Bach’s Deathday

July 28, 2012

It may appear that this site has suddenly become organ-centered, but J.S. Bach died 262 years ago today, so surely his last composition (which was appended to the unfinished Art of Fugue) can be allowed today. In it, after his multitude of inventive experiments in setting chorale tunes, he reverted to the most conservative imitative Pachelbel-style type of prelude, in which each phrase is preceded by fore-imitation; and, played by the more recently lamented Gustav Leonhardt, it is surely fitting for our observance of Bach’s death, as it was for the master at that last hour: “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hermit” (Before your throne I now appear):


The Tijdschrift Oude Muziek (Early Music Journal) has printed a tribute from the well-known former student of Gustav Leonhard. Many thanks to Semibrevity, who has made and notified me of his English translation.

At this link there is a video from another Bach cantata conducted by the late master (to supplement this complete one that we’ve posted before), the audio of a complete Purcell Ode on St. Cecelia’s Day, as well as a rare 1959 Bach harpsichord performance from a radio broadcast and a 1965 Amsterdam Waalsekerk (Waldensian Church) organ recital performance. All these are provided by Radio 4 in the Netherlands.


April 18, 2010

Place: The Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
Time: Summer
Event: Organ lesson
Work: An Elevation Toccata by Frescobaldi
Performer: A young me

Teacher: (after hearing me play the Toccata) It is too fascinating.
Me: (stumped) Eh.

He then went on to tell me how the work, like other elevation toccatas (pieces that were composed or improvised for the point in the Mass where the newly-consecrated host and chalice are raised for the people to see), was no more meant to be an event than incense was — that it was intended to float in the air and not be perceived as doing much.

I thought of this as I followed up on a New York Times article today by sampling a work called “Presence and Reflection” by an ensemble called Redhooker. It’s pretty uneventful. Or, put another way, it has minimal, carefully-chosen events that are spread out over a larger time period than the West is mostly accustomed to.

My awareness of this kind of thing is often increased when I listen to music with a friend who is one of my favorite musicians and is far less tolerant than I am of such tendencies. Much music in vogue nowadays makes him extremely irritated. “He really thinks he can get by with staying in the same key for the whole piece?” is a typical reaction. “I’m going crazy waiting for something to happen!” Clearly we’re dealing with different concepts of music and therefore different expectations. Part of this is no doubt due to the incorporation of non-Western techniques and goals. Inevitably, some of it will be a cover for laziness or lack of imagination. But it also makes me think of something else, namely the longstanding struggle in the visual arts over what constitutes “art” and what is just “decoration.” To someone like me, the distinction between what are called the “decorative arts” and “art” art can seem very arbitrary. In Western classical music we may have arrived at a similar situation where repeated patterns, either artfully arranged or leaving some acts more or less to chance, come to be more comparable to fine wallpapers or book bindings than to the event-oriented music that we have grown accustomed to during many centuries. If development, tension/release, modulation, departure/return and such are our measure of a work of musical art, we’re going to be disappointed with a whole lot that is out there.

Now, the Frescobaldi example demonstrates that — at least in the church — the impulse for music that is more atmosphere than happening is not wholly new. But the atmosphere of elevation toccatas has not usually been that of our prime performance venues. But now Carnegie Hall or La Poisson Rouge are likely (and equally likely) to host music that is not “too fascinating.”

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Leonhardt in Autumn

July 15, 2009

Leonhardt-Gustav-46 Many today spend their careers trying to figure out, with the help of what documents survive, how music of the past was performed. When this is done for musical reasons and produces artistic results, it is an unmixed blessing. I’ve just come upon an interesting interview with Gustav Leonhardt in which he sounds a striking warning:

And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.

The interview goes on to make provocative points about the rehearsal of chamber music (your ensemble is no good if it requires a lot of talk and rehearsal) and conducting (it’s the easiest thing in music performance, if the highest-paid).

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