Sui Generis

Article excerpt

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. Those finding the answer in rhetoric (sound as oratorical figures) or semiotics (sound as signs) will alike pick on the more graphic elements in his music. So the rising vocal line of `Et resurrexit' in the B minor Mass will help listeners visualise the resurrection and will express their joy at it. Or the falling bassline of the organ-chorale `Durch Adams Fall' symbolises the text of original sin through its falling over a `mournful diminished seventh'.3 Wittingly or unwittingly these ideas have been developed in recent decades on the basis of writings dating from early years of the twentieth century and reflecting the then-current wish to form grand theories, with respect to music by Albert Schweitzer, and to language by Ferdinand de Saussure.

On rhetoric: earlier music theorists are often cited in the search for rhetorical meanings, though not often is it pointed out that those theorists were seldom gifted composers - or even knew much music - and were almost always speaking of musical sound not in itself but as it accompanies words or descriptive programmes, therefore things outside the notes and merely making use of them. One can find Johann Mattheson's list of key-characteristics (1713) being quoted, particularly in Germany and the USA, without any indication that their origin lay in his personal experience of contemporary opera and cantata-arias. If there is anything like a consistently effective element in musical rhetoric, it cannot be particular keys or groups of notes but manner, the way something is actually done and conventions established. E major can mean `deadly sad' (Mattheson's todtraurig) only to those composing and performing it in a certain way: even a sad text could not do this of itself, nor could it use E major to achieve it without an appropriate manner of performance (soft and slow, for example).

A problem with the many interpretations of JS Bach's musical motifs as expressing this or that sentiment is that tempting though it is to look at all the church music in terms of doctrine or faith, and popular as it is amongst those who write on the cantatas or give courses on the organ chorales, a reader can easily get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It has been said - to take one of thousands of examples - that the semiquaver bass motif of ex.l is `a further indication of the shift of emphasis to present life' over death suggested by the words and music of Cantata no.76 (i.e. the motif is lively and vigorous).4 Now the verbal texts of Bach cantatas, with their crowded portmanteau of biblical allusion and implication, are ripe for all kinds of inferences to be drawn by admirers then as now, and it is true that one line in this chorale accompanied by this motif does speak of our path to eternal life being lit by God's light. Furthermore, it does not seem unlikely that even in music without a text, such a motif gives an impression of energy rather than inertia.

Nevertheless, as one form of an old rhetorical figure (the suspirans, a motif beginning with a sigh or rest), by no means need it have anything to do with life, eternal or otherwise, and if one sees it as such in Cantata no.76, then 1 can only think one of two things follows. Either it is a guess, interesting but gratuitous; or one is saying that the composer introduced one of many possible motifs (itself suitable for many such applications, or of course none at all) and used it to accompany certain words. But to do this, its manner of performance too has to be energetic: at half the speed, and sung sobbingly by an abandoned heroine in an opera of 1640 - as it might well have been the motif would be the opposite of `emphasizing life'.

This is the dilemma faced by those reading into Bach various expressions of theology, for in appearing to give meaning to a text, music might be losing its own, in effect being demoted to the role of assistant. After all, since music can range widely in volume (loud/soft), pitch (high/low), texture (rich/sparse), speed (fast/slow) and so forth, it can be made to supply something that can seem appropriate to most, maybe all, situations. And then the reverse can happen: one performs a piece according to the programme one reads into it, and a particular manner (loud/soft, slow/lively etc) is applied to a piece mentally interpreted in a certain way already And in order to learn speculative interpretations and how to develop others of the same kind, students will attend special courses and take expensive lessons - though I suspect that the speculative interpretations of other people are much less convincing than one's own, and it is worth asking why that would be.

On semiotics: Schweitzer attempted to show that motifs or musical ideas associated with certain words or sentiments (a particular rhythm with or for the Resurrection, for instance) also kept those associations when there were no words present, and in my reading of more recent and ostentatiously systematic semiotics, I cannot see them as saying very much more than this. There is also the question of the verb: what it is music is supposed to be doing. A favourite verb of semiologists is `to intone' - music is intoning feelings, mood, emotions, political agendas, etc - but this might be no more than a replacement for older verbs like `to express' or (one common in the 1980s) `to articulate', all of them vague to me and none quite pinpointing how mere sound in thin air does what it is claimed to be doing.

For example, to claim the chromatic fourth countersubject to the Ab fugue, Well-tempered clavier book 2, as `an immemorial token of grief, shame and penitence' hangs on assuming that this and other motifs are or can be `heavy with symbolicality' and that music has a `tendency to symbolize emotion and intone particular ones.s But all this is to beg the question and begin a circular argument. I would rather say that Bach's use of this chromatic motif in his instrumental works The musical offering, the D minor Chaconne for violin, the `Wedge' Fugue for organ - explores it as a musical idea in itself. It may attract certain associations when a composer of the period sets some words, but it need not; and even when it does, its association is general, unspecific, unfixed, unstable and uninformative unless there is some non-musical element (words or images, a rhetorical manner of performance) to fix the meaning. And even for this effect to be achieved, the listener needs to be more or less knowledgeable, i.e. aware of the conventions.

I suspect that a lot of musical semiotics derives from hearing little note-groups in particular ways in particular performances, as for example when one plays a chromatic line on the piano evocatively. But pianos are bound to their period and become quite a nuisance for music not very much older than they are (Bach fugues or suites, the Inventions etc.), imposing on them a later and uncalled-for kind of expressivity how ever neutrally played. Though of course often beautiful in itself, this imposed expressivity can and does mislead, and I'm quite sure has sometimes done so in the case for piano-playing semiologists.


On reading recent philosophies dealing with ageold questions such as, What is music? and, What does it do?, one often finds that aestheticians use examples, generally of music they like, in order to find programmatic words to describe the emotion being expressed or aroused, if it is. J S Bach is amongst those frequently used, as when one recent author typically describes what he experiences in the Andante of the Violin Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003:

I start to reconceive the piece as more plaintive and soulful than before, one whose untroubled first half conceals the seeds of distress which are to flower later (...] whose lyric persona harbours, beneath an outwardly calm exterior, a hidden distress, and which finds consolation in confronting this distress openly and working through it...6

The words for emotions here, the programmatic vocabulary and the verbs reveal a certain way of looking at music as something that conveys feelings as a person knows and conveys them. But the very privacy of feelings makes this idea problematic particularly in such abstract works as a Bach violin sonata. `Distress' might need `consolation', but how can the music be idealising distress, or arouse sympathy with someone's distress, or evoke pity in memory of or in anticipation of distress? Could it appropriately set, or even be a substitute for, a distressing or distressed poem? Or suggest a voice expressing distress? Which? And by what means? Whatever else it is, this Andante (see ex.2) can be recognised as:

an italianate sonata, as interpreted by JS Bach and using such pleasurable effects as slow throbbing bass, distant modulation, and a characteristic `melodic flare'.

The distant modulation evokes the pastoral and, being thus an allusion, pleases those who recognise it. Its shape could be described as `binary movement beginning and ending in its tonic, whose longer second half passes to keys quite far from home, which it reaches to the listener's satisfaction.' Such descriptions have nothing like the frisson of Mr Levinson's, which conveys enthusiasm about the piece and expresses what some people feel during a performance. So what exactly do they neglect?

The emotional programme proposed here - i.e. distress and its need for consolation or peace - is inspired by a characteristic of music of this kind, i.e. that it simply does not and could not hover around endless tonics and constant consonance but goes through certain stages before reaching the foreseen end. It goes through these stages not in order to be a symbol or a minor of the emotions but because it does. Very much earlier music did not do this, though presumably very much earlier people also knew distress and the need for consolation. One might speak of a `return home' as a simple way to convey the sense one has (thanks to memory and Bach's skill) of returning to the tonic each time. But to stretch this to speak of the relief of reaching home, or to feel a calm peace after one has confronted distress and worked through it to reach the tonic (as the author goes on to claim) would be to leave music for some region of poetry. It demotes western music's modulatory schemes into being pictures of the psyche.

If there is `relief' at reaching the end, it is purely musical, and one borrows an everyday word like `relief' as a conjured-up substitute for the sound itself: who can say whether this is relief in some everyday sense? The programme also assumes that there is something prior to music, some experience ruling it: music's discords are as if distress, concords as if relief. Because of established associations they can certainly be so used, but it just as reasonable to say that everyday distress is as if musical discord, relief as if concord. We are talking about two quite separate experiences, life and music. Can such words be more than figures of speech when so much music composed before this Andante did not go through discord before reaching the tonic? Did previous periods not have emotions as strong as JS Bach's?

Bach and musical values

It is understandable how Bach, at the centre of the great tonal age, seems so apt for the kind of philosophising from Hume or Kant onwards that was prompted and inspired by music in major and minor keys. Again, however, anachronism can govern the whole approach. If trying to define what is `valuable music' leads to the claim that `value has something to do with the activation of a musical impulse having tendencies towards a more or less definite goal and with the temporary resistance or inhibition of these tendencies', and if we insist that music move towards some goal, then inevitably a Sebastian Bach will be valued above a Francesco Geminiani (Meyer's example). But Geminiani is not at all inferior for the violinist exploring the grammar and rhetoric of stringsound. His themes and harmonies, and the way they behave, are not Bach-like, but why should they be?

I am not impressed by recent political arguments implying that admiration for certain great figures of the past is the result of some kind of (upper class? middle class?) imposition. To explain the `taste for old music' of someone like Roger North in c.1700 as a sign of `disenchantment with society stimulated by social change' at that period,8 and to extrapolate this to explain our taste for the Bachs and Mozarts of history could mean not understanding what in the first place was so special about particular old music such as Corelli's. Unless this is done, valid musical points cannot be made nor, as far as I see, can sociological ones. For there are very good reasons why the Bach idiom should have so especially dominated taste, especially in studying and teaching music: four-part diatonicism is an effective Lowest Common Denominator or lingua franca (I'm not sure of the best metaphor) from which one can go out in any direction, so to speak.

But this idiom is not the only one. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven saw species counterpoint to be as authoritative if not more, and Beethoven, in one exercise, even recreated perfectly the string counterpoint of a Corellian trio-sonata. Perhaps to value music like Bach's because it has `tendencies towards a more or less definite goal and with the temporary resistance or inhibition of these tendencies' is to use him potentially to the detriment of other music - an end-result that (one might guess) he himself would not at all have wished, so open to other music did he remain throughout his life.

Just as Schenker's notion of an analysable organicism in works of music is typical of his period and culture - a notion limited to a few kinds of (Germanic) music and characterised by an implied disparagement of the rest - so is Meyer's notion of what makes great pieces. The very idea that good music does not do what is expected (`temporary resistance or inhibition'), is an old one in western aesthetics and rhetoric: one finds something of the kind in Cicero's idea that effective speech-making can include some `fond checking of expectation', in the words of Francis Bacon in 1605.9 It is one of those ideas that give fine food for thought but belong to a certain conception of literacy, musical or verbal, and cannot be applied as a universal criterion.

A personal philosophy?

One often sees Bach's qualities praised to the detriment of other composers, as in the idea that the 'endless variety' within the harpsichord partitas compares favourably with the 'comparatively uniform' suites of Handel's first set (1719/20).Io This seems to me mistaken: there is no variety in Bach's Six Partitas to match that between the first two of Handel's Suites de pieces, in A major (a French suite) and F major (an Italian sonata). What there is, perhaps, is a more systematic and rigorously planned survey of idealised suitedances, so that the six Allemandes of the partitas present six different interpretations of what an Allemande is, so distinct that there are (I think) six different tempi. A danger for Bach, and one which he does not always avoid, is that systematic can be next door to doctrinaire or even pedantic. If not in the partitas, certainly elsewhere.

A more positive approach might lie in certain literary criticism's idea that great or strong works of art have elements of `the anxious and uncanny' in them.ll Bach abounds in examples to test this idea, such as if one were to compare, for example, the preludes to the G minor English Suite and the G major Partita, the latter of which I feel to have this quality. Both preludes are expertly composed essays in ritornello form, and the first is spacious: an ABABA of 221 bars, of which the middle A is itself symmetrical (a version of ABA) (see ex.3). Its shape is Italianate, continuous in motion and expansive like a concerto; so are the simple harmonies, the sequences and the repetition. What marks it as the work of Bach and not Vivaldi other than its melodic fingerprints is a systematic approach to shape: the caprice of Vivaldi is missing from its thirty-two-bar periods, where the phraseology always runs its course and is therefore to some extent predictable, given Bach's thoroughness.

Whether it is appropriate to speak of personal `anxiety' here, a pressing sensation felt by the composer as he dealt in his own way with influential predecessors, I do not know, but I feel no anxiety in the music itself except in so far as one section of it, bars 161-80, seem to have given him some trouble. On the contrary, the spaciousness suggests (if one is looking for an everyday emotion) some self-satisfaction: the confident composer is clearing caprice out of Italian concertos and `improving' them with his counterpoint.

That one could use similar words for the very different Praeambulum of the G major Partita suggests how vague and figurative they are. For now the ritornello shape is utterly original: much shorter, dense, concise, with no passage work filling up the periods, not a note wasted, the whole (in this respect) critical of its conventions. The form is still ritornello but the phraseology is terse, the two-voice episodes organic; the whole thing is tight, with a series of short phrases linked in various orders and keys, predictable only in so far as most of them involve sequence. Such closerun phraseology bespeaks total control of a musical shape, which in other hands might become longwinded but here is terse, in this respect dialoguing with the composer's own looser ritornello movements elsewhere. No laid-out scheme, and certainly no emotional word, conveys how organic its material feels under the fingers.

A consequence of the Partita's unconventional conventionality is that the player feels something from within the notes of the Praeambulum beyond anything in the English Suites - one might call it `anxiety', but I feel it to be more positive, a creative pleasure as if one were actually improvising the piece. It is indeed unpredictable and might therefore amount to being `uncanny' in the way that the G minor Praeludium is not. But note: it is possible to speak of Bach's Praeambulum as uncanny without implying any obvious programme (he is not personally anxious about something). There are signs of what recent music it might be reacting to, and its originality without freakish novelty is totally convincing. But mysteriously so, for one cannot easily say quite why, knowing nothing quite like it.

This element of mystery may sometimes suggest the sinister, and there is likely to remain a touch of the sinister in great music, even the least programmatic of it. I hear it in the Bach Praeambulum's opening theme, heard four times in the course of the piece and illustrated in ex.4. Strange little phrase! A performer going through the partitas for the first time is brought up sharp by the near-banality of this opening, an attempt by the composer to catch popular taste. Its ordinariness seems to combine the familiar (something a composer might discard) with a force coming from experience (total mastery of technique).

Knowledge of contemporary repertories suggests something else about the G major Praeambulum: that try as he might, Bach does not quite catch popular taste, it eludes him, and the music is too uncanny Its sequences, simple and immediate though they try to be, are too freshly conceived for the laziness that is indispensable to popular style. Deliberately skirting the borders of banality is dangerous and therefore likely to produce a certain anxiety and in other respects too the Praeambulum is a fine case-study. It conveys to the knowledgeable a feeling that nothing else could follow in its footsteps, that it is a one-off, the end of a line, elusive. And like all the partita preludes of Bach, it excites the listener into being involved in its progress: in this way, anxiety is a mode of musical expectation rather than a mood as in everyday life.

WITH this remark, one can see - as many have discovered - that contemplating Bach brings one to a personal philosophy of music in general, understanding it less as a model for social discourse or even material for graphic analysis than as a mode of experience particular to itself and ultimately unrelated to any other. To discuss it one needs words, but we have virtually none from the composer himself, only his notes.

[Author Affiliation]

1. Richard D. Leppert br Susan McClary: Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987),p.22

2. RR Subotnik: Developing variations: style and ideology in western music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p.262.

3. The first in Dietrich Bartel: Musica poetica (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p.179, the second in Raymond Monelle: Linguistics and semiotics in music (Chur: Harwood, 1992), pp.301-02.

[Author Affiliation]

4. Eric Chafe, `Bach's first two Leipzig cantatas: a message for the community', in E Brainard & R. Robinson, edd.: A Bach tribute. essays in honor of William H. Scheide (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1993), pp.71-86, here 83.

[Author Affiliation]

5. See reference to these phrases in my The chromatic fourth during four centuries of music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p.247.

6.Jerrold Levinson, in Michael Krausz, ed.: The interpretation of music: philosophical essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp.58-59.

[Author Affiliation]

7. Leonard B. Meyer: Music, the arts and ideas: patterns and predictions in twentieth-century culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2/1994), p.26.

8. William Weber: The rise of musical classics in eighteenth-century England: a study in canon, ritual, and ideology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.86.

9. See Arthur Jonhston, ed: Francis Bacon: The advancement of learning: new Atlantis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p.85.

10. Christoph Wolff: `JS Bach and the legacy of the seventeenth century', in Daniel Melamed, ed.: Bach studies 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995),pp.192-302, here 198-99.

[Author Affiliation]

11. Two particularly useful sources for this idea: Harold Bloom: The anxiety of influence: a theory of poetry (London: Oxford UP, 1973), and The western canon: The books and schools of the ages (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994).

[Author Affiliation]

Peter Williams is John Bird Professor of Music in the University of Wales, Cardiff.