Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Does the Music Notation Make it Music?

As I work my way through the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, which I wrote about last week, I realize that my earlier post might have been a bit unfair in singling out the Art of Fugue and the Musikalisches Opfer puzzle canons for the sake of raising the question of whether or not they should be called "music." Many (most?) of the works that constitute the "Keyboard Works" Volume of this collection could probably be held up to that same question. We know, for example, that the Goldberg Variations were not intended for concert performance, let alone as a "whole-cloth" composition. Each variation was, to some degree, a highly honorable predecessor of the sleeping pill, a function that I came to appreciate with all due dignity back in my days of trans-Pacific business trips. I did not always have Bach at my disposal, but I always had something true to the underlying principle. Then, of course, there were the prefatory remarks that Bach provided for the Funfzehn Inventionen und Funfzehn Symphonien, which may it clear that they were composed for the pedagogy of both technique and composition for the keyboard. Indeed, the very name of the entire Clavierübung (including the part for organ) indicates a similar pedagogical intent. As to The Well-Tempered Clavier, it is true that keyboard performers seem to enjoy scheduling "marathon" programs that crank through all 48 preludes and fugues, usually in the order in which they were published; but these are "athletic" events, which do little more to inform the inquisitive ear than that "entire evening in D minor" that constitutes a "performance" of the Art of Fugue. Most likely the only works that Bach really intended for performance were the concertos for one or more keyboards and orchestra.

This is not to say that there is no value in listening to compositions whose intentions were purely pedagogical. Such works bring to us, as listeners, particularly focused insights regarding the logic, grammar, and rhetoric behind Bach's work. What is important, however, is that Bach was just as serious (if not more so) about directing those logical, grammatical, and rhetorical concerns to the discipline of performance as I have tried to be in my own efforts to write knowledgeable about that art of performance, without which the music would be nothing more than an empty shell of arcane marks printed on paper. In that capacity a concert performer may be little more than a channel for conveying those insights to the "good listeners" in the audience. Sadly, most performers are too ego-involved to commit to such a role, which means that, at least where the keyboard music of Bach is concerned, all of us, both performers and listeners, end up at a severe disadvantage.

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