Showing posts with label Bach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bach. Show all posts

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Review: Bachstock Marathon

Surprised the psychedelic vibe of Bachstock appealed to me? I am. The idea of naming a celebration of Bach's corpus of work–the apogee of spiritual, philosophical, and theoretical musical expression–after the deepest depths of sixties hippie-dom is not immediately attractive. The festival is more than its name, though, and there is little more rich than Bach, whose music WQXR has celebrated throughout November. Besides, and more charitably, I do like the idea of a season of Bach, of the music just filling the air for a time, and his music does in fact produce euphoria and despair, so you really could call it psychedelic.

The climax of the month-long festivities was Saturday's marathon of Bach's solo organ works at St. Peter's Church. From 7AM until midnight a troupe of organists consisting of Juilliard students and local organ directors led by organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs performed a nearly unbroken series of Bach's solo organ oeuvre. I managed to squeak into the 2:30 slot in which Benjamin Sheen, Assistant Organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, performed on St. Peter's Klais organ. If other of the day's organists cherry-picked the famous pieces like the F Major Toccata and Fugue and the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, Sheen had the pleasure and Herculean task to play a lesser known masterpiece, Bach's Third Clavier Übung.

Sheen brought a vital clarity to the pieces, from the more fingery works like BWV.688 to the austere grandness of BWV.678. A projector trained on the keyboardists hands showed helpfully for the eyes what could not have escaped the ears: the blistering complexity of some of the fugues, double and triple and variously complex. The program changed Bach's ordering of the pieces for a more traditional variation among large and small scale, fast and slow, but this did not diminish the pleasure of hearing various figures come and go in different guises. The pairs, however, which Bach wrote on the same chorales, one setting with pedals and the other for manuals alone, were performed together, a contrast which shows not only the fecundity of Bach's musical mind, but the patience which sees all ideas worked out to their utmost.

The orchestration was especially pleasing and refreshing, casting new light on pieces to which we have become perhaps too accustomed by our favorite recordings. How exciting to hear a familiar piece anew, waves once deep and ruddy now bright and clear. What shone forth most though, was the variety. Influences French, Italian, and German permeate this "most-consequential compositional project for the organ from the years of [Bach's] maturity" [1] alongside the Bachian array of polyphonic artistry, themes of every shape and length, and sizes from the little duets BWV.802-805 to the Trinity of BWV.552a.

Even though I had stopped in for a mere 75 minutes of the marathon–for the absolute steal of $10 admission–I caught the fervor of what was really a one-day festival. Yes, I could have lived without the kitschier element, the "I got your Bach" t-shirts and puns on the radio, but there was a lot of merry, expert music-making. Too I found it a pleasure to see a festival with its namesake at the center, unlike that of a certain Salzburg-born composer.  It may have only been one church and one radio station, but with queuing lines, people buzzing about, web streams, and Bach's glorious music contrapunting to the ends of the eternity, it felt like Bach was everywhere, if only for a little while, and that's a dear satisfaction in itself.

[1] Horn, Victora. "French Influence in Bach's Organ Works" in J.S. Bach as Organist. ed. Stauffer George and May, Ernest

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Six Bach Dances: Part II: The B Minor Mass

And so flung wide are the doors of heaven.

IV. Gloria: Cum Sancto Spiritu

This festive trumpets-and-drums finale closes the ring of the Gloria which kicked off with another dancing D major fanfare. We begin vivace in 3/4 time with one of Bach's most rhythmically potent figures in the first of three sections of free declamatory material which sandwich the two fugues.

In the free sections dancing figures in the accompaniment leap and bound over sustained notes on patris  or ride virtuosic waves of ecstatic thirty-second notes on gloria, producing contrasts of texture and symbolism.

The two fugues utilize a variant of the opening figure for a theme against which he throws, "an animated countersubject, a weaving, conjunct idea on the word 'Amen,' which acts as a perfect foil for the leap filled main subject." [Stauffer, 93-94] The fervor and flurry of second fugue is charged by doubling instruments and false fugal entries, producing a feeling of spontaneous exuberance and, as Stauffer wisely observes, liberation.

It is one of soul's purest pleasures to be carried off in the glory of the Cum sancto stretti as they overflow into the rivers of amens and one grand affirmation: In gloria Dei Patris.

V. Credo: Et Resurrexit

Where the Cum Sancto Spiritu flowed easily and graciously from the noble bass aria Quoniam tu solus Dominus, the trumpets-and-drums Et Resurrexit is an epoch-making break from "the crown of thorns" that was the dissonant Crucifixus.

If the swelling elan of this movement, with rising figures every which way and a positively irresistible downbeat, don't quicken your pulse, check it. Bach has here combined the dignity of regal galanterie and the verve of spontaneous festal feast into a hymn of purest praise.

VI. Credo: Et Expecto

Like the Cum Sancto the Et Expecto flows without delay from the previous movement and like the Et Resurrexit this follows one of great gravity. Bach links the movements with an adagio bridge where a simple and declaratory anapestic figure on A in the first soprano which no sooner begins to fall through the voices than it falls into tempo Vivace e Allegro against a rising fanfare as the movement proper begins. 

After the orchestral ritornello of the fanfare figure the voices rejoin for a short fugato and every factor conspires to paint a clear sense of gesture, space, and scale. First, the leap of a fifth in the figure itself suggest the raising of one's senses to the celestial and divine. Second the rising entrances from the tenor to the second soprano draws the scale and gives a sense of graded escalation while the leap from the bass to first soprano suggests a spiritual vaulting to the heavens. 

The final fugal section achieves a similar sense of space and scale but here a contrast in both sustained and melismatic lines on saeculi, suggesting both the roll of ages and the constancy of the eternal firmament, all complemented by the heraldry of the paired fanfares in the trumpets above.


Stauffer, George B. Bach: The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass. Yale University Press. 2003.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Six Bach Dances: Part I: Passion Sarabandes

The rhythms of dance are at once wax earthly and celestial, calling the listener to join his corporeal form to a timeless continuance. No dance wants to end and no composer understood this innate property better than Bach, whose dances not only in suites but also sacred choral works remain sculptures of rhythmic perpetuity as they within hold the most expressive harmonies. 

Here on this Good Friday I would take a look at three movements from Bach's two surviving Passions. All three are built on sarabande rhythms in 3/4 time and make use of the room within the sarabande for both gentility and passion.

I. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Tenor Aria, Ach mein Sinn

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

The St. John Passion's counterpart to Matthew's more famous Erbarme dich, the tenor aria Ach mein Sinn is Peter's turmoil after his threefold denial of Jesus. Yet where the Erbarme dich is a haunting, twining torment in the memory, Ach mein Sinn is an extroverted display of furious self abasement. Where the twists and turns in the Erbarme dich seem as Peter's sin again and again trickling into his mind, they here seem daggers amidst the din of dissonance, halting dotted rhythms, and rising and falling phrases. 

II. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Chorus: Ruht wohl

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

The stately sarabandes which close both of Bach's surviving passions have been variously referred to as  lullaby-like. This is somewhat appropriate, given the gentle flute and oboe parts above and the falling figures, suggestive of laying-down, which both pieces also share. Rising-and-falling figures, the lullaby-rocking, if you will, also contribute to the soporific mood, but the grieving leaps in the chorus and descending chromatic bass are bitter contrast to the sweet gentility of the rhythm.

III. St. Matthew Passion, BWV.244: Chorus: Wir setzen uns

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site

Here the more regular sarabande rhythm creates a more persistent, sepulchral tone while the sudden shifts into dissonance draw an expressive interiority within the scene-painting of Christ's burial. The contrasting emotions of grandeur in the sarabande rhythm and tenderness in the falling figures, of personal grieving in leaps and communal grieving in vertical dissonance, and the death of Jesus the Man and Christ the Lord coalesce into one unfolding both immanent and transcendent.


Little, Meridith & Jenne, Natalie. Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach. Indiana University Press. 1991, 2001.

Stapert, Calvin R. My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co. 2000.

Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. 2005.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Du mußt dein Leben ändern

Listening to Bach's Cantata No. 32, I realized how very near the invisible world is to us, if we do not drive it away. When I heard his cantata for the first time, around 1926, it stirred me so deeply that I foresaw it would be necessary for me to change my whole life, but that I should remain in the world. Impossible to express how great a part Bach has played in my life; it is he, more than any other, who has reconciled me to the idea of dying.
(Julien Green, Journal, May 26, 1953)

Monday, June 11, 2012

A World of Being in Time: Bach's Passacaglia in C minor

To classify Bach's C minor Passacaglia, BWV.582 as one of his most well-known works is optimistic bordering on incredulous. The Brandenburgs certainly fit the description, as do certain arias, choruses, overtures, and even fugues. Aaron Copland undoubtedly did some to popularize this overlooked masterpiece when in What to Listen for in Music he called it "one of the finest examples [of the Passacaglia] in all musical literature" and even added "few compositions will better repay careful listening." [1] Though Copland writes true things I suspect both the form and its shining example in Bach remain obscure.  Like much of Bach's music it is, even by professed aficionados, honored, praised, and put aside.

This is not so surprising, really. The Passacaglia lacks the sprightly character, though not energy, of Bach's other pieces in dance-meters. Though just as grave it lacks the tortured vivacity of the Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The passacaglia doesn't share the apparent simplicity of Bach's airs and arias nor is there any text to follow as with the choruses. What do we have, then? A dense, serious, rigorous, passacaglia, that is a developing of material over an ostinato ground bass melody. Let us see if it is not more than that description.

BWV.582 ostinato theme
Bach uses this weighty iambic theme, usually in the bass, as the point of departure for 20 variations which Schumann, in reviewing their treatment at the hands of none other than Mendelssohn who was himself performing them for the purpose of funding a memorial over Bach's grave in Leipzig, said to be, "intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed." [2]

Variations I-X

The first ten variations feature increasing contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity. The ostinato figure remains the same in the bass for the first four variations while in the first theme in the treble shifts the weight off of the first beat, in the second the harmony becomes more dramatic, in the third it is adorned with counterpoint, and in the fourth the pace is accelerated with the movement to sixteenth notes. In the fifth the first note of each pair is disguised in an arpeggio and treated in counterpoint in the upper voices. Variations six through eight see increased rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity with the many rising and falling figures until the most striking change yet occurs in variation nine when the bass theme is for the first time equally treated in all of the voices. Finally in variation ten the theme, which now pauses with a rest after each iamb, is paralleled 1:1 against ascending and descending scalar passages.

Variations XI-XV

In the following variations we feel the strongest sense yet of musical departure in the movement of the bass theme. In variation eleven the theme rises to the soprano, in strong relief against the rising and falling scales below it. In twelve it beings to recede from focus above the contrapuntal complexity and from its high point of A moves not in its usual descent to F, but and as if in tragic recognition, falls first stepwise to F and then down the whole octave to A. At last in thirteen it seems to disappear amongst the other material before returning in the upward-stretching figures of fourteen and fifteen.

Variations XVI-XX

The return of the theme to the bass in sixteen would take on the form of a return to normalcy after the motion of variations XI-XV but for the treble chords which sever each of the bass theme's rising figures. In variation seventeen at last the bass theme returns whole and against vast virtuosic runs of thirty-second notes which, up in the treble, create the sense of a vast space and a grand return. Composer Stefan Wolpe described variation eighteen, with its seemingly static material, this way:
Variation 18 is created to show the unyielding repetitions as unyielding repetitions as possible. Here the content stands very still, and because everything is so obstinate and is repeated so stubbornly (a type of stationary music), the theme suddenly seems (precisely for that reason) so full of movement, so fluid, to flow so peacefully. [3]
The theme takes on even more of a flowing and regal quality through the diminution of its crotchets into quavers.

In the final two variations, nineteen and twenty, we have a five-note figure of four thirty-second notes followed by a quaver. First it is treated in imitation and then it is played against itself in alternating intervals (see last three measures below.)
BWV.582 - Variation Twenty
These processes both broaden the sense of space, throw the bass theme into stronger relief, and heighten the tension as we move to the closing chord.


In Bach's Passacaglia in C minor we find nothing short of total mastery. The one bass theme proves to be the genesis of the whole piece, its full form anchoring the upper voices, its elements creating its counterpoints, and its motion up and down the registers creating both a sense of physical space and a dramatic departure and return. The theme is both structure and content. We see that the, "'varied repetitions' are necessary to establish the substance of the theme in various ways" [3] but that ultimately although the theme explored and revealed it is not changed. It is beginning, end, and cause. Bach has created here within the seemingly tight strictures of the passacaglia, to invert Wolpe's own statement, a living architecture. Bach has made not just a world, but a world of being in time.

[1] Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. 1939. p. 123-124

[2] Hans Theodore David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. 1998. p. 501-503.

[3] Zenck, Martin. The influence of Busoni's 'Bach': Stefan Wolpe's analysis of Bach's Passacaglia BWV 582 and its significance for his music of the 1930s and 1940s. in The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Butt, John. (Ed.) 1997. p. 240-250

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Art vs Beauty

Pious men of strict observance can hardly see in art an obedient maidservant. . . rivalry begins, first, in rivalry between the religious spirit and the aesthetically. . . oriented man. . . Religion is always imperialistic. . . but science, art, and ethics are also imperialistic. . . and yet, the paths of religion, art, ethics, and science not only cross, they also join. (Gerardus van der Leeuw) [1]
In 1770 Doctor of Music Charles Burney left England for France and a grand tour of Italy. On this excursion he sampled the music of the French court and Italy's ancient cities, writing upon his return The Present State of Music in France and Italy. The thought of such a journey consummated by a prestigious work of scholarship is enough to make any intellectual a little jealous but over ten years later the good doctor would publish a pamphlet and fulfill every intellectual's nightmare: writing a brilliant and persuasive argument which is completely and plainly wrong. You see in this pamphlet Dr. Burney declared Handel a superior fugue writer to Bach. (Yes, your wincing reaction is quite normal.) Several years later an anonymous German critic came to Bah's defense with a most perceptive observation that, "[Bach], the deepest savant of contrapuntal arts (and even artifice), knew how to subordinate art to beauty."[2][3]

This praise cuts deeper than any musicological comparison of fugue types could for it is no small philosophical proposal to set art and beauty at odds. How should we approach such a loaded premise? We should being clarifying that by "art" we mean three things. The first is poiesis, that is, art as something brought into creation by man. The second is techne, or craft, that is, art as the concerted act of crafting by the hands of men. The third is form, that is, the traditional structures of art such as sonnets, fugues, or portraiture in which artists work. The German's critic's statement is significant for it subjugates all of these aspects of art to beauty. Is he right to do so?

Let us begin with poiesis and remember that any work of art would not exist without the artist. This creative aspect of art is probably the most considered today, if only for our vague appreciation of the word "create." When we say "create" we usually mean "express oneself," with some vague debt to Freud's ego.  There is, though, an honest aspect to this conception, more nearly Hegelian than Freudian, which is that of art as an expression of genius, that is genius in the Roman sense of one's innermost spirit. If we recall the Latin verb gigno, to bring into being, from which genius is derived, its full meaning becomes clear.

It is not hard to think of great art across genres and cultures which is the peculiar expression of a particular artists joys or sufferings. One might be tempted, or at least a philosopher would be tempted, to negate this individualistic aspect of art and say such works are only significant because they have, perhaps unwittingly, revealed some universal principle. He might be tempted to say that the individuality of an individual expression is only significant to the artist who made it. This is not a criticism to be scoffed at but it can serve the unhelpful purpose of obfuscating, or worst eradicating, the truth of a man's authentic and unique spirit. Here we are not speaking of deliberate elements of style or the fruits of labor or products of intellectual power but traces of spirit. Anyone who has studied the work of a great artist sees amidst the forms and structures of his age notes and strokes, sprinkled dissonances and slices of light, which belong, which still belong only to the artist. Such is the truth of the saying that one can write in the style of Bach, but one cannot write Bach.

Is this element, however, the central aspect of a work of art? We have already spoken of its traces so we may already sense that it is not. No work is strictly the product of an individual as no individual is strictly the product of himself. In a similar way no work could be wholly made up of unique elements or it would not be recognizable to others as significant. It would move from being a unique variation to an incomprehensible anomaly.

Now we may look at techne, which includes the aspects of a given piece as a crafted work, for example choice of words, pitches, color, material, plot, length, tempo, et cetera. As these elements constitute the work they surely cannot be done away with, but are they the most important part of the work? On the one hand it seems each element exists for its own sake but of course it also exists for the purpose of the whole work as part of the unfolding of the whole work. Alone any given element is at best limited in meaning. Individual materials are just that. Individual notes, words, and colors may have meaning alone but if so then such meaning by nature exists apart from the intentions of the artist. We see now that we have a missing element of art: form.

Form most of all amongst the elements we have discussed is inherited. Forms are developed slowly over time and handed down. They give shape to the elements which without a larger structure would be amorphous but for this reason they also limit the artist. One can only make so many changes before the form ceases to be the form. An artist can only break so many conventions of the sonnet, the hexameter, or the canon before it becomes unrecognizable as a sonnet, and so forth, and becomes a free structure incomprehensible to anyone but its creator. Yet while some structures suit certain materials and expressive elements, structures are also empty vessels. One may write a very nice sonnet with perfect scansion or a canon in perfect accord with the rules of stretti and each may be utterly meaningless.

We see then as our anonymous critic observed that the great artist must subordinate the constituent elements of art to its animating principle. Now, you might ask, "Why beauty?" Can another idea, such as liberty or wisdom, not be the animating force of a work? Indeed such ideas can animate a work but only to an extent.

For example, suppose you wanted to make a movie about wisdom. You could decide on the words, music, and visual elements, you could choose the appropriate length, and so forth, all to promote the idea that wisdom is good. This is well and good but it does not eliminate the aesthetic dimension to the work. Aside from the plot which must be logically coherent, why make any element a given way? Well, one makes it a certain way because that way is beautiful. Why make it beautiful? Because beauty persuades and beauty persuades because it signifies rightness and appropriateness in accord with its nature.

Art without beauty, of only poiesistechne, and form, is simply an argument and since we would no more call an argument art than an equation, for both are in fact theories not being, we must say that beauty is an essential element of art. Beauty is the proof, the existence, the being of the good.

We have seen also that the other elements of art, poiesistechne, and form, apart from being insufficiently significant on their own, can overwhelm the aspect of beauty. We also saw that while another idea, such as wisdom, might animate the elements of poiesis, techne, and form, that idea itself would be argued for but not fulfilled without being beautiful. It is therefore desirable to subordinate all artistic elements to beauty, the only element which can unify and vivify them all. To man, then, art is not the mistress but the handmaiden.

[1] Butt, John. Bach's Metaphysics of Music. in The Cambridge Companion to Bach. John Butt. (ed.) Cambridge University Press. 1997. p. 46. 

[2] Stauffer, George & May, Ernest. (ed.) J. S. Bach as Organist: His Instruments, Music, and Performance Practices. Indiana University Press. 1986. p.133.

[3] David, Hans T. & Mendel, Arthur. (ed.) Wolff, Christoph (revised) The New Bach Reader. W. W. Norton and Company. 1998. p. 367-368.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Causa Pulchritudinis

"At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: beauty."

So says philosopher and author Roger Scruton in his 2007 documentary Why Beauty Matters. The radical purpose to Scruton's work is the classical notion that beauty matters, that, contra postmodern cacophilia, beauty is a value in itself as much as truth or goodness. He makes an honest and convincing case for beauty while tracing its genealogy from Plato through its banishment in the 20th century.

I would like, however, to trace and amplify a point slightly glossed over in the documentary. Scruton calls up Wilde's phrase that, "All art is absolutely useless," by which Wilde meant that art is more than useful. Scruton continues, applying Wilde's pointed compliment to mean that today we suffer under the "tyranny of the useful." We have more than utilitarian needs and suffer in not fulfilling them, he argues. I would like to return to Wilde, though, and ask: is all art absolutely useless?

Yes, and I would add that it is even more obviously useless than it might seem.

Let us begin by looking at the famous work of Hamlet since it seems to have a point. For our purposes permit a gross, obscene even, simplification: that the moral of the story is that indecisiveness and delay are bad. (Gasp! Alack! if you must, but stay with me, I beg.) If that is your goal, to demonstrate that indecisiveness is bad, why would you fulfill that goal by writing a four-hour play filled with complicated dialogue? It would be much easier, much clearer and more apparent, to write a simple morality story. What is gained by pages of complicated dialogue, shades of meaning, and a complex plot? Let me put it this way, why is:
To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?
so much more full of meaning and portent than
He screwed me! Should I suck it up or kick his ass?
Well, Shakespeare's verse is more meaningful because it is more persuasive and it is more persuasive because it is more beautiful. The logic is the same, but the structure, diction, imagery, syntax, and figurative language of Shakespeare make it seem more important. The ideas take on greater scale and meaning when they are beautiful.

Let us look at another example in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We must first observe that the entire fourth act is unnecessary to the plot since Figaro and Susanna are married at the conclusion of the third. Why conclude the opera titled The Marriage of Figaro with the Count being forgiven by his wife, then? Because all of the distrust and running around of the first three acts is well and good, but it only adds up to the rather uninspiring fact that everyone outwitted the Count. We want a bit more.

Unfortunately, the final scene of forgiveness has only a tenuous element of contrast to tie it to the plot. After all of the intrigues and fits of anger and distrust, even by Susanna and  Figaro, the Countess' act seems different, but why does it seem important somehow? Susanna and Figaro aren't villains, and neither are Bartolo and Marcellina, so why is this contrast necessary? Besides, everyone's mistrust is more heated than malicious. This simple element of contrast, then, is a relatively thin thread with which to conclude a three-hour endeavor whose main plot is already resolved. Mozart makes this finale relevant, to the plot and to us, by making it beautiful. This brief moment of sublime beauty takes on extraordinary dimensions and significance far disproportionate to the plot. This scene does not demonstrate that the Countess does the moral or just thing or that the Count will reform and be a better man or that Susanna and Figaro learn a lesson about marriage. The opera simply says that forgiveness is beautiful and the scene says this by being beautiful.

In the above examples we look at beauty acting as the element of persuasion in art which attempts to make some other point. Beauty persuades us that Hamlet's dilemma is grand and that the Countess' deed is good, but what about art which exists purely to be beautiful?

Take the fifth fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Why is that string of thirty-second notes followed by the dotted figures so full of meaning? More importantly, why does it take on so much more when developed? In fact, why should any figure played in canon, or augmented or what have you, be meaningful? Who cares if something is in inversion? Because the symmetries, rhythmic and harmonic, are beautiful.

Below Botticelli's point is not to describe the birth of Venus or even to show it, but to show beauty. Do we actually care about Venus or her birth?

Why are such symmetries and consonances pleasing to man? Why is, as Marcus Aurelius observed, the cracking of bread and the bursting of a fig a pleasing sight? Marcus' answer was the classical one that such things are naturally beautiful. I'm not sure what scientists hope to discover in asking that question today but is it likely to result in more beauty? The more experiments confirm that people prefer certain shapes and ratios the more the findings, oddly, are interpreted to mean that the pleasure we derive from contemplating and seeing beauty is meaningless. The more some preference is thought to be evolved the more one hear that we "only" prefer it because of such and such.  Yet in truth little seems to hinge on the question. Beauty by nature cannot be made vulgar, unnecessary, or undesirable. Because of its "uselessness" it can never be replaced or outdated. Fragile though it is in our hands, in this respect beauty is indestructible.

If you enjoyed this essay you may be interested in:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Musical Forms from the Middle Ages to Beethoven

I assembled the following to be a pleasing and perhaps instructive journey through music history and because we all know people who refer to "Classical" music.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bach: Quia fecit mihi magna

Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est.

One of the most brilliant and  bafflingly simple moments of music and an example of Bach's oft-cited "one-part" counterpoint, this is a priceless gem. Yes it is a masculine moment for the Magnificat, but has any other piece ever so captured the personal element of the Christian faith? Has one ever felt so guided, so gently rocked, so nestled, has the world and beyond ever seemed so ordered, so prepared, has all ever seemed so firm as in these thirty four bars? And has one ever then been so grateful?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part III

In our first essay on Sacred Music we looked at chant and discussed some of the properties which make it uniquely appropriate for the liturgy. In our second essay we looked at one short section of the liturgy and examined its treatment by various composers. Now I would like to look at some of the choices a composer has when setting a text. In articulating and observing them it is my hope we will then be able to appreciate when composers make (and do not make) excellent and novel use of the resources at their disposal.

1. Declamation vs. Development

In setting a section of the mass a composer must choose whether he wishes merely to decorate the text or to develop the idea, that is, he must decide whether he will simply mention the idea or whether he will attempt to explore its meaning or describe. We might find a few examples to define the spectrum of choices. On the extreme of one side would be mere declamation, i.e., pronunciation of the text. Opposite might be a fugue, a dense development of the idea. In between might be plainchant, the use of sequence and repetition, and imitation. 

The texts of the mass, both ordinary and proper, provide various opportunities for the composer. Clearly some ideas seem suited to one type of treatment. For example, "Kyrie eleison," "cum Sancto Spiritu," and "Osanna" have traditionally been treated fugally and this seems both appropriate and acceptable. Why? First, they occur either at the beginning or the end of a section of the mass and a large fugal section is more suited as an introduction or conclusion than a middle. Second, the ideas are short and self contained and thus they are appropriate candidates for fugue subjects.  

Please let me note it is not my intent to map out the mass and suggest how each section ought to be set, but rather point out that the composer must first make certain considerations and then choose a course of action. The mass of course presents challenge and opportunity for composers, the greatest of whom have responded with genius. No theoretician could have predicated Bach's setting of the Crucifixus, which Forkel, Bach's first biographer, called a "crown of thorns." My reason in articulating these points is to suggest that good liturgical music will attempt to address them. Likewise when a piece fails to address these problems it will be seen to be proportionately lacking in affect.

2. Strophic vs. Through-Composed

A composer would then have to consider how he wishes to divide the text, if at all. For example, will it be  
  1. Through-composed, i.e. with unique music for each line but with little or no repetitions and doubling back.
  2. Broken up by line or phrase as seems appropriate to the composer
  3. Treated strophically, with each line or stanza set to the same music. 
Again, certain parts of the mass lend themselves to certain treatments. For example, one can compare Palestrina's through-composed setting of the Gloria in his Missa Papae Marcelli to Bach's setting in the B-minor Mass in which Bach carefully sets particular phrases to particular music. Likewise one might compare the traditional setting of the Dies Irae sequence which is strophic to Mozart's setting in his Requiem in which he groups the stanzas and then sets them.

3. Soloists vs. Choral

An individual in an audience or congregation will invariably perceive a relationship between himself and a solo singer as different from one between himself and a choir.  If a soloist sings "adoramus te" or "miserere nobis" it seems as if he is speaking on behalf of the congregation. If a choir sings them it seems as if the choir asks as an extension of the congregation. Looking at the Dies Irae sequence is instructive here also. If a soloist sings "Mors stupebit" we empathize with him as a fellow man looking at death and the effect is dramatic. If a choir sings these words the result is more descriptive and we are more affected by the sight than any personal situation. The composer must then, if he uses soloists, be aware of this difference. 

4. Time

While the issue of the passing of time does not so much affect music for the liturgy as other non-liturgical sacred music such as oratorio we ought briefly touch on the matter. In principle we may say that in an aria time seems to be still as the music explores a given moment whereas recitative and drama push the action forward. Much like the difference between a fugue which explores a particular idea and chant which declaims it, the aria describes or explores the present emotion or situation whereas the drama or recitative conveys action. A fine example of this contrast are the contrasting and adjacent pieces from Part II of Handel's Messiah. Time seems to stop in the aria "Thou art gone up on high" as the soloist repeats and reflects on the idea. In contrast, the subsequent music for chorus conveys action: The Lord gave the word. Superficially the pieces might not seem different, but how much more reflective and personal (and longer) is the aria than the choral piece? How much more emotional and suited toward sudden flights of feeling?  

5. Detail, Structure

Lastly we must note that detail must be contextualized within a large-scale structure to be understood. Only if we know the language and rules of the composer and the direction of the piece can the composer convey a sense of departure, significant action, and return. This requires attention to structure within and among movements, that is, attention to and consistency in the:
  1. passage of keys within movements
  2. tonic keys of each movement
  3. thematic material if it is repeated
  4. instrumentation
  5. setting of music for soloist or choir
  6. meter and tempo
  7. four points mentioned above
  8. use of parallelism

In setting the mass a composer will make these choices whether consciously or not. If he is not conscious of the possibilites it is hard to imagine, even if the music is competently written, that it will suit the text or that there will be any unity of affect.

Next time we will look at a famous setting of a mass and see whether its composer paid attention to these five aspects.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II

In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bach, Eliot

– J. S. Bach. Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV.582

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
– T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Glenn Gould on the Goldberg Variations

Pianist Glenn Gould in conversation on his 1981 recording of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Part I | Part II | Part III

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Great Composers: Bach

From the 1997 BBC Documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh and featuring Georg Solti, Charles Rosen, Zuzana Parmova, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen

J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV.182, Chorus 'Himmelskönig, sei willkommen'

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen,
King of heaven, welcome,
Laß auch uns dein Zion sein!
let us also be your Zion!
Komm herein,
Come within,
Du hast uns das Herz genommen.
You have taken our hearts from us.

More information on this cantata via

Not nearly as famous as No. 140, "Wachet auf. . ." this cantata too is a glorious and vivid depiction of great multitude of people.  Here the scene is the throng greeting Christ as He enters Jerusalem and the chorus is open and airy in G major. The fugal form is a naturally fine fit to depict such a scene, the entrances of the voices providing a perfectly appropriate structure for Christ's procession. Too the counterpoint provides a structure for the busyness, though the fugal subject itself contributes to the sense of liveliness with its shift into semiquavers:
BWV.182, Chorus I, m.1-2
After the theme enters in all of the solo voices it enters in canon in the strings and at last up high in the flute, which proceeds to elaborate on it. Then a shorter fugal subject on "Laß auch uns dein Zion sein! Let us also be your Zion!" enters in the soprano and alto, gently lifting the fervor of the expression and excitement of the scene without it becoming garrulous.

BWV.182, Chorus 1, m.12-14
As the flute continues on over the crowd the rising and falling gestures of its figures now seem to give them a palmy character as the choir repeats, "let us also be your Zion." The flute and violin then treat the first subject in canon as the choir exclaims together "welcome" and is answered by the violas and cellos.  They conclude together, "Komm herein, Come within." Bach then treats the second and last lines of the text with a series of four short canons at the octave and only a crotchet apart, all beginning S. A. T. B., a treatment which emphasizes that two lines both ask for unity with Christ.

A joyous, moving piece and a concise example of Bach's profound unity of style, structure, and expression.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Directed by Michèle Hozer & Peter Raymont. 2009.

At some point in the life of every music lover, particularly fans of J. S. Bach and keyboard music, he comes across Glenn Gould. Perhaps one does not so much come across Gould so much as get struck by him. Be it the articulation, the distinction of the voices, the tension, or perhaps just the humming, I suspect the first acquaintance is often a startling one. Such was certainly the experience of many when Gould burst from obscurity onto the music scene with his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. That an introduction to him and his take on music still arrests individuals would please him very much, I think, and I say that a little more familiar with him after this splendid documentary.

To begin at the end, the film concludes with the notion that it is the mystery of Gould, not the narrative of his life, that drives peoples' attempts to rediscover him again and again. In this respect, and another which I think would please the late pianist, Gould is himself like a piece of great music: it asks a lot of you, it brings a lot to you, and it gets richer the more you live with it. I say live with and perhaps that's what comes off most from this two-hour film, that Gould lived a musical life. From the age of three when he began to read musical notation (before he could read words) and acquired his trademark habit of singing along to his playing, through his truncated concert career and through his long sessions practicing and recording it is clear he lived and breathed music. He came at a piece from every possible direction, he took it apart and put it back together again, and he internalized it. We gather that he understood pieces as only their creators did and in fact Gould once told a composer who was fretting at Gould's interpretation, "You don't know your own piece!"

Perhaps this internalization was closely linked to the loneliness which followed him through his whole life. As a child he avoided common social affairs and during his adult life it seems he never had more than a handful of friends. This desire or need for privacy and isolation, whether on account of illness or an inability to share his clearly vibrant passion for music or both, was clearly at odds with a musical career. First, performing is an intimate experience in which the performer shares a great deal of himself with a great many people. Second, there is a certain intangible feedback a performer gets from an audience. Third, there is probably a certain degree to which an audience drives the performer to greater lengths. Yet Gould considered "concertizing" hideous and audiences (not individuals but audiences en masse) "rule of mob law." Such too is at odds with his plans, rather vaguely conveyed at least in the film, to "democratize music" with "kits," i.e. to provide people with recordings they could somehow manipulate themselves. (Presaging, of course, today's remixes, edits, "mashups," and playlists.) Yet this paradox in Gould between inner and outer is again like music itself, with its dichotomy between being personal and universal, and both with the utmost intensity.

Gould seems to elicit rather strong, often contrary, emotions. He was quite difficult, but most kind. He tried to control situations, but not people. He had perfect technique, but imposed on the piece. Famously conductor Leonard Bernstein, before a performance of a Brahms concerto with Gould, actually prefaced the concert with a disclaimer that he had great respect for Gould but differed with the interpretation which was to follow. A revealing fact, and one consistent with the man this film introduces us to, is that Gould took Bernstein's comments as having been said in the best spirit. What Bernstein did was of course what anyone who understands music would do. The performance cannot be constrained even by the conductor. It has to, as Gould says, express the individuality of the performer. For Gould, and he said this many times throughout his life, art was about creation and making your own world. It was about expressing your own uniqueness and isolation. Again we see a dichotomy, here between composer and performer.

Indeed in one segment while discussing his performance of a Mozart sonata Gould explains why, though reverently, he changes Mozart's adagio marking to allegretto, and why he draws out the opening so slowly, almost comically: to bring the audience into the world of the piece. You cannot do that by pulling a piece off a museum shelf but by creating something in front of people. He takes such liberty to seize the audience, to let them know something important is happening in front of them, that something rare and beautiful and fleeting is being created and will pass away. In this way too Gould is himself musical: he was himself as fragile and fleeting as a piece of music desperately reaching out through time.

Genius Within falls rather cleanly into two halves, the first of which chronicles his youth and concert career. It was a career with a sudden dazzling rise, punctuated by his spectacular Soviet tour in 1957. The first performance of the tour was poorly attended, owing in part to a lack of popularity for Bach due to him being broadly labeled as evangelical by the government, yet after the intermission the house was packed. One imagines hundreds of giddy phone calls to friends and family akin to, "You've never heard anything like this before. Come!" Surely their enthusiasm for the music gratified him. During his performing career the quirks and eccentricities were under control and perhaps Gould, knowing how they helped his popularity, didn't even mind when they were overplayed in the news. He had his custom chair, his gloves, he canceled performances. He was popular. Yet on April 10, 1964 he gave his last public concert. Henceforth he was to perform only in recording studios, which suited both his desire for privacy and his desire to control the environment of the performance. He also began a series of radio programs and documentaries.

He was to gain something else which he lacked and sought: intimacy. Cornelia Foss, wife of German-born American composer, conductor, pianist, and professor Lukas Foss, left her husband for Gould and moved with her children to Toronto. Again, Gould seemed happy. A friend recollects that he must have said a dozen times throughout his life that, "These are the happiest days of my life." Gould pioneered recording and took advantage of the unique creative possibilities (mixing and splicing) it provided, using an auditorium in a Toronto mall. After a seemingly ideal period in which he recorded prolifically, enjoyed time with Cornelia and her children, indulged his love of nature, and enjoyed his control and privacy, he grew more difficult. His paranoia, controlling temperament, and hypochondria all worsened.  Cornelia left him, saying the eccentricities began to overshadow his personality. Despite a period of collaboration and likely romance with Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Roxolana Roslak, Gould was clearly slipping away. He began to script all of his public appearances. Yet before he died he recorded the Goldberg Variations once more. More eccentric this time, but perhaps more thoughtful too. A touching scene is composed of original footage from Gould's Toronto funeral. In a packed church of over 3,000 they played Gould's performance of the Goldberg aria and the attendees wept as as they listened, Gould characteristically humming along.

Genius Within is a little conventional as a documentary. Chronological and neatly segmented, it is structurally simple. Too it spends a tad much time on his romance with Cornelia Foss and his guilt late in life at not having properly taken care of the parents who were so devoted to him. It is very light on musical analysis. Yet the film is brought to vivid life by the plethora of original footage of Gould and the many interviews with those who knew him. They are all particularly candid and frankly they seem a little baffled and overwhelmed by the effect Gould had on their lives. The most penetrating remarks are from Gould's biographer, Kevin Bazzana, and two of his friends, including the late violinist and conductor Peter Ostwald.

The film ends on a perfectly fitting note: that his mysteriousness perplexes and draws us in to rediscover him. And rediscover him we ought to. His friend suggests he'd have liked to be remembered not just as a performer, but as a Renaissance man, a creative artist who didn't just play but tried to share a philosophy of performance for this most special, curious thing we call music.

N.B. A selection (Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Book II) of Gould's performance of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was included on the Voyager I space probe launched in 1977. See for the other music included.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Inside Chamber Music with Bruce Adolphe

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a wonderful series of lectures with composer, scholar, author, and pianist Bruce Adolphe. (Here is an interview with Adolphe from September's Opera Today.) His series with the Lincoln Center CMS, Inside Chamber Music, is a wonderful look into the world of chamber music. In particular Adolphe looks at a Bach concerto, selections of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a Mozart String Trio. He gets into substantial depth discussing theory and elements of style while still taking the time to define basic concepts and avoiding technical jargon. The lectures are elucidating and highly entertaining too.

In particular he touches on a number of issues we have been looking at of late in our discussions of music and culture and of Mozart's counterpoint. Over the course of the series Adolphe discusses the philosophical dimensions to Bach's structures and sheds light on his "learned" style by looking into the details of Bach's thorough, encyclopedic, explorations of musical ideas. If you enjoyed our "Ideas" essays (see here and here) I think you'll enjoy these lectures. He gives a splendid talk on the adagio of Mozart's String Trio in E-flat, KV.563, contrasting the dramatic expression of the classical style and the introspective nature of Bach's music with a comparison to a famous stage play. This also bears on our discussion of music qua language (see here and here.)

Of the B-flat minor fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Adolphe says it
is so complex and so learned that most people can't deal with it. This is an example of a level of dissonance that only Bach and people who have devoted themselves to what he was doing and who tried to follow the processes of his mind could tolerate. . . But every single dissonance can be explained by a logic.
Yet Bach, as Adolphe says, did not consider this music for concert or popular performance, but for the personal study of a composer. We ask again, though, can a language be too complicated, too esoteric, too unique to one individual, to serve as a language? (In describing this fugue in particular, ought we distinguish between philosophical, scientific, and artistic characteristics? What does the fugue do, how, and why?) Adolphe notes Rousseau's famous criticism of Baroque music's "ugliness." [1] Is it too "learned" or too dissonant? (The learned contrapuntal style was in fact on its way out, though we'll see Mozart reconciling the styles in his late sonatas in the next part of the counterpoint series.) Yet this Bach piece is highly chromatic and fugal, and recall the finale to Mozart's Symphony No. 41. Are these pieces too "learned" or too dissonant?

These are of course nearly the same questions Alex Ross asked about modern music last month in his article in The Guardian. One the other hand one of the most common observations about Bach's music is its universal appeal, that his fugal explorations of ideas, his modulations, and symmetries are universally understandable as mathematical relationships (and profound and beautiful ones at that.) (Such is also apart from the philosophical dimensions.) Comments about the cosmic dimensions to Mozart's final symphonies are not so dissimilar. Moreover, many composers have claimed they learned about music from the Well-Tempered Clavier, thus to some extent they are in fact self-explanatory.

On the one hand languages rely on rules and standards to be tools of communication and on the other hand all great artists, both composers and authors, seem to stretch the rules a bit. They displace phrases, use words in unusual ways, they make obscure references, and sometimes simply break the rules. Why is this necessary? Is the language at fault? The artist? Perhaps a certain flexibility is necessary, for the artist and the person experiencing the work. Perhaps too a flexibility in the language itself is an asset. Yet flex too far, and it becomes esoteric and perhaps unintelligible. Can any language, though, be said objectively to be easy? Would perhaps the easiest language be the most natural in some respect? Would that really be a virtue? Is there a dichotomy between artificial and natural in terms of language? Ought the language or the music mimic nature, should they be naturalistic?

For example, is there anything intrinsically difficult about fugal music, or easy about galanterie? What about factors like periodicity? Is the phrasing of, say Mozart's fugue KV.394  any "easier" than Bach's? We looked at this fugue earlier this year. Try comparing it to a Bach fugue. Whose phrases are longer? How are they balanced? (Adolphe discusses this in the Q and A section of the lecture Classical Counterpoint: From Bach to Mozart, but see also the article On Mozart's Rhythm by Edward E. Lowinsky [2])

Also, what might be said to constitute the language and its norms? For example, we consider the "Classical Style" primarily that of Mozart and Haydn. Now not only were they both revolutionary composers who transformed the musical language they inherited, they themselves were quite different. Too we think of Bach and Baroque as closely related, but Bach's music is in many ways a world unto itself. Of course time is a factor too: can you step into the same culture twice? Would it be good if you could?

Of course the greatest music confounds these questions by being both profound and popular, learned yet appealing, and cosmic yet personal. Are they better only because of their craftsmanship or is there too some truth in them that binds the opposites and transcends them? (Is that tantamount to being "natural" as we said above. Could such just an impression of nature?)

Anyway that is another round of thinking about, or at least pondering, these perennial questions, a round spurred by Mr. Adolphe's wonderful lectures on this extraordinary music. He speaks about a lot more than I've highlighted here. Go check them out!

[1] This volume of the Bach Cantata Choir's newsletter has an insightful discussion of the issue: [1.2 MB]
[2] Lowinsky, Edward E. On Mozart's Rhythm. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 1956), pp. 162-186

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, 2010

Last year in celebration of Thanksgiving I indulged in compiling list. I say indulged because I included no explanation or explication, unlike in my Mozart Counterpoint series which began at least as a sort of list. As such, I'll again leave you to determine the virtues of these works and the commonalities and differences amongst them. Last year's theme was simply art and Mr. Northcutt joined me in compiling a list of ten works. His 2009 List. My 2009 List.

I thought I'd make a tradition of it and compile a new list this year with a new theme. This Thanksgiving the topic is Sacred Music. This list is 15 items instead of 10 and this time is in a sort of order: consider the listing to be in three tiers and consider the order within those tiers to be a little loose (except for the #1 spot.) I tried to avoid listing different settings of the same text and to avoid listing many works by the same composer. I also confined myself to settings of Latin texts only. Also and obviously, the list could be much longer.

15) Laudate pueri Dominum, 'Psalm 112,' RV.600 - Laudate, pueri, Dominum; laudate nomen Domini (Antonio Vivaldi) [YouTube]

14) Dixit Dominus - Dixit Dominus Domino meo (G.F. Handel) [YouTube] [Text]

13) Te Deum (Anton Bruckner) [YouTube] [Text]

12) Spem in alium (Thomas Tallis) [YouTube]

11) Ave Maria (Josquin des Prez) [YouTube]

10) Mass for Four Voices - Agnus Dei (William Byrd) [YouTube]

9) Vespro Della Beata Vergine - Ave Maris Stella (Claudio Monteverdi) [YouTube] [Text]

8) Mass in C minor, KV.427 - Kyrie (W. A. Mozart) [YouTube]

7) Mass in B minor - Credo - Et resurrexit (J. S. Bach) [YouTube]

6) Ave verum corpus, KV.618 - (W. A. Mozart) [YouTube]

5) Missa Papae Marcelli - Gloria (Giovanni Palestrina) [YouTube]

4) Officum defunctorum - Kyrie (Tomás Luis de Victoria) [YouTube]

3) Mass in B minor - Gloria - Cum sancto spiritu (J. S. Bach) [YouTube]

2) Mass in C minor, KV.427 - Sanctus (W. A. Mozart) [YouTube]

Missa Solemnis in D, op.123 (Ludwig van Beethoven)
 Credo - Et incarnatus est  (see 3:40)