Reacting to new research on “the violent, thuggish world of the young JS Bach,” one commenter noted that this information makes them feel closer to Bach’s music. I needed a moment to understand what this person meant. John Eliot Gardiner’s research will no doubt prove interesting, and people are free to make what they want of it. I realized that nothing about Bach could make me feel closer or farther from his music, since I never truly cared about him. I don’t listen to Bach. I listen to his music.
Some readers may explain that music expresses something personal, that art reflects something from inside of the artist. Maybe it does. If that’s true however, it expresses some thing other than the artist. That thing is a musical idea, a thing we hear. By the time it reaches our ears, any knowledge of the actual musician supposedly contained in the music is an interpolation amidst our own thoughts, feelings, presuppositions and expectations. It’s hard enough to know myself. I’m not going to expect intimate understanding of a centuries old, religiously devout, deceased German genius according to his notes and rhythms (which are for most people, including this blogger, a second language).
Of course it is sometimes enjoyable and revealing to put on historical or personal lenses while listening, even if we can only glean so much from that perspective. Yet if we could get to know the person through their music, what would we find? We may be shocked to learn that Bach faced suffering and had a dark side, but are we learning anything that Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor didn’t already teach us?
Sinister and strutting, with the right beats it may as well be a gangster rap hook. Saints are saints and people are people.
By definition, Bach having his own personal struggles is nothing remarkable; all human beings have personal struggles. Bach’s music on the other hand, with its dense walls of sound and dissonant tinges on top of a juggernaut rhythm, is the remarkable thing. I’m not moved and awed by geniuses but by the manifestations of their genius. Look too deeply into a genius and you’re bound to find (just) a person:
Pale, tousled Miff Mole enjoying a drag with the sound of his confident, clever trombone playing in the background: does the former inform the latter? Does the image matter alongside the sound, as anything other than a surprising juxtaposition? What’s the truly remarkable thing here?
Albert Murray tells us that jazz musicians perform “because Music [capitalization by Murray] is their profession and [jazz] is an idiom for which they feel they have some aesthetic affinity and technical competence.” Most classical, popular or GB musicians would probably echo the same motivations of “affinity” and “competence.” Unlike plumbers, accountants or critics, the artist’s chosen trade works on our minds and hearts. Yet in all of those cases it is the creation and not the creator that ultimately matters. Bach, Mole, Bix Beiderbecke and “Wolfie” Mozart may have been sophisticated, sensitive or otherwise fascinating people. Their actual friends and acquaintances may have been truly fortunate to know them as individuals. Yet the reason any of us still care about those men as anything more than flesh, blood and foibles is still fresh in our ears, beyond mortality, past the merely human.