I’ve been anticipating the difficulties of blogging Bach ever since this humble project began, and sure enough, the master is upon us and the perfect approach to presenting his music is proving illusive. (It also doesn’t help that the last three weeks have been punishingly busy for Mark and me.) Where does one start when dealing with one of the two or three most transformational figures in western music? RT begins his discussion circumspectly, introducing Bach along with his exact contemporary Handel (they were both born in 1685) and demonstrating the vastly different careers both men enjoyed. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan extraordinaire, traveling from Germany to Italy to England; Bach, on the other hand, never once left Germany. Handel primarily composed secular music, particularly opera seria, although he is remembered today more for his sacred music (go to any large church in the western world around Christmas and you’ll witness the work that has won Handel a spot in the collective memory); Bach, who specialized in sacred music, is perhaps more revered today for his secular instrumental music (or rather, it is through his instrumental music that most people first encounter him). The question of how this group of gifted composers who share a birth year (including D. Scarlatti) came to influence our musical tradition is a monstrous, woolly one indeed, and Taruskin spends about a third of the volume sorting it out.
Tackling Bach is mighty intimidating. I’m just going to jump right in with one tiny question related to this giant. Check out the clip below (Brandenburg Concert 5, mvt. I) for a quick primer:
Something very peculiar is going on here, although it might not be immediately apparent (and no, I’m not talking about the darling duckling image that accompanies the clip). All the Brandenburgs are equally kooky in their own right, and instrumentation plays a major role in historians’ head scratching and brow furling. The concertos are all scored for different ensembles, some of them quite unorthodox, then as now. However, this one performs perhaps the most radical flip in instrumentation; listen to the harpsichord here, and compare it to the role of the harpsichord in all previous music. Got it? Indeed, this instrument has always served an accompanimental role as a continuo voice, but here, the harpsichordist goes off the tracks. You can first hear it at around 0:22, and all hell breaks loose at 6:20. All of these lighting quick flourishes are strictly notated, moreover; this isn’t simply a ground bass that the player is realizing on the fly. Bach is putting a continuo instrument right into the middle of the concerto as the featured voice. In the view of one musicologist (McClary), the humble harpsichord “hijacks” the ensemble.
In Bach’s time, the orchestra was seen as a “social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity.” (II, 290) It is no surprise, then, that historians have pondered Bach’s odd harpsichord-centric structure. There are other instruments in this ensemble that would have made a lot more intuitive sense to feature, but just when one expects the violin or the flute to step forward and take the hierarchical reigns of the piece, they drop out and the harpsichord goes wild in pure virtuoso fashion. This would be like featuring the bass guitar in a rock band (well, Primus did it..).
So why did Bach do this? What does it signify? Clearly any compositional choice this bold must have been made for some reason. Historians have concluded that perhaps in this transgressive musical gambit we can see a strain of social subversion. It’s purely speculative, as Bach left behind no musings on political philosophy, but nonetheless it’s an argument that can’t be ignored. According to Susan McClary, the harpsichord in this concerto is a musical “storming of the Bastille”; it expresses “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.” (302) (It should be recalled at this point that Bach himself had a somewhat frustrated career, consistently trying for more prestigious gigs and getting turned down. In fact, the Brandenburgs were a gift to a powerful local elite in the hopes of patronage. They were shelved, apparently never having been performed, until after the elite’s death.)
Michael Marissen, however, posits that the elevation of the harpsichord to such a position of prominence in Con. 5 reflects more his religious thinking than his political leanings. Bach accepted the notion that musical hierarchy reflects God’s will on this earth; however, Marissen argues, he held the Lutheran idea that the present world is of little significance compared to the kingdom of God. Transgressions like these might simply be reminding listeners that the order of this world is ephemeral.
There are of course other explanations as well. Maybe Bach had a transgressive sense of humor. Perhaps he simply got tired of his beloved instrument always playing second fiddle (figuratively) to the violin and other solo instruments. We will probably never know for sure. Nonetheless, this little case study poses a fascinating question for music lovers and historians: when composers or performers subvert a well-established musical code, how should we approach it in the absence of documentation? Should we plumb for speculative conclusions based on what makes the most sense in today’s world, or in theirs? Should we throw up our hands and let the matter rest? Just what do you make of Bach’s subversive harpsichord anyway?