Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bach, Universality, and the Power of Historical Fiction

The following argument is an I assignment I wrote for a music history class last fall, but it says some interesting things about universality in music that might be worth sharing. So here it is!



In chapter four of his 1989 book The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: the Sources, the Style, and the Significance, Robert L. Marshall argues that even though the appeal of his works is relatively limited, the musical talent of J. S. Bach is truly universal in scope and is therefore much less confined to the cumulative but backward-looking mastery of Baroque tradition than is commonly thought. A sympathetic point of view can be implicitly discerned within the twelfth chapter of James R. Gaines’s 2005 book Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, and the contrapuntal resonances between the two works are further sustained and subtly amplified by the additional context provided by Morris’s 2005 review of Gaines.

Interestingly, while the conclusion ultimately reached by Marshall has a profound and insightful validity, the strength of his supporting argument suffers somewhat from a misplaced focus and an overall lack of clear direction. Marshall’s attempts to define the universality of Bach wander so unpredictably and for so long in a tangle of competing considerations—is it the music’s popular appeal, its brilliant stylistic construction, or the transcendent power of the mind behind its conceptual approach?—that the resultant loss of clarity obscures much of the impact of an otherwise excellent conclusion, as does its apologetic and scattered presentation.

Marshall begins his exploration of the topic by declaring that he wishes to de-emphasize the aspect of appeal (p. 66), but then he immediately veers into a tangential discussion of the popular accessibility of Bach’s music, both then and now. The appeal of various subsets of Bach’s output—cantatas, masses, and concerti, among others—is evaluated as a combined function of dramatic impact, intended audience (“public” or otherwise?), and effective media popularization. Ultimately, Marshall winds up arguing that while many of these works “provide ample testimony of his genius” (69), and while the Mass in B Minor in particular “occupies a unique place in Bach’s oeuvre…that gives it special significance in any consideration of the composer’s universality” (69), taken collectively these works do not provide sufficient grounds to justify the claim of Bach’s universality on their appeal alone.

Having reached this somewhat confusing conclusion, Marshall now switches musical subsets, suggesting that “the actual source of Bach’s supreme stature at the pinnacle of Western culture…is to be found in…the awesome collections of instrumental music” (69). But rather than actually locating the universality of Bach in this music, as he seems about to do, he uses the idea of performance-oriented study of these works to segue into a loosely intermingled discussion of the philosophy behind the music, which I take to be his real target. While the imprecision of this transition may create the unfortunate impression that Marshall is moving his definitional goalposts, the longer-term goal of illuminating the extraordinary seamless stylistic meld of philosophy, intelligence, talent, and execution that universally informed the production of Bach’s music remains unchanged, if not strongly articulated.

Indeed, the point Marshall is dancing around, but which he never quite trusts his supporting argument enough to make decisively, is that the true magic of Bach’s music is found in the remarkable scope, consistency, economy, and artistry of its internal and external coherence, and that it is precisely this coherence which appeals so greatly to anyone who has dipped far enough beneath the surface, whether through listening, study or performance of Bach, to appreciate the musical uniqueness of its extent. It is as if Bach took the many established musical facets which had been carefully and individually polished by other masters, mentally assembled them according to an entirely unexpected but remarkably elegant new three-dimensional pattern, and then filled in what remained by deriving the simple laws which governed the formation of the entire musical crystal. This effectively allowed him to write at whatever stylistic intersections he wished (including several which had not yet been attempted!) with great economy and unsurpassed artistic clarity.

The significance of this stunning achievement resonates universally for two interrelated reasons. Firstly, as partially indicated by the related writings of Douglas Hofstadter (which are also mentioned in Morris’s review of Gaines below), the deep symmetries and patterns Bach reveals in his music are closely aligned with some of the fundamental workings of human intelligence, and this renders his music both deeply familiar and beautiful to those who are open to Bach’s complex layers of audible and logical symmetry. At the same time, by revealing profoundly simple linkages between apparently diverse musical styles, Bach’s unique musical perspective reinforces the Enlightenment belief in Reason’s ability to discern the fundamental order of the universe; thus, the very scope of his achievement can provide philosophical inspiration to those who seek deeply simple solutions to persistent and intractably complex problems, but also to those who merely search for graspable meaning in daily events.

None of this is ever stated so explicitly and unambiguously by Marshall; whether his seeming inability to do so reflects trouble finding the right words, a personal ambivalence towards the idea of external and verifiable truths, or (more likely, given the bald fact of the chapter’s title) a calculated judgment about the prevailing winds of academic philosophy at the time of publication, it certainly diminishes the effect of the chapter in a way that Bach himself probably would not have countenanced, as will be seen in Gaines’s quasi-historical treatment below. But perhaps more tellingly, scattered throughout the remainder of Marshall’s chapter are several clues that can be assembled in support of both my assessment of his implied position and his ambivalence in presenting it.

Passing mentions of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment age are found on page 73, but appear too late to provide any important philosophical context to the introduction of the aesthetic principle of “Unity of Affect” (p. 70) and the attendant importance of “logic and consistency in the development of musical ideas.” After a short detour toward aesthetic transcendentalism, “universal validity” briefly re-emerges (71) to be tentatively declared the source of Bach’s universality, but the halting and almost apologetic manner of the declaration robs it of any real weight. The concept does return with more force on the next page: “[These phrases] all document Bach’s conviction that music…is constructed according to God-given, that is, eternally and universally valid, principles, call them “laws”…[and that Bach’s purpose] was to demonstrate these universal musical laws in operation” (72), and is almost definitively established on page 73, but its effectiveness is sapped once again by a rather timid framing:

…I think it may be fair to say that Bach’s unification of linear counterpoint and tonal harmony represents an accomplishment in the art of music hardly less impressive than that which would be achieved if a physicist someday would realize Albert Einstein’s hope of formulating a theory—a unified field theory—in which the nature of the relationships obtaining among the various forces at work in the cosmos—gravitation, magnetism, electricity, and so on—were precisely defined and established once and for all. But I suspect I may be rushing in where angels properly fear to tread.

The effect of this back-and-forth pattern greatly weakens what should be a much stronger thrust toward a decisive conclusion.

A final piece of evidence for Marshall’s indirectly stated support for coherence comes from his choice to include a neat bit of analysis (76-9), in which he shows how the opening chorus from one of Bach’s cantatas (BWV 78) is an effortless structural synthesis of several stylistic traditions—several of which, moreover, appear at first glance to be mutually exclusive—although again he softens the impact by closing the chapter abruptly with an almost offhand description of how the new, lighter musical lingua franca being developed by the next generation of composers will end up leaving Bach’s magisterial contrapuntal mastery far behind. Nonetheless, it is clear from the above hints that Marshall believes historical circumstances combined in some way with the religion, philosophy, talent, intellect, and industriousness of Bach to produce a unified understanding of music that was qualitatively different from that of his contemporaries, and quite justifiably beyond the vast majority of his successors as well.

But Marshall is not entirely out of line in his equivocation; broad philosophical extrapolations are not really the province of the most rigorous scholarly writings about music, as they are often impossible to nail down with definitive sourcing. Fortunately, alternative venues are available. A judicious loosening of the academic ties that bind logical inferences firmly to hard evidence is not without its disadvantages, but as the excerpted chapter from James R. Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason illustrates, the many advantages conferred by a successful such attempt make various gradations of this form well worth exploring.

While the narrative constraints imposed by a marketable appeal to a less educated audience can at times overwhelm authorial respect for historical and/or scientific accuracy (for an extreme case, see Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, or virtually any science fiction movie), in careful hands they can also result in enough of an accurate taste that the end product actually creates a renewed desire to experience more of the real thing. The power of this lever is potentially enormous; recall that Marshall touched on Bach’s popular appeal before taking his argument anywhere else. A successful presentation can result in a ground swell of interest which actually has the potential to alter the course of future scholarly work, for it can generate more widespread performance opportunities or even inspire the donation of targeted research funding. In either case, the vitality and relevance of the scholarly community in question are expanded, and so the risks inherent in this type of approach (which include being branded a “popular writer” by your academic peers) are generally trumped by the larger rewards.

Gaines is surely not the first careful author to write for a wider audience about Bach, and he is not even the first to explore the significance of the Musical Offering in this format; as both he and his reviewer Morris point out, Douglas Hofstadter did so brilliantly in 1979 with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a justifiably renowned exploration of the links between music, logic, mathematics, and intelligence. Gaines frames his more conventionally centered discussion of the Musical Offering as the dramatic centerpiece of a double biographical format.

The narrative balance required by his chosen approach does not come without some risk of academic distortion—as Morris (who notes the trade-off) tells us, the volume of biographical documentation for J. S. Bach is far surpassed by that concerning Frederick the Great, leading to interesting problems of selection—but it also provides compensating payoffs. The dramatic positioning of the Musical Offering at the confluence of the two biographical accounts makes Gaines’s account quite memorable, and it also allows him to bring to bear the previously presented philosophical, social, and religious backgrounds of the two men as he interprets the significant subtext of the entire exchange.

The nature of Gaines’s interpretation provides a nicely supportive counterpoint to Marshall’s not-quite-stated defense of “universality through coherence” above, as does Morris’s perfectly in-line description of the Musical Offering itself as “a contrapuntal achievement that uniquely allies cerebral and auditory beauty” (review, p. 1). Gaines paints a picture of Bach as an unshakably pious but “hardheaded, hot-tempered man” (241) whose industrious and superbly reasoned approach to the craft of counterpoint is backed by an existential religious faith, a combination that provided him with both the capability and the intransigence to rebuke a sitting monarch (using his own theme!) with an extraordinary gift of compositional genius. This devotional foundation may have prevented Bach from fully embracing the questioning spirit of the Enlightenment, and thus may have aided in cutting him off from the newly evolving musical styles of Berlin, but it also lent his musical reasoning an unmatched depth of certainty as he strove to illuminate the bottomless coherence of his God.