top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureBrendan McGrath

On Bach's Birthday - 2023.

Today is Bach’s birthday, depending how you look at it.


Bach’s legacy is the least selfish of all the German masters - rather than the celebration of his singular genius, his work has survived as one of the most celebrated musical utilities of all time.


Bach’s works, particularly The Well-Tempered Clavier, are perhaps the most proven method for learning the keyboard (and learning to compose/improvise at the keyboard) that has ever existed, to the point that they drastically transcend style in their use.


Mozart arranged Preludes and Fugues from the WTC for string quartet. Beethoven was obsessed with the WTC, even apocryphally asking Liszt to transpose them on the spot after the two of them were introduced by Czerny.


Chopin took the WTC with him on vacation to Majorca. Chick Corea has discussed the music of J.S. Bach on video. Pablo Casals began every day with a Prelude and Fugue on the piano, he called it a benediction on the house. Keith Jarrett has recorded a huge number of Bach’s keyboard works. Oscar Peterson has a “Salute to Bach” recording.


The influence of Bach’s work is untouched by style - there is something transcendental about engaging with this material. In a way Bach was the first great tonal composer, as we understand the term. In another way, he was the last, inviting us to explore a new era of post-tonal deconstructivism.


Again, Bach’s legacy is the least selfish of all the German masters - rather than celebrating his singular genius, his interpreters have survived as outspoken iconoclasts challenging the status quo in the classical world.


Bach could never have known he would have been at the centre of Glenn Gould’s anti-concertizing philosophy in the 20th century, a German Kappelmeister accidentally made techno-humanist in the hands of one of the strangest artists the Piano has ever seen.


Bach could never have known that the Moog synthesizer would exist, let alone that both Rosalyn Tureck and Wendy Carlos would at some point play his music on it. He could never have imagined Simone Dinnerstein’s concern with making beautiful sounding albums, like her 2018 release with Far Cry.


He could never have anticipated Evan Shinner’s bizarre Ornette Coleman pastiche “Shape of Bach to Come”, Dan Tepfer’s improvisational and algorithmic explorations of the Goldbergs, and many more artists who have sought to destroy Bach’s work with the greatest love.


In his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Jorge Luis Borges tells a story of a fictional author named Pierre Menard who attempts to recreate Cervantes’ novel line by line - not by translating it - but by living his life in such a way that he comes to precisely the same conclusions and ideas as Cervantes. Cervantes and Menard write the same lines as one another.


Cervantes writes:


“…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.”


Menard writes:


“…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.”


Cervante’s writing is beautiful admiration of history, but Menard’s lines are perhaps even richer, his doubt of history more apparent. His stewardship of the future rife with anxiety as the world approaches a second Great War.


Bach is both his own Cervantes and his own Menard. It’s as if there are two of him, one a Kappelmeister who lived in the 1700s, the other a 20th century composer who wrote aggressively, almost parodically, tonal music as a foil to the post-tonal avant-garde and experimentalists of the time.


Indeed, the Bach who lived in the 18th century was a god fearing craftsman, whereas the Bach who lived in the 20th century served as the other side of the coin to Schoenberg, Webern and others.


Bach of the 18th century didn’t mark his scores completely because he was just playing them himself, there was no need. He didn’t consider his own immortality. Bach of the 20th century left his scores unmarked deliberately so that they may be destroyed by interpreters. I love both of these two composers.

4 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page