Friday, April 2, 2010

Polemic Bach?

In the introduction to his interview with Lera Auerbach (which will probably appear in print on Sunday but is currently available at SFGate), San Francisco Chronicle Music Critic Joshua Kosman took a position that gave me a bit of pause:

When Johann Sebastian Bach, in each book of "The Well-Tempered Clavier," assembled a group of 24 pieces in every major and minor key, he was doing it in part to make a polemical point about the robustness of the tonal system.

When the Russian-born pianist and composer Lera Auerbach, more than 2 1/2 centuries later, did something similar, it was - well, for exactly the same reason.

Anyone who has read up on Bach's life will probably agree that he was a man of strong opinions, but was he polemical through either his music or his verbal text? More specifically, was he polemical over what is basically an issue of music theory? Quite the contrary, there is no evidence that Bach wrote anything about theory; nor did he feel it was necessary to write about those who were writing about theory, such as Jean Philippe Rameau. At most we have a letter that Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote to Johann Philipp Kirnberger, which includes a sentence frequently cited in accounts of music history:

You may proclaim that my and my deceased father's basic principles are contrary to Rameau's.

Unless I am mistaken, the letter goes on to say that the elder Bach did not have time for matters that were too mathematical; but I have not been able to track down a source for this other than the memory of my own music studies.

Where polemic is concerned, I prefer to side with David Shavin and his paper "The Strategic Significance of J.S. Bach’s A Musical Offering," which may be read at the Web site for The Schiller Institute. Shavin wrote the following about the six-voice fugue included in the Musical Offering collection:

Now, may the “Ricercar a 6” commence. A musical work titled “ricercar” implies both a work that is learned (the verb “ricercare” meaning “to search”), and an instrumental work thought of in terms of vocal motets. This nicely refers to Bach’s lifelong polemic for the unification of the mind working and the emotions singing.

This is a polemical Bach more consistent with what we know about his life. I described him above as a man of strong opinions, and some of his strongest opinions concerned pedagogy. As a result, some of the best insights into his own practices of composition and performance can be found in music he composed for pedagogical purposes, usual for the benefit of (at least) one of his sons.

This brings us to The Well-Tempered Clavier, which was composed in two books, the first in 1722 and the second in 1742. The title page of the first books explicitly states that its preludes and fugues were composed "for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study." If there was any polemical message behind this, it was that, to invoke Shavin's terminology, the emotions could "sing" in all 24 of the major and minor keys.

However, there is more to the story; and this involves the hypothesis that "well-tempered" did not mean "equal-tempered." Last year Frank French made a case in support of this hypothesis by playing both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier on a modern piano tuned according to a system developed by Thomas Young in 1799. French's point was to demonstrate that each of those 24 keys had its own characteristic sound. In other words the emotions could "sing" in all of them; but it would have its own distinct way of singing in each of them. French believed that playing in a tuning system such as Young's was prerequisite to our appreciating how the keys differed and that part of the pedagogical intent behind the entire collection was the cultivation of that appreciation. Unfortunately, the rise of the more "robust" equal-tempered system undermined that intent. To draw again upon Shavin (and mix metaphors at the same time), the playing field has been leveled, enabling (but also obliging) the emotions to "sing" the same way, regardless of the key (the only distinction remaining being the one between major and minor). It would seem that a more robust approach to theoretical foundations that were of little interest to Bach entailed a narrowing of the expressiveness of the music itself. However, the end of the eighteenth century was also the period when the modern piano began to become the instrument of choice; and the technology of piano development led to a far greater scope of opportunities for expressiveness.

Does any of this pertain to what Auerbach has been doing? On the basis of the interview I would say that her own intentions follow a much different path. Kosman's first question concerned why it was that the idea of a collection of 24 preludes covering all major and minor keys was so compelling that she had done it three times for three different instrumental settings. I found this a really great question, and I think Auerbach dignified it with an equally great answer:

For one thing, you have the double challenge of miniature form and very large form. Taken together, each set is one very large work, with a grand structure, but each of the 24 pieces also has a form of its own.

By talking about that "grand structure," she distanced herself from Bach in a significant way. The pedagogical intentions behind The Well-Tempered Clavier did not include performing all of those preludes and fugues in a recital setting (as is also the case with the intentions behind the "Goldberg" variations). Indeed, Auerbach's answer seems to indicate that she was less concerned with Bach's legacy and more with that of the Opus 28 collection of 24 preludes by Frédéric Chopin. As far as I am concerned, there is no question that Bach cared in any way about a "grand structure" in The Well-Tempered Clavier; but, in this bicentennial year, it is going be hard to throw a cat without hitting a pianist who has prepared a program in which the Opus 28 preludes are played from start to finish in one gulp. Does that collection have a "grand structure;" or is it, as I recently suggested on, more like "Winston Churchill's one-thing-after-another characterization of history?" Having taken my position on Chopin, I am more than a little curious to see if Auerbach can come up with better ideas, which is why I shall be approaching her recital this coming Tuesday with cellist Alisa Weilerstein with eager anticipation!

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