May 10, 2007

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

Camille Paglia, of whose writing I used to be quite fond, has a long rambling article up over at Salon touching on various topics. One of these happens to involve the musickal influences of her childhood. She writes:

Is there a return to visionary Romanticism these days on classical music stations? In the last few months, I've heard an unusual number of works that heavily influenced me in my youth. Each of them has a passionate, rhythmic force or hypnotic lyricism: Leopold Stokowski's dynamic orchestral transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor" (written for organ); Alexander Borodin's "Polovetzian Dances"; Ernest Chausson's "Poème" for violin and orchestra; and Ralph Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Song Suite."

The Stokowski transcription of Bach had an explosive impact on me when I first heard it on my parents' 45 RPM record before I had even entered kindergarten. This week Philadelphia's WRTI played a spectacular recording of it by the Philadelphia Orchestra (for whom the transcription was originally done), conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The sonorities of those massed strings could make the earth shake.

The "Toccata and Fugue" is so thunderous, propulsive and over-the-top that it seems to prefigure the Led Zeppelin phase of early heavy metal. It's a clash of the titans: We're overhearing two quarreling aspects of Bach himself. The heroic, questioning, yet tragic individual voice looks forward to Romanticism, while the orderly affirmation of transfiguring collective faith looks back toward medievalism.

One of our loyal readers asked me my thoughts about this. Erm.....I have a healthy respect for Paglia's art sense, but comparing Bach to Led Zeppelin strikes me as a stretch (to put it mildly). Furthermore, I think her suggestion that Bach was looking forward to Romanticism is pure projection.

The problem with her analysis is that she's really listening to Stokowski, not ol' J.S. Personally, I loathe Stokowski's transcription of this piece, as I do almost every one of his other orchestrations, for the very reason she gives, namely that he transmogrifies pieces into those ginormous, over-the-top "clashes of the Titans." (Another famous example of this is Stokowski's bowlderization of the Hornpipe from Henry Purcell's music for Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge. Here is a snippet of the original, which I'm sure you will recognize - and if you've got RealPlayer please click, because it took me a dickens of a time to find it.)

Sure, there are tensions within Bach's music. The trouble with listening to Stokowski's rendition is that it blows them vastly out of proportion. Now you may enjoy the music for that very fact. But remember that it is Stokowski's doing, not Bach's.

Two other tidbits about the famous D-minor Toccata & Fugue. One is that there is some considerable question as to whether Bach even wrote it to begin with. (Although Christoff Wolffe, one of the greatest modern Bach scholars, believes he did.) Another is that, whatever its original source, Bach may have ginned it up simply as an exercise for testing out new and newly refurbished organs, as he was often asked to do. Personally, I'm inclined to believe the latter - if you think of the piece as being specifically designed to get all that could be got out of an instrument in terms of both its sound and its mechanics, much of the piece's eccentricity begins to make more sense.

Posted by Robert at May 10, 2007 09:42 AM | TrackBack

Toccata and Fugue still rocks.

I posted on it a while back, with a pretty neat video.

Plus, Rollerball!

Posted by: The Colossus at May 10, 2007 09:01 AM

I've done detailed analyses of just tons of Bach's music, and after analyzing the T&F in D Minor (And writing a guitar transcription of it), I'm 100% convinced Bach didn't compose it. There is a blatant parallel perfect fifth in the exposition, the "countersubject" - being nothing but parallel thirds and sixths - has exactly zero contrapuntal content, and the "discoverer" of the work was a known charlatan.

Many pieces attributed to Bach are not his work. The G major and G minor Menuets (#4 and #5 of the 1725 Anna Magdalena) seem to be by Christian Petzold, and so does the C minor Menuet (#15). So much of this BWV stuff we take for granted and think is etched in granite is actually pretty lame scholarship by modern standards.

Posted by: Hucbald at May 14, 2007 03:51 PM