heathen rage?




It’s all very pleasant, but it’s not very rageful. Compare this to a more modern perspective.




Suddenly, this work is illuminated as a work of absolute genius. This sounds like war. Not only does it sound like rage on an international scale, and not only that, it sounds like a protest against it - the kind of protest which Victorian England would very much not like to hear.


Now let’s hear what the chorus which follows this. “Let us break their bonds asunder.”


Here’s a traditional massive Handel performance from 1926. 3000 singers and 500 instrumentalists:




They can’t even keep themselves together.


Now let’s listen to a more modern performance that’s presumably much closer to what Handel had in mind:




(start at 2:25)


Slowly but surely, Handel is revealing his true face to us. Like with Bach, we again have to ask, who is this man? The answer, unfortunately, is not easily revealed except through his music. We don’t have many letters left, though we have lots of anecdotal testimony. Handel clearly guarded his private life very closely, and we still don’t know why or if there’s even a reason. Some of them, such as that Handel was gay, seem halfway plausible. Some of them, such as that Handel was Jewish - as one cantor once insisted to me - seem downright idiotic. But through his music we can tell a number of things. We can tell that, like Bach, he was a Prussian of very deep Lutheran faith. But Handel’s faith was not Bach’s. Handel came from the upper-middle-class, his father was a surgeon and he lived his life completely free of privation, with long travels all around Europe, and most importantly, he was not constantly surrounded by family death. His view of God was correspondingly far more cheerful than Bach’s. But triumph and optimism is never far away from Handel’s surface. Bach’s church music gravitated to the New Testament, in which Christ allows us to transcend our earthly defeat. Handel’s sacred music gravitates toward the Old Testament, which tells us stories of heroic triumph here on Earth. Like Bach, Handel had a hair-trigger temper, but unlike Bach, he was not thought of by colleagues as particularly difficult. This is probably because he had in spades that one quality which Bach’s music almost completely lacks, a sense of humor, a humor that comes out in his music again and again. My favorite story about Handel involves them both, a story in which Handel accomplished something every conductor and stage director has fantasized doing to singers since the beginning of opera. One time, a prima donna soprano refused to sing an an aria (song) as he wrote it and insisted on changes, so Handel simply grabbed her, took her to the window, opened it, made her look outside and said “Madame, I know you are a true she-devil, but I will show you that I am Beelzebub, the chief devil.”


But unlike Bach, not only did Handel never marry, he was never even linked with a woman. Many musicologists claim today that during the second part of his life, Handel was part of a secret gay underworld among the English noble class. But the evidence for that claim is very specious. Given that Handel lived in Georgian England, which has to be numbered one of the most gossipy societies ever established, and given that he was so devoutly religious, it seems highly unlikely. To me at least, it seems much more likely that Handel was asexual.


There’s a story I love about the longtime conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, William Steinberg. He was asked who the greatest musical geniuses were. He thought about it for a moment and said: “Bach, Mozart, and Schubert. But the greatest composers were Handel, Beethoven, and Brahms.”


Can anyone guess what he meant by that?


As Richard Feynman would say, in every artform, there are the geniuses who are completely not of this world. We have no idea how they do what they do. Bach is an example of that, so is Mozart, Shakespeare, so is Leonardo, so is Newton, so is Kant, so perhaps is Steven Spielberg. But then there are geniuses who are geniuses because they are just like us, if only we were a hundred times better at what we do. For geniuses like Handel, or Beethoven, or Michelangelo, or Dostoevsky, or Darwin, or Nietzsche, or Werner Herzog, every single creation is the result of a titanic struggle to get a work to emerge from the ether.


Part of the reason that Handel is still a bit underrated is because he was certainly the latter kind of genius, but he wrote with the fluency of a Bach. The end result is that Handel’s works are often much too long and probably require an editor to get rid of the dull bits - a practice which, in this era when every work of art is considered a sacred text, is still something of a blasphemy. Even in Messiah, one of the great edifices of Western thought, in part III, you can almost feel Handel up against his deadline. It’s considered one of music’s miracles that Handel wrote Messiah, more than two-and-a-half hours of music, in twenty-four days. But the speed with which he wrote certainly shows. The work is in three parts, and rather than compose a genuine part III, he simply has an aria (song) for bass go on and on with the exact same music for more than twelve minutes. If the singer isn’t very good, it’s reason enough to leave the concert hall early. In fact, Handel was often so pressed for time that he simply cut and pasted his own music from other works into the new work. Occasionally, perhaps even more than occasionally, he even plagiarized the work of other composers. But in the 18th century, plagiarism was considered an intellectual misdemeanor, not a felony.


But more than any other composer in the ‘standard repertoire,’ improvisation is the key to Handel’s work. A lot of Handel’s music is based on repetition, with the expectation that, just like in jazz or rock, the soloists will improvise on the theme every time the theme repeats itself. Like Bach, Handel was an extraordinary keyboardist. And you can hear just how great an improviser he must have been in some of his instrumental pieces. Here is his most famous one, the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith,’ which is apparently based on a song Handel once heard a cheerful blacksmith singing to himself.




Let’s take a break now…


(after break)


The title of this class is Handel: Our Contemporary. The unwritten attachment is that Handel is our contemporary while Bach is perhaps not. No doubt, that’s unfair to Bach. But more than at any time in two hundred years, the two composers are becoming thought of as roughly equal in quality. But Bach represents the old order of music, his conservatism is everything that is conservative about the musical establishment. In an era when classical music was thought of as a bastion of quality against the barbarian hordes of popular music, it made sense that Bach  would be thought the pinnacle of its achievement. But closer to their era, both Haydn and Beethoven declared Handel to be the greatest composer who ever lived.


Handel is the vanguard of everything that was liberal about his age. For the last fifty years of his life, Handel made his home in London. And the London of Handel’s era was an amazing place. Handel lived in a society with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Alexander Pope (one of the world’s greatest poets), Prime Minister Robert Walpole (who established the whigs as a permanent political force), Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (who founded The Spectator). And Handel would appear to have known them all. He was fluent in German, English, Italian, French, and Latin. He had a fantastic art collection, and was a great gourmand. He was so known for his appetite that one famous painting has the sillouhette of Handel playing at an organ. In this painting (show) he has the nose of a pig, seated on a wine barrel, with dead chickens hanging from the pipes.


Unlike Bach, who worked as a part of the medieval patronage system, in which musicians were kept on retainer by the Church or by aristocrats, Handel was a musical venture-capitalist. He was his own producer who mounted every production with the hope that he would make an enormous amount of money. He did make an enormous amount of money, and he lost very nearly as much. A Handel performance was not unlike any rock group who puts on an enormous concert - his music lived and died by how much he excited the audience.


When Handel first came to England, he made his reputation on opera. Handel’s greatest love was clearly the theater, but like Bach’s church music, there is something about Handel’s operas that is weirdly dry. They’re performed now around the world pretty frequently, but they’re almost inevitably the most boring thing in an opera season.


Part of the reason is that very few musicians still understand what Baroque Opera was, and still fewer are in any condition to do anything about it. Opera to Handel was completely unlike opera in our day. Baroque Opera is basically a concert for singers, and the singers were like musical instruments. If a musical instrument can play sixteen notes every second, then a vocalist should be able to do the same. If a musical instrument can sustain a note for over a minute at a time, then a vocalist should be able to do it too. Handel’s operas have all these incredible tricks and more. When you look at the score of a Handel opera, it’s hard to believe that the singers of Handel’s day didn’t blow most contemporary opera stars out of the water. Very few singers, even today when we have a better idea of Handel’s style, are truly up to his demands, and when you hear what Handel had in mind, it’s pretty amazing.




Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, what about this beautiful bit:




Another reason that it’s fairly easy to be bored by Baroque opera is that the atmosphere was completely different. The spectators were not in the ultra-reverent opera temple in which they hear opera today. It was much closer to a bar. They would talk and eat until something great forced them to pay attention. If a group of spectators got it in their minds to boo a singer, nothing could be done to stop them. Singers would break character all the time to talk to friends in the audience. So if the reverent atmosphere in which Bach worked set the stage for what classical music would later become, the atmosphere in which Handel worked was the same which every jobbing popular musician works today.


And if the musicians of Handel’s era were like jobbing rock guitarists, then the star singer was the Castrato. Castrato means exactly what it sounds like. A castrated male singer whose testicles were removed before puberty so that testosterone would not lower the voice. The end result was that they had male lung power coupled with female vocal range. They started in the Church. Since the Catholic Church banned woman singers, the Church required high vocalists without having to train new boys every few years. So they simply removed the testicles of talented boys before their voices changed. Their voices became so popular that they became in demand for secular vocal music too. Of course, most of the Castratos did not become musical superstars, but the ones who did had riches beyond what anyone thought possible. The famous castrati were like rock stars, offered every possible financial reward, every expense paid for them, and women flocking to them. A few of them even had affairs, and since there was no testosterone produce semen, they could have sex for as long as they liked. But a lot of the castratos had horrific physical injuries - female breasts, no body hair, or enormous physical bulk.


By the 19th century, the castratos were a dying breed. It was thought so inhumane that the Pope issued an edict banning the practice throughout all of Christendom. He then took the remaining castratos under his care. There is only one Castrato who lived into the recorded era, and we have a few recordings of him. He's already in his fifties and long past his best voice when this recording is made. But it has a sound on it which is utterly unlike anything that has ever existed in our time.




What does this sound like to you?


This sound is the relic of a bygone era, and so are most things about Handel's operas. Most of Handel's operas, like most of Bach's church music, is not really meant for eternity. In Handel's case, they are entertainments designed to meet the needs of that particular moment, great for when it's needed, but not great when they're given an artificial shelf life. But Handel’s sacred music, like Bach’s instrumental music, is where his true greatness lies. Bach’s instrumental music has the passion which only a true believer can muster. Handel’s sacred music has the drama which only a man of the theater can conjure. There is certainly drama in a Bach’s church music, but next to Handel’s great oratorios, Bach’s church music can be a bit of a weak brew.


So how does Handel do it? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the main one is called ‘word painting.’ Handel, more than any composer who ever lived, was a master of finding the right notes for the right word. Sometimes, extremely literally. There’s nothing in Bach like Israel in Egypt, my favorite of his works, in which Handel literally depicts the ten plagues. Let’s listen to a few of them…




(find Diikstra…)


Here’s a question: Why is the music for darkness so much darker than the music for slaying of the first-born?


This is where Handel, even at his formidable best, gets into trouble, and where he begins to resemble a bellicose us-vs. them composer like Wagner rather than an all-compassionate master like Bach or Mozart or Beethoven. There is something almost profane about Handel’s church music, comprising mostly of what we call ‘oratorios.’ There is very little talk about sin or forgiveness, and damnation is always something that happens to somebody else. Because the thrill which Handel’s audiences got from his oratorios was as much nationalistic as it was religious or theatrical. In Handel’s music, Israel is always triumphing over some evil enemy. From the beginning of Christianity and the Jewish diaspora onward, Israel and Jerusalem were always standins in literature for the aspirations of their nations. Take this famous example from his oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus:




Clearly this is as much about England as it is about Hasmonean-era Judea. The conquering hero is England, the unquestioned naval power, about to embark on conquering the world. Handel lived in a liberal era, but early 18th-century liberalism is not liberalism by any standard we much understand. Handel, like Wagner after him, wanted to overwhelm audiences with the massiveness of his sound. Take this example from his Royal Fireworks. Handel originally wrote it, albeit unwillingly, for 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 timpanists, and as many snare drums as can be found. It premiered for an audience of 12,000 people.




So, ultimately, what is an oratorio? It is a retelling of a story, in music, usually with both chorus and orchestra. A sacred oratorio is the retelling of a biblical story. Handel was the master of that, using plain English rather than Latin, and giving it the dramatic charge of a Shakespeare play. King George II called Handel the Shakespeare of music. That might seem a little extravagant to us today, but it’s amazing is how many musicians and artists over the centuries would have agreed. Handel, as much as any composer, is still with us. When we hear Handel's brazen declarations of Imperial triumph, we hear America as much as we hear England or Israel. When we hear the virtuoso passages for singers, we should think of how stadiums cheer rock stars as much as we hear wigs and laced corsets. Most importantly, when we hear his Hollywood-like dramatizing of bible stories, we should think of how it is because of creators like Handel who created a kind of Buddy Jesus for a more liberal era that religion has a hold a little less strong than it once did.

Let’s close this by playing the most famous of all his compositions, the Hallelujah chorus from Messah, which, weirdly enough, is his only oratorio about the New Testament. When the same monarch, George II, first heard it, he was said to have been so moved that he stood up. When the King rises, everybody has to. So in keeping with a nearly three hundred year tradition, let’s all stand up.




Sunday, September 21, 2014

Class 6: Bach, The Father



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.

  1. How many different voices play simultaneously? (Is it one, two, three, or five?)
  2. Are there chords in this piece of which we can properly speak?
  3. 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.


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.




After Break:

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.