Bach’s Brush with Canonization
Many thanks to Norman Teigen for pointing out this great review by William F. Buckley of the new book on Bach by Martin Geck, Johann Sebastian Bach Life and Work. Be sure to read to the end for an amusing anecdote from a lecture Buckley gave at Concordia Seminary. Buckley writes:
I was 12, and the weekly ordeal
began in our playroom/study at 4 p.m., when I and two sisters were
assembled for an hour of “music appreciation.” The sound came by means
of my father’s Capehart phonograph-radio, the technological wonder of
1932 that played one side of a 78 r.p.m. record and then turned the
record over to play the second side. The process was continuous through
up to 14 discs.
Our tutor, Penelope Oyen, did not permit conversation during that
hour. She drew the shades, though not so completely as absolutely to
forestall legerdemain [. Using my toes I could reach my sister’s for a
little footsie, sometimes even in time with the music, which was
generally rousing — Rimsky-Korsakov or Tchaikovsky or the martial symphonies of Beethoven.
But we knew that the hour would not end without at least 10 minutes of
J. S. Bach. This was high extramusical drama for us because the tall,
Scandinavian austerity that was Miss Oyen would shed tears, visible
even in the reduced light, expressing her wonder and gratitude.
We would learn that she loved also a violinist she had listened to
and studied with in her years in Philadelphia. To her fellow tutor (he
taught us math, Latin and history) she once described the violinist,
eyes misty, as a “beautiful young Jew.” Jacques Singer drank deeply of
the wisdom of his mentor, Leopold Stokowski, the sometime organist who
as conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony labored devotedly to call
public attention to the music of Bach. Stokowski scored a national
success in 1940 when Walt Disney released “Fantasia.” The movie began
with Stokowski conducting the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, with what
seemed like 200 cannon going off and fireworks bursting in air.
I suppose it was during those hours with Miss Oyen that the Bach
mystique was lit in our household. A year later, I was a student at
boarding school in England. On the evening given over to student
performances, I essayed one of Bach’s two-part inventions, more
concerned with my inability to achieve the tempo I sought than with
attracting attention to the music. Two years later, at boarding school
in America, our master startled the boys in his music seminar by
informing us that for the entire balance of the term we would be
listening to a single piece of music. He warned that we might
experience restlessness, impatience and boredom. “Never mind,” he said.
“Just listen. I’ll explain as we go along.” And so we sat down
resignedly to Bach’s B minor Mass.
Martin Geck, the formidable German musicologist, deals extensively
with the Mass in “Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work,” which has just
appeared in an impressive translation by John Hargraves. A century
after the Mass was composed, Beethoven ordered a rare private copy for
his own use in 1810. Eight years later, the Swiss publisher Hans Georg
Nägeli announced a printing of it, describing it simply as the
“greatest musical art work of all times and nations.”
Geck’s biography prompts the reader to surmise, reasonably, that
there is not much left to say on the subject of Bach’s musical life.
But then the qualifications set in. For one thing there is music by
Bach that is only contingently extant, music not seen since it was
first performed. Such undocumented, hypothetical works are not as
extensive, Geck argues, as some myth carriers suppose. While very
little of his music (and none of the orchestral works) was printed in
his lifetime, when he died in 1750 at age 65, his works were hardly in
untended shape, waiting to be spotted centuries later as wallpaper in a
Thuringian attic — although Geck reminds us that the original flute
part for the cantata BWV 9 was found in 1971 at a construction site
near New York’s Water Street. “A music lover who happened to be passing
by noticed a piece of sheet music sticking out of a pile of
construction debris and received laconic permission from the nearest
workman to take not only the score but the rubble with it,” he writes.
Such incidents suggest relative neglect of a towering genius. Yet in
Saxony and greater Germany, Bach was esteemed when he died. His special
eminence, to be sure, was as an organ virtuoso (he was more skillful
even than his exact contemporary, Handel). Renowned also as a
choirmaster, he was acknowledged as a composer on the side. He had
written a great deal of secular music, but lacked the entrepreneurial
skills to merchandise it. He would presumably have endorsed, and
collaborated in, any reasonable effort to augment his income. He was
underpaid, he repeatedly insisted to the worthies of St. Thomas Church
in Leipzig, where he spent the last 27 years of his life, straitened to
the point of inquiring, at one low point, into the making of beer,
thinking to found a brewery. But he did have livable quarters, on two
floors in the church’s school complex, and he could effect the
education of those of his 20 offspring who lived into school age. His
industrious second wife, Anna Magdalena, was productively occupied at
home as a copyist, at church as a vocalist.
A warning is appropriate for readers who turn to Geck thinking to
find revisionist biography. There is not much of this in the human
narrative. And there is nothing in the story of Bach, barring an
appearance in years ahead of a secret and scandalous diary, that isn’t
at least touched on by Geck. Enough is covered to satisfy us
biographical thrill-seekers, after 676 pages of text, that it is just
plain inconceivable that this man could have led a double life. Picture
the fabled Olympic athlete who set a world record running the mile. The
nonstop newsreel camera was there at the starting line and with him
until he crossed the finish line. What else is there to attract
Indeed, Geck by his very thoroughness does the disservice of
discouraging tomorrow’s aspirant biographers. And we are left without
really knowing any more, and not in a position to do any more informed
guesswork, about what brought on the flow of magic from the man’s mind
to the copy paper for a halfcentury.
Consider: A professionally competent 18th-century burgher raised a
very large family, came and went as a busy and productive musical
technician, associated himself for nearly three decades with a church
in Leipzig whose school of 55 boys he taught music while also training
a choir. He provided his employers with the cantatas they required for
Sundays and feast days and was active in the civic musical collegium.
He traveled, though sparingly, and spent tedious hours copying out his
own material. He was disputatious about a lot of things but was finally
submissive to the requisite councilors, dukes and princes. When the end
came, he left behind, in the city of 32,000 souls, a huge family, an
indigent widow and a library of compositions which would ordain him as
the greatest musical artist who ever lived.
Just how much music did he write? The pianist Rosalyn Tureck
resolved, in her 40s, thenceforward to perform only compositions
written by Bach. This led, after a few decades, to her designation (by
one critic, and in due course by everyone) as “the high priestess of
Bach.” I asked her, some time after the celebrated 1977 engagement at Carnegie Hall
where she performed the feat of playing the “Goldberg” Variations on
the harpsichord before dinner and again on the piano after dinner, to
help me with an idle calculation that even Geck doesn’t get around to.
Namely, how many hours of music did Bach leave us?
If, beginning at noon, you set out with a recording of BWV 1 — the
chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” — at what hour (of what
day, and what week?) would you reach the 14 canons listed as BWV 1087?
My mind turned to Shakespeare. I have been told that the whole of his work (just under a million words) can be spoken in 70 hours.
We began by probing the most readily accessible datum: How many
hours of Bach’s keyboard music did Tureck have in hand? In addition to
the “Goldberg” Variations, she regularly performed “the 48” (as “The
Well-Tempered Clavier” is sometimes known), the six partitas, the
sonatas (and, with orchestra, the concertos), the toccatas and fugues,
and component parts of the “Clavier-Übung,” including the “Italian”
Concerto and the Capriccio.
She took my pen and scratched about on a pad in her bold,
declarative hand. After some deliberation she said she thought she
could play, from memory, 40 to 45 hours of Bach on the keyboard.
Seeking a fuller figure, we would need to add the cantatas, sacred and
secular (about 215 in all); the Masses; the passions and oratorios; the
motets; the non-keyboard instrumental music; and the orchestral music.
The exercise brings on a daze of incomprehension. And you wonder,
fugitively, whether Geck was finally too distracted to stop and just
listen. He tells us, on the subject of the complexity of one of Bach’s
chorales, such details as that “the canon voices of the cantus firmus
are divided over two separate keyboards” and “are not acoustically
separated from the other parts.” Thus, “the fabric of constantly
intersecting voices is nonetheless barely comprehensible because Bach
has overlaid the contrapuntal layer with its traditional opposite. The
two voices ‘accompanying’ the cantus firmus canon are expressive solos
taken from the slow movements of his sonatas and concerti and tricked
out with modern mannerisms and gallant rhythmic changes.” This is the
scalpel applied to the Mona Lisa, which brings to mind a recent news
story on the scientists who are studying that masterpiece with
invisible infrared light, perhaps hoping to establish what the subject
ate on the day Leonardo painted her eyes.
We consumers of Bach suffer from an inability to express what it is,
exactly, that Bach does for us. This may simply be the metaphysical
drawback in music criticism. How to describe Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”?
Hagiographers tend to react in the manner of Miss Oyen rather than that
of Martin Geck. Devotional exercises can even take theological turns.
During a lecture I once gave at a Lutheran seminary in St. Louis, an
animated young man rose to ask whether, given my attachment to Bach, I
shouldn’t reconsider my Catholic affiliation. My polemical guardian
angel was with me, because only a few months before I had read a novel
called “Bach and the Heavenly Choir,” which concerns an impasse at the Vatican
in the search for a new pope. In desperation, after multiple ballots,
the cardinals settle on an elderly, pious abbot presiding over a small,
ancient seminary in the South of France, where he taught Scripture and
immersed himself and the seminarians in music. Two years after his
installation, the new pope lets out word that he intends to canonize
Johann Sebastian Bach. The idea brings on surprised and then heated
resistance. Bach, the pope is reminded, was a Lutheran and could not be
made a saint under Catholic auspices.
The quiet father listens. But after a long time asks, How could his
counselors explain the music of Bach, other than as the work of God?