Academic journal article Current Musicology

Disruptive Spatiality and the Experience of Recordings of Bach's Solo Cello Suites

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Disruptive Spatiality and the Experience of Recordings of Bach's Solo Cello Suites

Article excerpt

Antechamber: Bach and Space

Architecture, so the saying goes, is "frozen music." Music, conversely, is "liquid" architecture. (1) This aphorism, popular in the early nineteenth century, soon became a cliche. "Should one perhaps speak of ruins," quips Schopenhauer in 1844, "as a 'frozen cadenza'?" ([1819/44] 1977:534). However maligned, though, the cliche persists in Bach studies. It is still commonplace to speak of the "architecture" of Bach's music (Wolff 1969; Schulenberg 1992; Corten 1995), and even the composer himself has been labeled an "architect" (Joseph 1992). The very structures of this music, we are frequently told, are "architectonic." While discourse on Bach has tended to adopt this architectural metaphor as an unquestioned, and at times tacit, assumption, there is little evidence to suggest that his music corresponds with any degree of precision to concrete examples of architectural theory or practice. Nor have commentators drawn consistent parallels between Bach's music and any one architectural style, let alone a single historical period. The analogy between high Gothic architecture and Bach's counterpoint was common in the first half of the nineteenth century, and articles and books on Bach continue to be peppered with pictures of Gothic cathedrals. Other commentators, however, claim to detect stylistic parallels with the architecture of Baroque Rome: Raymond Court, for instance, writes that "we place the music of J. S. Bach opposite this grand Baroque architecture of papal Rome as in a mirror in order to discover analogous stylistic traits" (1989:15).

It is easy to see how images of tall Gothic spires, lofty vaults, and slender columns summon up a widespread--and often explicitly theological--image of Bach. Yet most detailed and concrete attempts to unearth an architectural principle behind the music evoke the ideals prized by Renaissance architects of "exact proportion, suitable disposition, and harmonious order" rather than the asymmetrical excess of the Baroque (Joseph 1992:83). As commentators track symmetries and reveal the elegant proportions of Bach's forms, their analytical diagrams begin to look like blueprints, such as Wolff's (figure 1).


Analyses which claim to detect an architectonic structure in Bach's music usually aim to elucidate geometrical designs and numerically conceived hierarchies and patterns. When Ulrich Siegele asserts, for example, that the formal dispositions of Bach's concerto movements reveal a marked tendency towards proportional shaping (1997), he subscribes to a long-standing analytical paradigm which has tended to dominate literature on Bach, especially in studies of his ritornello forms. There is also widespread support for the idea that Bach demonstrates a strong interest in symmetrical design in certain passages of his large-scale choral works, including, for instance, the Symbolum Nicenum of the B Minor Mass (e.g., Butt 1991 and Stauffer 1997). Eduard van Hengel and Kees van Houten (2004), for example, rely on considerations of symmetry to argue that, contrary to established scholarly opinion, the "Et incarnatus" had been planned from the outset. (2) They suggest that a "quick look at the facades of Baroque and Classical palaces, churches, residences, and other large, multisectional buildings" would corroborate their claims (2004:93). In short, to liken Bach's music to architecture is to say that its structure exhibits some kind of symmetry or that its formal arrangement is governed by proportions.

Because the analogy between musical structure and architectural design hinges on the mathematical principles and ratios which are said to underpin both, it is, unsurprisingly, often closely associated with numerological analysis. Much doubt, however, has been cast upon the interpretative value of readings which center around number symbolism, as well as their historical validity as a guide to pre-compositional thinking. …

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