Accessing Bach

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For those of you taking it easy today, consider reading this article about Bach:

The article is not short nor is it really easy reading. But I found it fascinating because from a secular standpoint, it argues in a way that I often hear Christian music conservatives argue. The author (a classical pianist named Jeremy Denk) elevates Bach to a pedestal and makes the case that debate about Bach’s music is over and now, we can determine what other music is good by comparing it to Bach.

Here is his opening statement:

At this point nobody needs to be told that Bach is good. The votes are in. But mass approval is a force to be reckoned with, and the intensity of humanity’s worship of Bach has unforeseen consequences. I propose to reverse-engineer the usual praise. Rather than using our words to measure his goodness, we can use his music as a standard to measure our ideas of the good, to assess our prejudices about virtue.

Wow… Is he really saying what he appears to be saying? Pretty much; much of the rest of the article presents the case that Bach’s music defines logic, truth, purity, and even morality for us mere mortals who were blessed to live after him.

I don’t want to be too hard on the author. The article is actually a book review and many quotes are provided of other people who saw Bach as um, well… Here is an example:

Nicolas Slonimsky labeled Bach the “supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music,” which seems like hyperbole but isn’t. Bach is much more than a logician-he is Moses handing down commandments. Bach’s laws similarly tend to come in convenient even-numbered packages: the thirty-two parts of the Goldbergs, the forty-eight preludes and fugues, the six cello suites, the six keyboard partitas. They lay down prescriptions about harmony, about the treatment of dissonance, about design and voice-leading-musical morals that most people would never understand but can perceive through Bach’s vision.
The author also says this about morality:

Closely following upon the invocation of God is the invocation of virtue: Bach is music’s claim to morality.

And here are the words of Rosalyn Tureck:

Bach is more than music. It reveals to us, who will listen and perceive, the world to which the highest ideals of man aspire.
So Bach is the musical lawgiver and moralist. As it turns out, he also apparently defines truth.

But we believe in Bach on the evidence of the notes themselves. Having invoked fact, law, and logic, I think the larger and more precise term, the umbrella term, to sum up Bach’s mystique is truth. There is a lot of talk of truth and truthiness these days-the death of truth, a post-truth era, and a proliferation of fact checkers debasing the currency in which they pretend to trade. But in Bach’s case we are talking about a certain kind of truth, a necessary truth, even a divine truth, something unarguable.

And this…

We tend to glorify composers who break or stretch the laws: Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Debussy. Bach is the exception, a composer whom we love for his rules. And having created them, he sets up shop in them, and takes inspiration from their self-evident goodness. The commandments generate freedom. Owing to this lawfulness, Bach’s choices come to feel permanent, and immune from passing style and taste; they give the illusion of being facts. All other composers seem to be writing novels, but Bach writes non-fiction.
Bach has been used as a weapon with which to attack the “Romantic,” whatever that word means: the pedal is an evil, rubato is indulgent, the piano is a monstrous anachronism, and so on. We use him as a litmus test, a way to define genuine or truthful expression.
And last….
Bach draws a distinction between truth as compressed into aphorism (the truism, the talking point, the slogan) and truth as a practice. The sort of musical truths that Bach sketches out-unrepeatable, as no other composer ever came close to replicating these foundational experiments-are the opposite of the inspirational pronouncement. Unfolded over time, in an uncanny mix of narrative and repose, they are not intended to dazzle. They are intended to be lived in; they are well-made like a blade or a bell that rings true.

What should Christians take away from this?

There are obvious concerns of course, but as I said before, I hear this kind of thing in the Christian music world all the time. It makes about as much sense when Christians say it in their way. So the big lesson is not to fall into the trap of thinking this way about your favorite music. Using a music style as a litmus test for morality, truth, and purity is just indefensible.

This is why judging the music of another generation, culture, or area of the world by the standards of Western classical music is offensive and wrong. Christians that put Bach on a pedestal and use him to condemn African music for example are just as wrong as this article’s secular perspective is.

So what is a healthy way to view Bach? First of all, give him his due, I do not deny his genius and I do believe that Bach helped catalog a system of musical rules that we all benefit from to this day. But let’s not kid ourselves. Bach did not create any rules; he discovered them. Musical development is a discovery process, not a creation process. The rules he discovered are truth only in the sense that math theorems are truth. In other words, they help us understand how music works, but they do not prescribe morality.

For those of you that are musicians, I wanted to use this article to highlight a common philosophy that I discuss often here about music. The idea that any composer defines morality means that he/she is untouchable and that affects how you play them.  For example, the author mentions a famous quote from Wanda Landowska to Pablo Casals:

You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.

See what is implied there in that snooty comment? There is only one correct way to play Bach–Bach’s way (and Wanda knows that way of course). Here is another passage that describes this perspective.

… the greatest compliment for Ms. Hewitt came from her father, who after listening to one of her recordings, said: ‘I didn’t hear you. I only heard Bach.'” It is a bit strange for an artist to vanish in her own profile-but this is the cliched credo of Bach performance. You hear it all the time in Bach lessons and master classes: the student is told not to add anything of himself, to avoid the personal, to stick with the universal, to dissolve into the composer. The personal is an impurity and Bach is distilled water. Purity arrives very early in Elie’s book, on page nine: Bach is “the great exception, a site of purity in our sullied lives.”

I am not condemning that perspective. Really I am not. But I am not very interested in it. A performer without the power to express himself is not a performer at all. He is just a technician. And the idea that the composer retains all the power while the performer has none is just too old fashioned and aristocratic for me.

Oh, by the way, Happy Thanksgiving.