Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 24
In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Sebastian and his guests reach the "Device Room" in Harmonia-IV's Central Library and find that Klangfarben has already left for her first destination, leaving behind a limerick as a clue. Sebastian explains how the hand-held devices work and then, suddenly, they're off to rescue Bach.
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Johann Sebastian Bach is, of course, one of the Greatest Composers Who Ever Lived – as any classical music aficionado will tell you, with that condescendingly automatic "of course," even though they don't mean to show off their superiority in case you weren't already aware of what they view as the obvious.
It's not that it was always that way – I mean, that Bach was regarded as one of the Greatest Composers Who Ever Lived, not that classical music aficionados didn't always like to show off their knowledge about things other people may not care about.
Of course – ah, that pesky "of course," again – anybody who has a specialized interest in any particular field of knowledge, professional or personal, automatically assumes either you're aware of the importance of what they know or you'd need that reinforcement in order to believe you should view this information as important in the world and therefore to you, also.
As I was saying, Bach is, as everybody knows, one... wait, can we start this again?
It's true Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the best loved composers in the world today – well, in the world of classical music which is a very small per centage of the recording industry's sales (regardless of format) – was named the first of the Three B's back in 1877 when conductor Hans von Bülow first coined the conceit about "Bach, Beethoven and Brahms" to honor his friend Brahms whose First Symphony had just bowled him over, but I digress...
Now, fifty years before that, not too many people would have cared who Johann Sebastian Bach was. In Haydn's day, only a few years after old Johann Sebastian's death, the name "Bach" meant Carl Philip Emanuel Bach who was the second son of the old-fashioned cantor in Leipzig. Oh, he was reputed to be a fine organist and an incredible improviser, but really, as a composer, he was so last generation, it was pathetic.
Those fugues he wrote for his sons to play, back when they were kids learning the ropes on the harpsichord, were considered dry as dust by any but the most learnéd musicians (don't you just love that accent on learned – so pompous, isn't it?). Good exercises and good to help untangle those fingers but as far as music was concerned, way too intellectual for listeners who loved a good tune, simple harmonies and rhythms you could tap you foot to.
Today, it's Bach this and Bach that, he's everywhere – the Brandenburg Concertos and lots of CDs called "Bach's Greatest Hits" – though when you turn on the radio you're more likely to hear more Vivaldi or even Heinichen, whoever he is (the composer, not the beer). And of course lots of people who love classical music can't get enough of those fabulous hits like Pachelbel's Canon or Albinoni's Adagio (even if Albinoni had very little to do with it).
What is it about Baroque Music that's turned it into a staple of the modern listening habit?
Well, for one thing, it's great stuff to do things by. You know, read the paper, sit at the desk in your cubicle while you work on that report due tomorrow, drive around town ("studies show that music from the Baroque Era helps defuse the stress of being stuck in traffic"), cook dinner, eat it, and do your homework.
So, where did this universality of the Baroque Era – that half-century of classical music with Bach and Handel at its apex – come from? I mean, if you figure most people weren't listening to it that regularly until fairly recently, when even in the early 20th Century this old music was still considered a novelty, why the big change, now?
Most of it came about because of new technology, making it a lot more accessible to people than those going to concert halls. When they started selling records, more people could hear it than ever before.
Take Vivaldi, for instance: for almost two centuries, only a handful of specialists knew about him until the 1930s when a huge collection of his manuscripts was uncovered. After World War II, especially by the time a 1950 recording of a set of four violin concertos called "The Four Seasons" was released, the Vivaldi Renaissance was in full swing.
Making recordings began to fill a musical void: since companies needed more repertoire, if the standard familiar works weren't enough, this relatively new era of older, unfamiliar music began to attract a lot of new buyers.
It was attractive and different, pleasant and uncomplicated, fresh and refreshing. It was like "new" music but without sounding like anything being written today that actually was new. Even some living composers decided to embrace the "new" Old Music, writing "in the style of," or borrowing some pieces to do them their own way, cashing in on the novelty.
A whole new musical sound branched off from the stylistic tree of classical music and it was dubbed "Neo-Classical," where composers like Poulenc and even Stravinsky who'd recently terrified people with his "Rite of Spring" saw the light and started what was dubbed the "Back to Bach" Movement. It became creative to be re-creative. And audiences ate it up.
Before, audiences only wanted to hear new music – the latest opera, the latest symphony, the newest string quartet. They didn't want to hear old stuff. But with the advent of recordings and then radio, all that changed.
It had happened similarly for Bach, though it took longer because technology then was more old-fashioned.
Like I said, only the "learnéd" music lovers knew much about Bach and his music: as an example, they liked the Fugues but not the Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier, probably because they were too inconsequential, too easy to listen to, intellectually inferior.
Fugues were high-fiber music, something you could sink your brain into. That wasn't what most of the listening public wanted to hear in the decades after Bach's death, and so his music basically died with him.
Then in 1829 a young man named Mendelssohn, who loved Bach's fugues, conducted a performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and it – along with some Handel oratorios – became all the rage. The Baroque Renaissance had begun.
This is Man Kaye, from the Headquarters of SHMRG, where Classical Music isn't just for smart people, anymore.
Well, that's enough of that...
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, March 21st, 1685.
Must we start there?
Okay, well, what if I said he was a member of a family that supplied so many musicians for towns all across Central Germany, the name "Bach" had become a synonym for a quality town musician?
There are lots of interesting stories about his education, many probably apocryphal; he was employed here and there as a court musician or a church organist; and spent the last twenty-seven years of his life as the 'cantor' of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, responsible for most of the music-making in the city – oh, and teaching the choirboys their lessons.
He was also one of the most respected organists in Germany, famous for his skills at making things up on the spot. Considering he was supposedly able to play the partitas he wrote for the violin, he was obviously a very accomplished violinist, too.
Yes, Bach married twice and, yes, there were lots of children. As my junior high music teacher told us, "Bach was very prolific and had twenty children," so everybody else laughed; I guess I was the only one who thought "prolific" referred to the amount of music he composed. Someone else told me it would take a lifetime just to copy the music Bach composed during his lifetime, though how you'd prove it, I have no idea. In other words, not only was he prolific, he wrote very quickly. He had to: that was his job.
In those days, the demand was always for new music, so while he wrote hundreds of cantatas for the weekly church services, he rarely repeated many of them. Even a huge work like the "St. Matthew Passion" was only performed three times.
But he had a system: he'd write the arias first, the chorales more or less took care of themselves, and he could dash off the recitatives at the last minute. When he was done with one bit, he'd pass it down the line to one of his sons or his wife or some of his better students, and they'd make the necessary copies. Since they didn't have photocopiers in those days, each part had to be separately hand-written, whether it was for a violinist in the orchestra or a singer in the choir. Fortunately, these ensembles weren't very big, usually one person to a part, but still, it involved lots of copying.
Something that often intrigues listeners, if they think about anything beyond simple enjoyment, is where this creative talent comes from: what is it about this composer that makes him (and these days, we can more often say, "makes her") different from us that he should be able to compose music like this, whether it's beautiful or inspiring or amazing? We consider education and the role of teachers, the learning of skills and their application, but isn't it more than that? What shaped the personality behind the music we recognize as Bach's or Beethoven's or Stravinsky's?
Did Bach's musical style or his creative aptitudes have anything to do with his becoming an orphan at the age of ten and being taken into the family of his eldest brother (14 years his senior)? It might have had some influence on his single-minded purpose as part of a musical family, his tenacity and resilience, his personal convictions.
His brother, who had studied with Pachelbel, taught young Bach "the foundation of keyboard playing" but more famously denied him access to a collection of compositions the boy wanted to study. So he pried it out of its hiding place at night and copied it by moonlight. It took six months, but still his copy was confiscated upon discovery.
When he was 14, Bach and a friend walked across Germany to attend a school near Hamburg for two years where he studied choral singing while getting a good grounding in languages, theology, history and physics.
It would be easy to assume that classical music begins with Bach. There aren't many composers before him who have entered the standard, popular repertoire, much less the level that Bach achieved in the Pantheon of Great Composers – what we could call "Classical Music's Hall of Fame." Of course, there are certainly other great composers – like Palestrina, Josquin, Machaut – but over a period of three centuries, there's not as much to show for it as there is since 1700. And in today's society, isn't the most important thing quantity – box-office success, for instance – over quality?
One of these Other Great Composers in the generations before Bach was the Danish-born composer and organist, Dietrich Buxtehude. Most of his career is associated with the North German port city of Lübeck, the major city of the Hanseatic League on the Baltic Sea where he spent almost forty years as the organist and music director at St. Mary's.
Best known in his day and, until recently, in ours for his organ music, Buxtehude also composed a great deal of choral music, some on quite a large scale, much of which disappeared, compositions never published and manuscripts lost for works written specifically for church services or those Advent concert series when music was prohibited during the actual services.
Had the printing industry been more useful to composers then, more of Buxtehude's music might have survived. Still, the church probably wondered why keep all this old stuff around and very likely threw most of it out.
So, for some reason, 20-year-old Bach, dealing with a not very pleasant, go-nowhere job in Arnstadt, decided he should go to Lübeck to meet Buxtehude, then in his late-60s, hear his music and, with any luck, study with him.
He applied for four weeks' leave, hiring his cousin Johann Ernst Bach as his capable replacement as organist at Arnstadt's New Church.
Before railroads, the only way to get around was by stage-coach, too expensive for Bach's budget, and so he walked.
All 250 miles of it – which must have taken him at least ten days.
But if you consider twenty days spent walking to and from the destination, that only left about a week there, once he'd arrived, not to mention dealing with foot-lag. Clearly, this had not been well planned. Besides, Buxtehude was performing a lot of his music during Advent, well after Bach should have already left, so he decided to stay.
Here was a cosmopolitan city, far removed (not just geographically) from provincial Arnhalt, where Bach "fought the good fight" not only against the ultra-conservative church council but also against the arrogance of some of his students, generally older than he was and nowhere near the level of professionalism he had already attained.
His temper recently got him in trouble with one Geyersbach whom he called “ein zippel Faggotist," whatever that meant.
Whatever it meant, it wasn't taken kindly by Geyersbach and his friends before their street brawl ended up bringing them before the town magistrates.
Was it any wonder Bach, three months after this "incident," chose to cool his heels in a place like Lübeck, a free city not dominated by an aristocratic court or its snobbish attitudes?
Buxtenhude may have been the real attraction, the chance to learn "one thing and another" about his art, but still, who could blame the young man?
Old Buxtehude was also looking for a successor: his fame made it a reasonable position for young musicians to consider. When George Frederick Handel, only a month older than Bach, visited two years earlier, Buxtehude had offered him the job. But the stipulation he would have to marry Buxtehude's oldest daughter prompted Handel to leave town the next day.
Bach received the same offer but didn't leave immediately. Ultimately, he declined the offer, making his delayed return to Arnstadt where, the following year, he married his second cousin.
That's how the history books tell it.
It would be difficult to calculate the legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Mozart knew many of his works through Baron von Swieten, an avid collector of old manuscripts, but hearing Bach's motets made the greatest impact on Mozart's contrapuntal style and choral writing in the final years of his life: imagine the complex choruses of his Requiem without Bach.
Beethoven played the Well-Tempered Clavier as a child and also knew the Goldberg Variations whose ghost hovers above his own Diabelli Variations. Beethoven's free approach to counterpoint was as lofty as the greatest examples of Bach's.
Robert Schumann, when he wanted to study counterpoint, maybe not an integral part of his natural style, turned to Bach's music to help him "unlock secrets" about the linear craft discovered in the writing of fugues.
Even Schubert, at the end of his short life, felt the need to understand the intricacies of counterpoint to help "improve" his art.
In most cases, composers of these first generations after Bach's death were less concerned about "polyphonic art," yet at some point in their lives many felt their more lyrical styles lacked something – perhaps in the direction linear counterpoint could offer a more involved and expansive structural scheme or at least as another textural detail to add variety and intensity.
Curiously, late in his life, Bach saw the need to codify these skills he had learned which he realized were already becoming passé, and it was these works that most significantly influenced the composers of the future.
True, all students studied counterpoint and many approached it the way writers might study cross-word puzzles as a way of developing their story-telling skills. There is no worse a fly in the musical ointment than hearing a few measures' intrusion of dry academic passage-work that exists solely for a composer to announce, "Hey, look – I can write a fugue!"
For the best composers, however, those who understood the need to absorb these old-fashioned techniques and make them their own, it was Bach who unlocked the secret distinction between what is craft and what is art.
Brahms and Schoenberg – for that matter, composers of jazz, too – integrated Bach's concepts directly into their most basic levels, how one line could move against another across a fabric of harmonic tension.
Two of Bach's sons – Carl Philip and Johann Christian – provided major inspiration for Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn: certainly the old man could take some credit for them?
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To be continued…
- Dick Strawser
The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.