Sui Generis

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Sui Generis


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


PETER WILLIAMS argues that Bach's music is best heard for what it is, not for what we can project on to it

IN A RECENT MT article, `Stop press: some questions about JS Bach and his organ music' (Spring 2000), I remarked that certain approaches to Bach in recent years `deserve attention on another occasion'. I was thinking not only of the New Musicology as it is called, but of any approach that replaces - at least, for students and young musicians - the intimate understanding of music that used to be supplied by detailed study of harmony and counterpoint. Hinting that many such approaches might be (as my sergeantmajor at school used to say) the lesser half of no use at all, I also had to point out that in even mentioning them, `one is unfortunately giving them some credence'. But one needs to be aware that in the USA especially socially critical or politically motivated studies are now attracting much of the funding (grants, endowments, fellowships, prizes, jobs) that once went to the actual learning and teaching of music, and that such priorities now can be found infiltrating musical studies in the United Kingdom.

As JS Bach became something of a locus classicus for the early music movement (for example, in the original revival of old instruments or in the endless arguments over the size of original choruses), so he has been for more recent, socially aware musicology (for example, in questions about music's `autonomy', or the `hegemony' of western composers). It now seems, for example, that love of Bach is a symptom of the colonial agenda of Europe and its patriarchal middle classes, whose kind of music `happens to articulate through musical terms the course of the European bourgeoisie'.1 Apparently one aims at self-improvement and rises to a higher social status just as the dominant aims towards the tonic and achieves it in the end.

Similarly, Bach-study today confirms some cultural critics in the feeling they have of being intentionally excluded by the technical knowledge and pre-occupations of professional musicians. Resentfully recognising that technical knowledge does indeed exclude, they easily leap into believing facts to be the enemy of feelings and of live musical experiences. For example, on the genuine problem of whether or how scholarly editions do indeed impress `upon amateurs their historical naivete' and `overwhelm performers with a sense of their inadequacy to the intentions of the composer', one such critic allows her readers to believe that the Neue Bach-Ausgabe has laboured diligently merely in order to show that previous editions `contained a couple of wrong notes'.z

Ignoring the crassness of such discussion, I myself think that Bach is so often a focus of trends because many people, postmodernists or not, do feel a personal contact with him and imagine they see things others might not. The very puzzles and uncertainties arising in his music may well encourage this sense of personal contact, because they leave scope for conjecture.

In these remarks I am drawing on examples from writings old enough to be viewed from a distance but in most cases speaking for others of a similar kind. Any wish to warn against them comes from a belief that although all music has a whole range of contexts (including the technological, of which cultural critics know nothing), it is sufficiently itself for its scientific details to constitute a subject for study. Searching for other `significances' in music can actually result in demoting it, if only because the more time spent on such searches, the less spent on getting to know music. I have heard a speaker energetically identifying the social, theological, personal, political and even sexual agenda of Cantata no.140, who I know has no idea of Cantata no.139, and who is not familiar enough with the technicalities of music to show why Bach could not have composed Cantata no.l4l.

Music's `meaning'

Though of course not the only one, Bach is a prime source for illustrating the various ideas there are about what music means. …

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