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Bach Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow

[Bach And The 20th Century]  [Bach The Preacher]  [Bach The Teacher]  [Bach The Tone Poet]  [Bach And The Organ]  [Bach And Hausmusik]  [Bach Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow]  [Bach And Volksmusik] 

By Hans Rosenwald

IN ARNSTADT, the organist of the new church, Bach, was interrogated as to "where he has lately been for so long and from whom he obtained leave to go." In the Acta it is recorded that he was reproved for having made "many curious variations in the chorale, and for having mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it." Obviously, the congregation of Arnstadt in 1705 did not like young Bach's habits. He was asked not to introduce the tonus peregrinus in the future, but if he so did, "he was to hold it out." Obviously, too, the congregation took exception to Bach's attitude in not performing a sufficient number of concerted compositions for voices and instruments. There had been complaints also on the part of students with whom the teacher could not get along, and he was "to declare himself as to whether he was willing to play for figured music as well as chorales sung by the students."

If we want to understand the response of Bach's audiences to his work, audiences of his own time, we must read his request to be dismissed from his position at Muehlhausen. In that request, which is left to us in the original and which is dated from Muehlhausen, June 25 Anno 1708-Bach was 23 years old at the time-he speaks of his desire to have a well regulated church music "to the glory of God and in conformity with your wishes." He states that he had acquired from far and wide a good store of church choir compositions, that most of the things of which he had been in charge were hard to handle, that it was not at all easy to accomplish his aims. So "God has brought it to pass that an unexpected change should offer itself to me, in which I see the possibility of a more adequate living and the achievement of my goal of a well regulated church music without further vexation." Dismissal was granted.

One could go on and cite any number of instances from which it is clear that the greatness of the personality of Bach was scarcely understood by audiences of his time; that, while he was well-known as a connoisseur of the organ and as an improviser on that instrument, while he was acknowledged as an excellent performer altogether, still nobody was aware of the uniqueness of his musical genius. And Scheibe, in his review Der Critische Musicus, went so far as to say that "this great man would be admired by all nations if he had more compliance, and if the beauty of his pieces were not dimmed by too much art, the bombastic and muddled manner of his style depriving them of the natural element." How strange is such an evaluation by one who was in the forefront of musical writers of his generation! In Bach's Thorough Instruction in the Figured Bass he said that figured bass "is to be played with both hands in such a manner that the left hand plays the prescribed notes; the right hand, however, executes the consonances and dissonances so that a pleasing harmony will result to the honor of God and the soothing delight of the spirit. As in all music, the be all and the end all, the sole aim of the figured bass should be to the glory of Cod and for the recreation of the soul."

SOME OF BACH'S CONTEMPORARIES were more discerning in their judgment. One thinks of Johann Mathias Gessner, rector of the St. Thomas school where Bach worked from 1723 until his death, who said: "I am, generally speaking, a great admirer of the methods of antiquity but I believe that my friend Bach or any who may be likened to him combines within himself many men like Orpheus and twenty singers like Arion." This is one of the very few statements we possess which is in conspicuous contrast to his period's perception of Bach's values. Another example of contemporary appreciation may be found in the report in the Spener'sche Zeitung which appeared in Berlin, May 11, 1747. This report speaks of the Fotsdam visit of the famous kapellmeister from Leipzig who "arrived with the intention of hearing the excellent royal music." When Frederick the Great gave orders that Bach be admitted to his music, Bach was surprised and delighted. He was even more delighted when the ruler "condescended also to play, in person and without any preparation, a theme to be executed by the kapellmeister Bach in a fugue." The report goes on to say that everybody was seized with astonishment when Bach found the royal subject exceedingly beautiful and agreed to set it down on paper and have it engraved on copper.

Everyone knows the result. Going back to Leipzig, Bach worked on the "fugue" and the finished product was called The Musical Offering.

BACH'S MAIN STRUGGLES Were for his position and for his dignity. He strove, too, for artistic recognition, but, in the last analysis, this striving for recognition was of small matter to him. If any work is the dialogue of an artist with himself, it is the work of the Thomas cantor, and in Bach's case, it is perhaps as much a dialogue with his Lord as it is with his own soul. It is true that some of his hurried manuscripts of cantatas can make us forget his inner struggles, but in much of his work we find many versions of certain counterpoints he invented to themes, an evidence that he was constantly intent upon improvement. Such versions remind us that in Bach's composition there was something of that artistry found documented in Beethoven's sketchbooks. His music was not just "poured out over the pages." Instead, it was premeditated, and it testifies to a great deal of thorough thinking.

How can we account for the fact that despite the recognition Bach received here and there, in general his contemporaries were little aware of his real greatness? For example, even a man of the proficiency of Telemann esteemed Bach primarily as an organist, and Bach's own sons showed an amazing amount of indifference to his work. In the first place, Bach's art was primarily retrospective. As has been pointed out many times, he synthesized stylistic idioms which came from the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance (and which were handed to his generation via Josquin and the Netherlanders) with the innovations of Italian Baroque music. This combining of styles is the clue not only to the tremendous fertility of Bach's genius, but also to the fact that his fertility extended to almost all forms considered approachable in his time. In the second place, one must remember that in the general musical degeneration of the time the old kantoreien with which Bach's art is so strictly associated made many friends impossible, for kantoreien were soon forgotten after Bach's death. In addition, there was a general change of style, a tendency toward greater simplicity and homophony which made the art of Johann Sebastian appear like that of "an old wig." People-at-large had no use for it. It is indicative that Philipp Emanuel Bach, even after Johann Sebastian's death, could not always recommend the works of his father since they had "such an old and oftentimes nonedifying musical text."

THERE WERE EXCEPTIONS, t0 be sure. After Bach had died, the Gewandhaus, in 1781, had his picture painted on the ceiling of the new concert hall. The English historian Dr. Burney called Bach the Newton of music, and Cramer gave him the rank of the "first matador of tonal art." But the fact is that Bach was largely forgotten until the beginning of the 19th century when gradually a revival of his works took place. It was stimulated by the Bach biography of Forkel which originally was supposed to introduce a new edition of Bach's works. There was young Rochlitz who was enthusiastic about Bach, praising him as "the Durer of the German music," and there was, of course, Beethoven's recognition. He it was who called the Well Tempered Keyboard the "musical Bible" and who said:

"Nicht Bach, Meer sollte er heissen." In fact, Beethoven expressed his desire to do some charitable work for Bach's daughter, the daughter of "the immortal god of harmony." In Goethe's encyclopedic art philosophy, Bach played a decisive role which the Olympian master himself once epitomized in the words: "In Bach's works eternal harmony carries on a dialogue with itself on what God felt in his bosom shortly before the creation of the world." Zelter carried on a fascinating correspondence with Goethe. In one of his letters he spoke of Bach as follows: "Bach's works are partly vocal, partly instrumental, and both. In the vocal music there is a frequent discrepancy between music and words, and he has often enough been criticized for it. He is not strict in the observation of melodic or harmonic rules which he applies with greatest daring. In his settings of Biblical texts, however, I am inclined to admire him: what holy freedom, what apostolic irony, what unexpected things come up which in spite of the foregoing do not awaken doubt in regard to his sense and taste ... yet he is dependent upon some task, and one should understand him from his organ compositions for they are his real soul. . . ."

Despite his teacher Zelter, who saw in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion insurmountable obstacles, Mendelssohn re-performed the work on Good Friday, 1829. The analysis of Mendelssohn's early church music reveals this composer's previous close study of Bach's organ works and cantatas, and his deep penetration into Bach's spirit is the more admirable as his own elegant and unproblematical personality was little akin to the transcendental loftiness and mystic inwardness of the older master.

IN SPEAKING OF "BACH YESTERDAY," it is interesting to examine the position of other, post-romantic composers. Take the case of Max Reger who imbibed Bach's polyphony more deeply than any other composer before him. When Reger, at an early age, dedicated his opus 16 to "the manes of Bach," he could rightly do so. He proved himself in that work a polyphonist who was no less spontaneous than his idol. Reger declared the organ the basis of all church music and could proudly write: "Only a compositional technique growing from Bach will bring us the true progress of music." The aptness of the statement is easily recognized in 1950, for the works of those who are influencing the musical scene of our day (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and others), can scarcely be disassociated from either Bach or polyphony.

And yet, on the whole, the 19th century seems to have misunderstood Bach's style. The abundance of transcriptions and arrangements that reveal misconception of Bach's intentions is amazing, and if the post-romantic virtuosi had enjoyed the inventions of Edison and Berliner, we today would have a great deal of recorded evidence to convince us of a general misunderstanding of Bach's stylistic features.

IN LOOKING BACKWARDS in an effort to recognize the reasons for the changing attitudes toward Bach, one cannot overlook the importance of the Bach Society which was formed with the aim of collecting the scattered works of the master. In 1873 and 1879 the basic Bach biography, Spitta's, appeared and scholars then turned to the investigation of the historical foundation on which the correct renditions of his music should be based. Bach's thought was analyzed as was the artistic thought of that period. Everything was done to give musicians, and particularly performers, a chance to find a closer relationship to a forgotten style. Through the Bach Society, original versions were reinstated and the problems of the performance were made conspicuous. Andre Pirro in his L'esthetique de Jean Sebastian Bach, 1907, Albert Schweitzer in his Johann Sebastian Bach (1905, French; 1908, German) interpreted both the pictorial and poetic elements of Bach's vocal works. They found that in these works Bach used identical or similar motives for the portrayal of identical or similar ideas and emotions. The knowledge of melodic emotion, rhythm and harmony as revealed in these works helped them also in the interpretation of instrumental music, which, in exchange, revealed the relationship of melodic directions and rhythmic formations with contrapuntal workmanship, instrumentation and orchestral accompaniment.

Hermann Kretzschmar, in his Bachkolleg (edited 1922) and Alfred Heuss in his various articles in the Bach Yearbook, viewed Bach's style phenomenologically, and partly hermeneutically. And Ernst Kurth in his Grundlagen des Linearen Kontrapunktes, 1912, was the first to investigate thoroughly the architectural aspects of Bach's work. As a result of this study, he came to a full evaluation of the master's polyphony. Spitta had stressed the absolute musician, Kretzschmar had confirmed his A ffektenlehre through Bach, and Werker, in his studies published in the Bach Yearbook 1922, 1923, proceeded to the scrutiny of the smallest mathematical proportions of the works. Yet the period of musicological research had little or no influence on musical life, and despite the above-named and other studies, the concert goer even today thinks of Bach in terms of Stokowski's transcriptions, and the piano student frequently approaches The Well Tempered Keyboard through romantic editions. And so we hear the St. Matthew Passion sung with a great many subjective dynamics and fluctuations of tempi and his organ works played with over-refined effects of exotic color and excessively exuberant timbre. As Woodworth said in a paper read before the American Musicological Society in 1937: "The unsuspecting public is treated to exaggerated dynamics, improper harmonic effects, rubato, misshapen phraseology, bad voiceleading and such a thickening of texture of the music as to make it nothing less than a travesty."

IT IS CHARACTERISTIC OF THE BACH PICTURE TODAY, and it is likely to be characteristic of the Bach picture tomorrow, that unity of attitude does not prevail. On the one hand, we find protest against superficial transcriptions and unorthodox arrangements as well as criticism of subjective performances and distortions. On the other hand, we find that such protests are regarded as pedantry. On the one hand, there is an insistence on the doctrine that style is a reality in music. On the other hand, there is the open declaration that since we no longer have Bach's instruments, it is impossible to play Bach in style. There has been misunderstanding on both sides. There have been musicologists who went much too far in shrugging their shoulders scornfully at interpretations of Bach through media other than were customary in his day. It should be clear that one can endorse any performance of Bach which represents all the spiritual and material elements involved in his work. One is safe in saying that no measure of Bach would have been improved, made more Bachlike, if he had had better media. In performing Bach today, this author believes that one should repeat what can be repeated and one should not be bothered about things which due to the changed situation cannot be materialized, or can be materialized only at heavy expenditures and sacrifices. For instance, the playing of Bach's piano works cannot be made dependent upon the number of harpsichords or clavichords available, and to insist, as some scholars do, on the exclusive use of reconstructed instruments seems questionable counsel even in Europe and more so in this country: It is superfluous to say that the release of recordings of old music played on old instruments is no less desirable than is the New York Bach Circle's similar pursuit in regard to concerts. The production of old keyboard instruments, however, is now, and will be limited in the future. This does not entitle the old-fashioned piano teacher, or perhaps I should say, it entitles only the old-fashioned piano teacher to argue that as we perform on an instrument different from Bach's, we might just as well endow his style with "modern" feeling.

DELIGHTFUL AS IT IS t0 hear Bach on Baroque organs (and we hope that every music lover is familiar with its sound), yet our instruments ought to be openly declared as appropriate media for Bach's style, now and in the future. One should once and forever refute the argument so often advanced by organists, both in America and in Europe, that Bach's polyphony does not lend itself satisfactorily to the modern organ. A quotation from my paper entitled Changes in the Approach to Bach and read before the Music Teachers National Association in 1939 follows: "Where capable musicians with a knowledge of, and a conscience for style, sit at modern consoles, genuine Bach music can be heard in spite of the construction of our instruments, and where the organizing power of the interpreter is responsive to various situations of timbre and color, one will best realize that the quality of organ pipes means less than does artistic discrimination. Granted that, since we have forced pneumatics and electricity into our service, we have lost some authentic conceptions of registration, we can attain genuine Bach playing where mechanics are precise and sonorities fundamentally usable."

It should be noted that a man like Furtwaengler in his Gesprdche uber Musik takes an entirely different stand; a stand not generically different from that taken by Stokowski in this country. He tells us: "Some time ago I was witness of a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. With the exception of a few good accomplishments of the soloists, the impression made by this most soulful of all masterworks possessed by the world literature was that of unsurpassable dryness and ennui. The more astonished I was the next day when I read in the press that one had been witness-finally-of an exemplary performance of the Passion. The use of the old instruments and of a small choir, it was said, was in exact correspondence with the present status of our knowledge of the original performances of Bach. It was argued that the small choir would finally make it possible to bring out the polyphony in fullest force." Apparently, Furtwaengler argues, that which was real polyphony never was in the performance, but in his enthusiasm for correct historical performances the critic had forgotten that polyphony had been "beautifully" absent. Furtwaengler believes that very frequently in these historical performances, the soul and the animation of the music are neglected, and that in this particular case the music of Bach did not even make its appearance. He completely favors sentimentalizing or romanticizing old music, as those terms are understood by scholars. In this performance, he argued, Bach had nothing to say to "the hungry soul, nothing at all," and he continues with the symbolical sentences: "Did the critic not know that the fear of being sentimental is the fear only of something which has its home in his own heart? The person who is afraid of sentimentality simply admits, by his fear, that he must fear sentimentality, for in reality he has no natural sentiment and feeling, at least not to a sufficient degree. The fear of sentimentality is the fear of one's own personalityit has become the motto of music-making of our whole generation."

Yet, there are other thinkers who are definitely opposed to our breaking more and more away from Bach and who are concerned about the historically legitimate approach. These are likely to be scholars and such musicians as consider "work fidelity" a problem in music; the adherence to the original version is to them a matter of taste and style. Discussing present day trends in organ building, Walter Holtkamp, in a paper read before the Music Teachers National Association ten years ago, stated: "Present day trends in organ building . . . are again definitely toward a conception of the organ as an intimate keyboard instrument for meticulous hands and feet, away from the conception of the instrument as a vast and more or less remote reservoir of sounds. Put it in another way, the organ today is again becoming an instrument for contrapuntal music, and is losing ground as an instrument for romantic conjuring. The artist organ builder of today, therefore, lays less stress on individual registers of high emotional value as sheer sound, and greater stress on registers which do not necessarily call attention to themselves, but which primarily lend themselves selflessly to a concerted action." Albert Riemenschneider, speaking before the same body in the same year, recommended that "the organ profession must study the problem of Renaissance organ building led by Schweitzer and others for the past four decades. This movement has attained considerable momentum in our own country during the past ten years. Some of the vicious principles of modern organ building must be discarded. The great predominance of 8-foot tone in the organ must give way to a clarity of ensemble as known in the days of Bach. The proper balance and mixtures of various kinds must be thoroughly studied by organ builders and organists alike. It may be said parenthetically that the majority of such stops built into American organs during the so-called romantic period of organ building were far from successful."

THERE Is No QUESTION that Bach is better known in 1950 than he was in 1850 or in 1750. His name has become a household word. Granted that we have different schools regarding Bach performance and different doctrines as to what constitutes a good rendition of Bach, yet at least Bach is being discussed. Think of the many essays that deal with his music. Particularly think of the fact that music students in America, that music lovers from all over the world are beginning to associate definite musical features with Bach's style. Allan I. McHose recently published a book called The Contrapuntal-Harmonic Technique o f the Eighteenth Century. It does not deal with the religious, spiritual or even the poetic aspects of Bach's music, and in that it may miss a great deal, but it does give a discussion of the tonal concept of 18th century technique, and its teaching revolves around Bach's music. There are, for instance, such statements as: "An analysis of the 371 chorales reveals that Bach used 1,661 suspensions of various types." And: "Of all the major triads used by Bach in fundamental position about 8 percent have the third doubled." And: "Bach's use of this progression (a certain chromatic progression is meant) is definitely for one purpose-to establish a related key without the process of modulation by common chord. The new key is established to the beginning of the phrase." Bach begins to mean something, at least to the analyst, theorist and budding composer. Compare with that, as another typical situation, the work of the Bach Aria Group whose director William H. Scheide, well-known patron of the arts, supports annually a group of singers and instrumentalists who do nothing but study the arias of Bach. Scheide says: "The modern concert repertoire simply does not offer any examples of vocal and instrumental cooperation comparable to that required in the Bach cantatas. The matter has been lost to sight ever since the romantic period when voices and instruments first embarked on separate paths. Solo singers became virtuosi of lieder or opera, choruses followed the a cappella ideal of the new conception of Palestrina . . . these tendencies have served to keep singers and instrumentalists apart, and Bach's vocal music has been neglected and has greatly suffered as a result." The problem which confronts Scheide and his Group is: how can Bach's vocal music be made to provide enjoyable concerts for modern audiences? They believe it is too much to expect that religious conditions be reproduced to make Bach's music heard, at least they do not want to have his music confined to the church. This, I believe, is typical of the contemporary outlook. Much of Bach's music was written for the church and while we hope that the churches will revive his music thoroughly, we believe it should be heard also outside of the church. It may be true or not that the modern religious mind does not easily respond to the words of Bach's cantatas and specifically of Bach's arias, but it is true that the modern musical ear can definitely be sensitive to the Bach aria. There is, to be sure, also the curious paradox that "the ensemble able to perform the largest amount of Bach's vocal solo music is nevertheless unable to present a single complete cantata." This single fact is obviously a powerful consideration in directing the Bach Aria Group's work into its present channels of presenting separate arias divorced from their original context, these frequently to be enjoyed and judged purely on their musical merits. After all, the omnivalidity of Bach's music is the secret whereby he will appear to all generations in eternal youth or, as the Swedish Archbishop Soederblom said to his disciples: "He was the fifth Evangelist. Go and work also for him."