Tag Archives: Bach

Not Gods, Not Even Musicians…

care of cherryteresa on tumblrReacting 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.

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Look, Listen and Learn with Bach

mulibraries.missouri.eduOne can only hear, “don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal and happens to everyone” so many times. Yet apparently even the most open-minded, experienced and knowledgeable listeners encounter musical objects that completely elude them: some song, artist, instrument or style that they simply “can’t get into it.” Depending on one’s character, that distaste can seem like a badge of iconoclasm. When countless others have sung the praises of this musical cipher, it feels more like a dunce cap.

In my case, it remains incredibly frustrating and unnerving to turn my nose up at Bach. The man hasn’t just earned his musical street cred, but in many ways has defined the very concepts through which we hear and evaluate music. Bach’s music has created some of the most fundamental concepts of “Music.” Still, yours truly was never able to sit through the master’s Concerto for Three Harpsichords (BWV 1063).

BWV 1063The idea of three keyboard instruments, string orchestra and continuo passing musical ideas back and forth in some rich polyphonic arch seemed impressive. The music probably looks great on paper if you’re a composer or counterpoint teacher. The problem is that it didn’t look like anything coming through my speakers, and it always sounded like a big mess. The three harpsichords just seemed to mutter some dark but very ponderous story. Differentiation between the three soloists was nearly impossible, and the sheen of the strings and shape of the bass lines seemed more like dark corners rather than buttresses in some musical structure. Years of repeated listening left me stupefied, and finally cold.

Reading about the concerto, I learned that it was composed while Bach lived in Leipzig, and performed by the composer and two of his sons at Zimmermann’s Café (sort of an eighteenth century precursor to the jazz brunch). This work and Bach’s other keyboard concertos broke artistic ground by taking the keyboard out of its accompanying role and into the spotlight. Interesting stuff. Too bad that my stubborn, stupid ears could only reply, “so what?”

Then, at home one day, with YouTube on “Shuffle” in the background and my attention focused elsewhere, an aural epiphany:

Other performances of this piece took “…for Three Harpsichords” very literally, using three of the same instrument, often with models that were very similar to one another in terms of their sound. Here, the play between warm, slightly plunky fortepianos and the drier, incisive harpsichord hooked me immediately. The fortepianos’’ dynamic abilities allowed further separation of parts because of how they responded to the Labeque sisters’ very different touches: first soloist Katia’s slightly more percussive approach really contrasted with Marielle’s milder fingers.

Clicking the window to view the clip, each human voice became a musical one. It wasn’t just the sight of living, breathing people making this centuries-old work come alive, or the way the sisters concentrated on and smiled at the music like it was a great dance partner. The visuals clarified what each instrument had to say. For the first time I found myself hearing, and caring about little touches like the mischievous keyboard runs behind the orchestra in the third movement. The camera switched from part to part and then panned out to show the whole ensemble in dialog. Between the harpsichord, each fortepiano and the first violins, it all seemed perfectly transparent, even as each voice slid into the other, like a matryoshka doll made of crystal.

dunce-capI’ve replayed this clip a dozen times now. Eventually I’ll even go back and listen to those other recordings of this piece. Yet the catalyst for enjoying this work was watching people perform it while listening, which is exactly what the Bach family did many years ago. “So what?” now seems like a downright idiotic statement. Then again it’s probably better to feel stupid in hindsight rather than perennially bored. Well played, Johann, well played.

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(Some) Bach at Aston Magna

Bach’s Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord are one of the best explanations for why jazz and classical sit so well together in my ears: they’re well-crafted and intricate but also approachable. They’re incredibly beautiful and they really move. Wholly without pretense, these pieces demand skill as well as imagination from their interpreters.  If he had the time, Bach would have have been playing jazz back in the eighteenth century; he was just busy laying the foundations of Western music.

Getting to hear these works live is a rare experience, but unfortunately Thursday’s performance at Aston Magna Festival presented some difficulties. For more on the sonatas and the concert, please read my review in The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

Peter Sykes' View at the Concert (my photo)

Peter Sykes’ View at the Concert (my photo)

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Bring On The Death Of Jazz!

c/o musicaltoronto.orgThe string bass and a four-to-the-bar rhythm were central to most jazz bands by 1935. Given how quickly things move in music, especially jazz, that means Clarence Williams’ allusions to his late-twenties style on “Lady Luck Blues” might have seemed just as old-fashioned back then as they do today.  Were Williams alive, chances are he would have cared just as little:

Nowadays tubas, washboards and “big four” beats are just a few devices deemed passé in jazz circles. Many musicians don’t bother with straightforward, chank-a-dang rhythm, the American songbook and other ideas that eclipsed the earliest styles of jazz. Swing was in turn knocked from its pedestal by the harmonically and rhythmically adventurous music named “bop,” which is now usually just an early step on the way to other horizons. Many commentators even claim that jazz itself is outdated.

In short, all things come to an end, and this blogger couldn’t be happier.  After years of savoring music declared outdated or just plain “dead” long ago, the thought of what killed that music in the first place now joining it in the afterlife provides a satisfying side of irony. Helps mask the taste of schadenfreude.

Yet death also turns out to be tremendously liberating. When “Anthropology” and atonal honks join the ranks of multi-strainers and clarinet trios, it means there’s no stylistic cutting contest between the hip and the historical. It’s all just “dead.” It doesn’t matter when something died, or how dead it is, since it’s all equally invalid measured against the infinite yardstick of “progress.” Maybe it gets ignored, or maybe it become a source of inspiration.

Just ask Bach. His use of counterpoint would have seemed hopelessly outdated next to the simple melodies and light textures of the rising Galant style. Yet that didn’t keep him away from unhip techniques that continue to impress and move audiences (the ones that can get over how old the music is, anyway):

So bring on the death of more music! It puts everything on the same playing field, or more accurately, the same graveyard. Either way, plenty to dig.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: “Vivaldi” Takes On the Solo Partita

Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Concerto No. 12 in D
RV 214
Solo Instrument: Violin
Published as Part of: Opus Seven
Soloist and Ensemble: Unknown for YouTube clip,  Alberto Martini and I Filarmonici in audio clip

Vivaldi expert Michael Talbot attributes this concerto to composer Domenico Gallo, but false attributions haven’t hindered our journey through Vivaldi’s works, so why start now?

Besides, even if Vivaldi’s publisher chose to conclude Opus Seven with an imposter, it still makes a rousing closer: the racing first movement, with its rocketing ascents and breathless atmosphere, followed by a pleasant melodic stopover in the second movement and capped off by the soloist’s gymnastics in the third movement, often sans continuo and with just threadbare orchestra.

Drop out the supporting parts behind the soloist and the final movement feels like a work for unaccompanied violin. Unlike works written in that genre by Bach or Telemann, this movement is a purely violinistic display. Give it another listen and hear how it thrives on purely technical devices such as octaves, trills and double-stops, all at a furious tempo:

Instead of narrative continuity or contrapuntal allusions, Vivaldi (or Gallo, or whoever) focuses on the instrument and by extension the performer. Whether or not that makes this work less or more purely “musical” is a matter of taste. It just has its own priorities, and they’re made clear at the outset.

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Better Than Timeless, Timely: Bach at 327

(Check out Dave Grossman's arrangements of Bach on bass for more!)

Johann Sebastian Bach would have turned 327 today. He remains a huge influence on music theory, music history and how the world understands the art and technique of organized sound.

On the other hand, he died a very long time ago, and his works are often just an excuse for showing off onstage or at the podium. So who cares about Bach’s birthday?

More important than just a great (or “the greatest”) composer, Bach was simply a great musician. His complex forms and intricate lines are simply tools to express a variety of emotions, and often pure fun. If you can forget about the structure and masterful counterpoint underlying the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto, and simply listen to the strings and horns dancing around one another over a punchy rhythm, you suspect that Bach could have invented jazz, if he wanted to:

The sheer clarity of line and electric rhythms of Bach’s violin sonatas show us a violinist (one of many instruments Bach played in addition to his beloved keyboard) who simply loves to shred, not unlike Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix or Charlie Daniels:

Given the historical and academic burden of his work, it’s easy to think of Bach as an elitist or a technician, yet Bach was never just a theorist, and he never merely impresses an audience. The opening chorus of his monumental St. Matthew Passion moves the listener with imploring vocal harmonies over a subtle yet moving orchestral accompaniment. No knowledge of German needed here:

Later on, Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” (“Have Mercy”) is simple and heartbreakingly effective, whether one calls it “aria” or just a “song”:

Purely from an expressive point of view, this music centers on belief (be it belief in a divinity, in nature, in oneself or any other sustaining concept) and fear (whether it’s that our belief won’t survive, of forces beyond our control, or of fear itself). The circumstances of those concepts, the religious text or even Bach’s own devout faith, are footnotes.

There are literally centuries of analysis and ink to tell us what made Bach innovative and why he was admired by Mozart, Beethoven, Busoni, Corigliano and pretty much every composer out there. Understanding what makes his music seem confident yet sincere is as easy as listening. Bach’s music thrives not just in textbooks and concert halls, but subways, celebrations, soundtracks, samples, and songwriters. It’s not just brilliant composition, it’s a hell of an act.

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Philosophy for Friday

Lessons in love and respect, from across the internet and beyond genre.

To relentless listening and learning: may they always be one and the same.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Duel, Dance, Strut, and Inspire

Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Concerto Number 10 in B Minor
RV 580
Solo Instrument: Four Violins and Cello
Published as Part of: Opus 3, “L’Estro Armonico
Ensemble: Il Giardino Armonico

Five soloists dueling over a seductive dance rhythm, followed by an incisive riff building suspense out of simple repetition [at 4:38], and capped off by a strutting finale that feels like it’s poised to reignite the whole affair in an infinite adrenaline loop [at 5:52]:

Silence in the presence of greatness, or just objectivity? Either way, for the tenth concerto in Vivaldi’s Opus 3, my favorite work of Vivaldi’s and one of my favorite pieces of music by any artist, in any genre, from any era, and on the man’s birthday, no less, I’ll just let the music speak for itself.

…or let Bach do the talking.  Yup, he loved this one too.  Here’s his stunning transcription for four keyboards:

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Domenica con Vivaldi: You Should Hear Him Ad-Lib!

Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Concerto Number 9 in D Major
RV 230
Solo Instrument: One [Helluva’] Violin
Published as Part of: Opus 3, “L’Estro Armonico
Soloist: Fabio Biondi, violin
Ensemble: Europa Galante, dir. Biondi

Among other notes from Uffenbach‘s visit to Venice in 1715, the German traveler seems to barely believe his own description of Vivaldi’s violin, let alone the sights and sounds he witnessed:

Vivaldi played a solo accompaniment, splendid, to which he appended a cadenza which really frightened me, for such playing has never been nor can be: he brought his fingers up to only a straw’s distance from the bridge, leaving no room for the bow, and that on all four strings with imitations and incredible speed.

Descriptions are often suspect but impressions are sincere.  Numerous records indicate that whatever Vivaldi was doing, it was enough to impress and stupefy audiences.  They also indicate that like most practicing musicians of his era, Vivaldi improvised regularly, bringing an impromptu magic to his music that printed scores can never duplicate.

We may never know what Vivaldi’s improvisations sounded like, but the runaway solo violin dominating the ninth concerto in his Opus 3 collection provides several ideas.  The orchestral accompaniment is catchy, but after a dramatic introductory tutti, the ensemble fades into spirited backdrop for the soloist’s flights:

The solo violin emerges [at 0:29] with a swaggering turn of phrase and barely a mention of the opening ritornello.  It’s a little cocky, but the part emerges so independently and organically it’s easy to think it’s off the cuff.  At one point [0:57 in this clip] the soloist even throws in humorous mimicry of the ensemble’s phrase ending.  The cresting sixteenth notes have an air of flash for the sake of itself, but who cares?  That sense of showmanship kept Vivaldi in business teaching and selling his works throughout Europe (including a set of concertos to Uffenbach). The bass pedal point under the soloist’s extravagant finish [check out 1:27] is another dramatic, slightly cliche and utterly satisfying touch.

Vivaldi’s lyrical middle movements often recall slow opera arias bursting with sensuality.  Yet while the opening notes of this concerto’s “Larghetto” [unfolding at 1:59] set the stage for a long-breathed rhapsody, the soloist instead builds on a few repeating motives, like a jazz soloist experimenting with their favorite licks.  The solo begins with a coy pattern based on intervals and alternated slurred and detached notes [pictured above], then moves on [at 3:18] to further undulating phrases, similar to the first movement but now cast as invitation rather than defiance.  Popping high notes let the soloist show off glistening tone amidst all the runs.  It’s exactly the fine line between display and beauty Vivaldi loved to tread (no wonder this audience clapped before the whole concerto finished).

The first pattern from the slow movement pops up in the third and final movement [sliding in at 5:31], this time interrupted by cheeky scalar rips [like the one at 5:55] and and machine gunning thirty-second notes [watch out at 6:38!].  The concerto closes feeling less like a a through-composed, thematically expansive “piece” and more like a spontaneous outing transcribed for posterity.  It might not make for the subject of a thesis, but it works as damned good music.

Apparently Johann Sebastian Bach agreed Better than any blog, here’s Bach’s transcription for keyboard:

For listeners who find Fabio Biondi’s tempos a little too zippy, here’s a slightly statelier interpretation by The English Concert:

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