Saturday, February 13, 2010


Theodor Adorno deplored what he perceived as a Nazi
transformation of J.S. Bach into a latter-day cultural icon.
a Hans Sachs -like justification for the
supremacy of the Third Reich. How unhappily Bach was
treated in his own day would refute any broad claim to
this, as far as I can see; to read Christoph Wolff's
biography is to be immersed in the details of a
sequence of contractual disputes from start to finish.
And at the end he suffered cataract surgery at the hands of the same
quack as did Handel, and was made blind. No, Germany
did not treat him well. They were as nasty, as trite,as stinting
and as underhanded to Bach as
Amsterdam was to Rembrandt.
How might they have known him, and treated him better,
who was a prophet disguised as a scholar? The accounts
from his lifetime treat him as a virtuoso in terms
of technique,not in terms of the beauty of his music or its affekt,
whereas the contemporary complaint--which in one case lead to litigation--is that
the music is stiff, overwrought, and lacks expressivity.
This seems incredible to me in regard to the
choruses of the Matthew passion or the violin chaconne,
to seize on two examples from the far ends of his reach.
But it certainly wasn't galant,that era's sugared style, and it is important to
remember that Bach's career took place during
the heyday of Rococo, of Watteau rather than Rembrandt,
which may explain much of him which is against the grain
of his own time.
Felix Mendelsohn's conducting of the St Matthew passion with the Singakademie in 1829
is said to have sparked the Bach revival after a virtual eclipse to his reputation following
his death,but prior to that Mozart heard parts
of the Well-tempered Clavier played in the salon of Baron von Swieten,
and Bach influenced him ever after. Bach is to be found in Mozart's music in the most curious places, in the Chorale preceding the tests by fire and water in the Magic Flute,
and the monumental adagio and fugue for glass harmonica.
not to mention the c minor fantasia and fugue for piano.
Later,Schumann developed a thing about Bach
(How German is it?) and canons generally,
which leads to some rather blurry contrapuntal exercises, but it is Chopin,paradoxically,who
makes him his own; more than any other composer he understands the
lyric impulse of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which he distills in op.28 Preludes in particular.
Both seek the platonically ideal melody inherent to each different key and
the underlying configuration which will catalyze it.
(Chopin played Bach and Mozart to Delacroix and
Georges Sand- during the painting of their double portrait.
Sand and Delacroix found them old-fashioned in a way that we do not.)
Bach is not always a good influence--Tovey famously compared Brahms'
use of the Art of the Fugue theme in the first 'cello sonata to the periodic
emergence of a porpoise in a muddy aquarium--and it may be argued
that he was the ruination of Max Reger, who learned from him the technique
of carting the theme uphill via the means of the fugue. There
are admittedly a few labored fugues in Bach--not many, but enough to dread
when they occur, which happens just enough for wariness.
In his early work, this is because they are prolix, as in the
Toccata and fugue in C minor for keyboard, the later as
demonstrations of ingenuity.
He is also a great attractant for eccentric performers,
more so than any other composer,as the Goldberg variations
in the hands of Maria Yudina, Rosalyn Tureck, Wanda
Landowska, Glenn Gould, and Charles Rosen attests. The Goldbergs
manages to absorb them, and the three others by Gustav Leonhardt,
my favorite of the harpsichordists,
and two by Andras Schiff, my favorite among pianists. No
one performance encompasses it, and I approach having
heard thirty-three interpretations.Gould's first recording
made in 1955 will always be the one to which all others refer,
never-the-less, and for me personally the first
I heard and the last I will remember.
Each is interesting in the sense that someone crossing
a waterfall on a tightrope is interesting as they pass through the penumbra
of its rainbow.The wonder is that they come out the other side.
(to be continued)

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