Where’s the Bach?

Yes… I am aware.

Did you know Bach used teeny tiny paper and/or had huge hands and person?

Along with the until-recent absence of works from Josef Haydn, Bach is a composer who has been tragically neglected on the blog, and it’s a thing I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. There are a few reasons.

  1. It’s like, the pinnacle of simple yet extremely complex music, and I am not a musician. This makes casually talking about Bach a rather difficult thing. Where is that fine line between musical analysis based heavily in music theory and an appreciation for the aesthetic or just amateur emotion evoked from such music? To say “oh, that’s pretty” doesn’t suffice; it’s a general (and thereby worthless) enough statement that can be made about all of the music. What makes each suite or piece different from the next? Lots of music theory.
  2. His oeuvre is frustratingly not chronologically numbered. Beethoven’s nine symphonies, his piano concertos (almost in chronological order), the sonatas, the string quartets, etc. all make it easy to pick out a genre or form and listen from beginning to end and observe the artist’s progress or development. That’s not to say Bach’s work isn’t well organized, but there’s a bit more reading involved (I think? maybe?) to begin to build an idea of his early, middle, and late works.
  3. Along with the above, there’s just a ton of them. This is the other major factor (along with number one) that has made it intimidating and rather overwhelming to begin to talk about these works.
I shared this article on my Facebook page about a month ago. It was the result of a Google search with exactly that question: “Where do I start?”
While the music is intimidating to talk about because of its complexity and fame, there is something almost innately, instinctively compelling and moving about much of Bach’s music. Is he not the king of counterpoint?
Counterpoint is so incredible, what about it sets the heart aflutter. 
One recent (and perhaps extremely overused) example is that of Pachelbel’s canon, a work from a composer who I couldn’t name one single other work of. (A one-hit wonder of classical music?) In any case, I had a chance about a month ago to hear a (very) amateur quartet perform the work (in a venue with atrocious acoustics). Aside from some major issues with
the setup that most people wouldn’t notice, many of the audience members really enjoyed it. You could call that a testament to the piece’s timeless likability, but there’s more to it than that. As a a fantastic example of a canon, it’s a very easy-to-follow form of counterpoint, where one line is played followed by the entrance of the same line two (or however many) bars later. Think “row row row your boat…” 
Even though a quartet’s timbres are all rather similar, it’s still easy to tell which voice is which, and the kaleidoscope that’s created when they begin to dance around and intertwine with each other and it’s fascinating. The building and either fulfillment or shattering of expectation with direction and harmony makes listening to good counterpoint (fugue or canon or whatever) a mesmerizing, even near-hypnotic experience. Quite a long time ago, I let a coworker listen to a very simple but good example of counterpoint and she inexplicably got super emotional. It just works. 
Bach was the master. Is the master. With seemingly simple as a foundation, the complexity and depth that results borders on mind-boggling, and to explain it is, for one, difficult, and secondly, in some ways spoils the magic, as if diluting a piece down to “this is why it works” is to reduce it to matters of science rather than art. Maybe. 
In any case, I decided to stick this article in here today because my interest and relationship with Babbitt’s music (a far more modern B) has been more thorough and lasted longer than with Bach. In listening to much of Babbitt’s music, I feel it’s music Bach would have found fascinating, something he might have even wanted to try. Why? 
It’s a similar complexity, juxtaposition of lines with or against one another, developing in time. And I feel personally, not having known either artist and being nowhere as familiar with either as many others, that the two are perhaps kindred spirits, brilliant minds with common goals. 
It’s also worth noting at this juncture that counterpoint plays a large part in this week’s string quartet. While it is a twelve-tone work, there are lots of contrapuntal elements in it, an interesting combination of very traditional and more modern ideas. 
In any case, we won’t have time to get around to any Bach until next year, but it’s finally made it onto the schedule. This is my letter of intent, you could say. Bach is on the way. 
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