Mr Bach has an off day

By: | Post date: April 26, 2009 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Music

The good thing with having a complete collection of an artist’s works is, you get to hear their crap works as well as their masterpieces. In fact the crap works throw their masterpieces into relief. Masterpieces do sprezzatura to excess: they sound effortless and inevitable. It’s only when you see how art can go awry that you realise what has been so well wrought; and it helps if the awful and the awesome has been wrought by the same person.

It also helps if you look at the contemporary context, of the second-ranked beside the first ranked, to see where the masterpieces came out of. That’s why my friend Gert collected 18th century solo violin works—von Westhoff and Guillemain and Telemann—to make better sense of the Bach violin works. It’s also why I read up on Marlowe after my first flush of Shakespeare (back when I used to read.)

So it was that hearing BWV 909 on my Complete Bach set about a month ago, I was moved to blog that here, finally, was a crap Bach piece. Now, that’s unfair; it doesn’t start off that bad; but towards the end of the Fantasia, there’s a clear feeling that he’s gotten lost, paying more attention to cool chromatic progressions and less to having a cogent structure. It’s very early Bach, and quite possibly spurious. (Then again, if it sounds crap, people would say that.) But crap Bach helps you better appreciate good Bach. In fact, with the complete instrumental corpus, I was startled how much I already owned (all but one CD’s worth, I think), and how consistently quality it is.

I recalled I had already heard that kind of chromatic meandering before, on an organ piece in the Walcha complete Organ Works of Bach. Bach on the organ is often boring, but not often shapeless; yet this piece was just marking time going up and down chord progressions. I can remember sitting in the car, must have been last year, with the iPod on, thinking “this is really crook”. And to make a well-balanced blog post, I sat down to listen through the iPod again, with lots of fast forwarding. And then with less fast forwarding. And I couldn’t find the bastard anywhere.

Dunno if I hallucinated it, if the iTunes import skipped it in revulsion, or what. For the record (and in case someone knows their Bach on the organ better than I do), what I recall is something like this:

[EDIT: Found, see comments]

A third instance is the original version of the harpsichord cadenza in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1050a). No online scores for this one, as it was only published in 1975. The earlier cadenza once again succumbs to Cool Chromatic Chord stuff, and has bits of only the second half of the cadenza as we now know it. Bach is supposed to have expanded the cadenza to impress Mr Brandenburg; but the new cadenza is not impressive by being flashier, but by being more structured, more directed, more integrated into its musical context—resulting in the amazing feeling of a new world being born. I note in the Google Books hit for 1050a (Marissen, Michael. 1999. Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Princeton Unviersity Press. p. 107) that Christopher Hogwood said the original Brandenburg 5 was better, and Richard Taruskin bollocked him for it. Good for Taruskin.

Taruskin was one of the many Americans that went apeshit after 9/11, hence his notorious censorious outburst on John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer. And I’m not going to blanket-condemn the pursuit of musical authenticity. But “ultimate perversion of the idea of authenticity” in his bollocking sounds good to me…

Marissen objects that in the old version, the orchestra at the end has something to say, precisely because the harpsichord has gotten so carried away—whereas it’s just reduced to a formality with the closing ritornello in the final version, and that this undue prominence of the solo is stretching the concept of the concerto to its limits. I don’t think any of that’s a bad thing (after all, the harpsichord shuts up its concertante partners as well as the movement goes on), and I’m not sure Marissen thinks so either…

The other thing about complete works are, they collect together the doodles as well as the sweated over. And with Bach, it’s doesn’t get anymore Doodle than BWV 1072. You’ll see a lot on BWV 1072 online, about how it is an analogy for Newtonian physics, or a profound analogy for the Trinity and the Incarnation, or what an advance over previous trias harmonica canons this was because, woah, it’s got passing notes.

And you know, with all the numerology and symbolism Bach was into, this may all be true. But people, it’s an arpeggio. It’s pretty impossible to stuff up. And it’s over in five seconds. It’s not exactly the St Matthew’s Passion. It may be interesting conceptually; but I was embarrassed to hear it on the recording…

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