February 27, 2008

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

A long and interesting piece on J.S. Bach in the Hudson Review by Harold Fromm asks the question:

[I]f Bach is The Father [of Western Music], why hasn’t he fired the popular imagination? We have soppy movies about Mozart and Beethoven as well as proliferating biographies for the intelligent general reader, but nothing really comparable for Bach. If we sample the outpouring since the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the “life and works” biographies are nothing if not weighty and serious, but these essentially scholarly volumes by Martin Geck, Christoph Wolff, and Peter Williams,[1] despite their generalist pretensions, are hardly readable by nonspecialists. We have fairly localizable “feelings” about Mozart because the personal letters producing those feelings are voluminous. We learn about Wolfgang as a circus freak driven by father Leopold, about the Mozart family’s obsession with “shit,” about Wolfgang’s castigation of Constanze for exposing her ankles, not to mention purported mysteries surrounding the uncompleted Requiem, perfect grist for the mills of pop culture. For Beethoven, again, many autograph materials providing insights into his “spiritual development” (to use the subtitle of an early biography) and his medical problems, his patrons, his financial independence, his nephew, his deafness, his “immortal beloved.” But what is the feel we get from Bach? In fact, who is this seemingly generic father and why has he failed to solidify as part of our cultural ethos? When we hear “Mozart” or “Beethoven,” we think of a person behind the music. When we hear “Bach,” we think of music only.

Fromm goes on to answer the question by noting that there simply is very little source material about Bach aside from various official and business documents he wrote. That's fair enough. But as I've said before, I also think there is a deeper point about the relationship between art and artist. Bach belongs to the pre-Romantic world, in which the art came first and the artisan, if you will, was simply seen both by himself and those around him as the producer or conduit of that art. (Aside from composers, try thinking of any poet, painter, playwrite or other pre-19th Century artist who, as Fromm puts it, "fires the popular imagination." Can't do it, can you? People try with Shakespeare from time to time, but it doesn't really stick.)

The Romantics changed that notion. After about 1800, the art gradually began to be seen as a function of the artist, who was no longer just an artisan, but an artiste. (Of course, this all had to do with societal changes as a whole and wasn't specifically an artistic development.) Beethoven was fully aware of this movement and quite caught up in it. Mozart, I think, was not, but was instead one of the last of the truly 18th Century artists. He has been Romanticized because his brief and (in our eyes) tragic life appeals to the Romantic sensibility. Compare this with, for example, the biography of Mozart's friend and contemporary, the great Franz Joseph "Papa" Haydn, to which hardly anybody pays any attention these days because not only was Haydn firmly an artisan of the old school, he also enjoyed a solid, prosperous, happy and extremely anti-Romantic life.

Aaaaaanyway, after conceding that when one speaks of Bach, one must speak of his musick, Fromm proceeds to do so. One passage near and dear to my heart:

Bach’s posthumous estate lists several harpsichords of various types but no other keyboard instrument. For Bach, it was then and remains now (except for the organ) the keyboard instrument of choice. Nor could it be considered a precursor of the piano or rendered obsolete by it. To begin with, the harpsichord is a stringed not a percussion instrument like the piano, plucked, not hammered, producing a distinctive, tightly focused, and slightly acerbic all-or-nothing sound. To change the quality or timbre one can pull out stops to move a set of jacks into position under another set of strings or use the second keyboard (if there is one) and its own sets of strings. The changes in timbre that result from this maneuver are sudden, not gradual, since it is not possible to alter individual notes by means of touch. The later practice of introducing “expression” into Bach’s keyboard music can only be described as a bad joke that reduces power to preciosity. And of course the chief culprit in this anachronistic practice is the piano.

Hear, hear. I laughed when I read this because my poor, old, beat-up, shot-string, 40-year-old Kawai upright has gotten so tinny in tone that it's beginning to sound like a harpsichord. The tone certainly helps me try to conform to the best Bach practices, but playing the other day I realized that, yes, I am finally going to have to go out and buy a new piano.

As for Fromm's article, go read the rest. Also, I have most of the books of Christoph Wolff he mentions, and I would heartily recommend any of them if you're at all interested in the subject.

Yips! to Arts & Letters Daily.

Posted by Robert at February 27, 2008 09:30 AM | TrackBack