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Fragments on Bach and Beethoven


Ode to joy.— Johann Sebastian Bach[1] is first among the gods in the shrine of music. He is so imposing a figure that not even Beethoven, not even the Ninth Symphony, overshadows him. Nothing can. If God pointed to the Creation and said, “You didn’t do that!”, Bach could retort, “But I recreated it and made it intelligible—and I never rested, unlike you!” He’s perfect, if only by virtue of his power. He stands at the head of the most remarkable two centuries in the history of music—and I can’t think of a better herald of the Golden Age than a man who was more modern than modernity itself[2] yet more ancient than antiquity. His oeuvre is not only immortal; it is timeless.




From a YouTube comment on Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.”— “It’s amazing that one man could write this, another perform it, and yet a third could design cluster bombs disguised as children’s toys to be dropped by the USAF in Iraq.”




Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcriptions of Bach are magnificent, but Glenn Gould may have been right that they represent corruptions of the original pristine structures, the musical-logical structures. They romanticize the music, sentimentalize it, aggrandize it, exaggerate it, thus depriving it of its pristine classical quality. I love Hélène Grimaud’s version of the Chaconne, but I almost feel as if I shouldn’t love it. For what exactly do I love about it? The epicness, the emotionalness, the sublime besottedness—intoxicating. And the loudness. The dynamic contrasts; it’s all about the dynamics. But that ain’t Bach. Bach wasn’t all about the dynamics, or thick, lush sound. The Chaconne is for solo violin! It’s melodic, contrapuntal; but with Busoni, everything’s harmonic. It’s “Wagner meets Bach.” Insofar as there is anguish in Bach’s Chaconne, it is subtle and dignified. It’s infinite anguish, which is to say it doesn’t enjoy itself. (No self-reflection, no self-consciousness.) And then later there is infinite forgiveness and hope, which doesn’t congratulate itself on its beauty. It simply expresses pure, elevated, melodic joy. There is no need for filling out its bare-boned structure with lush sound, with chords and arpeggios and huge crescendos and diminuendos to make everything pretty and embellished—and obvious. Nor is there any virtuosity for its own sake. It’s just a clear voice from heaven.


In his most serious compositions, Bach always wants to transcend sonority. Gould was right: Bach doesn’t care about sonority, he cares about structure. He is reaching beyond, trying to communicate with God, literally. His works are about transcendence, transcendence of the immediate (emotions, matter, even sound-for-its-own-sake). Not so with Busoni and much romantic music. Busoni is “pianistic,” as Gould would say. He is completely immersed in the piano, doesn’t try to reach beyond it. Ultimately this attitude is a sort of musical temptation (in the sense of sin), like the temptation to wallow in sorrow of which Dante and Oscar Wilde speak. Wallow in the immediate—aestheticism, which is a kind of hedonism, which is weakness.


It’s possible I’m being slightly unfair to Busoni. There are indeed otherworldly passages in his transcription(s). He was a genius, of course. But I still get the sense that he vulgarizes Bach a little by going for the effect. I don’t get this sense, for example, with Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the third partita for solo violin or with Liszt’s transcriptions. But it’s true that, from a Bachian or Gouldian perspective, the piano is an inherently risky instrument, since it’s so easy to lose oneself in its beautiful, textured sound.




Bach vs. Beethoven.— Glenn Gould was probably right that Bachian polyphony and contrapuntalism is on a higher spiritual (and intellectual) plane than later homophony, be it in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, or whomever. It’s more pure, less emotional—less tainted by association with the earthly. Interweaving of melodic lines enjoyed for its own sake. “Absolute” music. “God’s thinking before he created the world,” to quote Goethe. Ethereal, transparent in some inexplicable way, diaphanous, it exercises your intellect and raises you above yourself. Beethoven is comparatively human. With his music you’re more uplifted, but you’re less lifted up.




On the proper way to listen to music.— The second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, the passage from measures 86 to 90.[3] It makes me think of Matthew 26: 36-46 and 75—not of the words but of the situation. The mortality of beauty. The sorrow of love, and the long sighs; yet the serenity—the serenity of forgiveness. But only if my headphones are of good quality: I’m pressing them hard against my ears, the volume on maximum; my teeth are clenched because I have never encountered anything quite so painful—painfully beautiful—as this music. Repeating it ten times, twenty times. The violins descending in broken thirds, the violas sympathizing with them, and the flutes and oboes agreeing pithily, and then the gentle pluck of the bass after its silence, conscious that the resonance of its contribution consists in its laconic authority; but the oboes and flutes are swept up in the current and, satisfied no longer with passive assent, converse together lyrically, the violins too murmuring trills, sweet and light; the bassoons and clarinets are aroused to song, exhorting their companions with their poetry, and as the bass is carried away by this love for all that is, all is submerged in a purple cloud of harmony. A melody would disrupt the balance; harmony is everything, and there are no individuals.




Listening, for example, to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, it occurs to you that what makes Beethoven Beethoven is the naïveté of his enthusiasm for life. The childlike sincerity, the directness, of his enthusiasm for life. It is this that speaks to billions of people. It is this that keeps the music perpetually fresh. Or, rather, the music’s freshness is synonymous with its childlike sincerity; and Beethoven’s whole art consists in the attempt never to let anything hackneyed or didactic or formulaic get in the way of the direct and spontaneous expression of emotion and thought. Most timeless art, in fact, has this “naïve” and “spontaneous” quality, but none more so than Beethoven’s. How he managed to convey it through the manipulation of sounds is a mystery, because music itself is a mystery. But it is clear that even the music’s “flaws,” such as its occasional coarseness, vulgarity, and orchestral imbalances, contribute to its childlike vitality and hence its power.




[1] His monumental human dignity demands that he be called by his whole name.


[2] He even has something for heavy metal, not to mention jazz.


[3] Pierre Monteux’s interpretation.

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