Sebastien Bach, Modernist

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  • 7/29/2019 Sebastien Bach, Modernist




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  • 7/29/2019 Sebastien Bach, Modernist



    R ECENTLY we musicians have come to realizethat our artis still very young, so young that it has not outgrown theperiod of rapid and at times erratic progress. Seriousmusic lovers are less disturbed than formerly over changingstandards and bewildering tendencies, for they have learned thatthe apparent destruction of law and order in music has not beena foretaste of degeneracy but a clear sign that the art has notyet evolved for itself a sufficiently far-reaching vision of its ownpurposes, powers, and limitations to establish durable standards.If we seldom nowadays commit the error of over-estimatingthe permanent qualifications of our present standards,-or ratherhypotheses,-we are prone to fall into another and almost equallygrave fault, that of failing to remember and profit by the successesand mistakes of the past. Frequently repeating the platitudethat music as we know it is less than two hundred years old, weeither shelve Palestrina and Lassus as "primitives" or take onlyan antiquarian interest in them, while Bach, who is a trifle toogreat to be disposed of by either of the above methods, we takefor granted. Then we credit Haydn and Mozart with being, ifnot the actual founders of modern music, at least its first twoshining exemplars, prate about melody, homophony, and thesonata form, and settle complacently down to the pleasant exerciseof rediscovering the technique of the two-and-a-half or threecenturies which culminated in Johann Sebastian Bach.The composer, like the poet or novelist, has this advantageover the pictorial artist or sculptor, that his materials are notcostly and his product not bulky; if therefore he is not esteemedin his lifetime, he can be reasonably sure of making a record andleaving it where it will not get in anybody's way. On the otherhand, the composer suffers from a handicap which only thedramatist even partially shares, that of being dependent on theintelligence and good-will of other people to present his ideasadequately to all but a very few of his public. At any timecircumstances which he cannot control or even foresee, theoccurrence of which, too, has no bearing on the merits of hisworks, may for a longer or a shorter time lock up his ideas where


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  • 7/29/2019 Sebastien Bach, Modernist


    The Musical Quarterlyonly those who have trained themselves to read music withoutits being performed, as everyone reads a play, can for the timebeing know and understand him.The ihange, desirable in itself, from small salons to concerthalls necessitated sweeping changes in the manufacture of instru-ments, practically all in the direction of greater sonority, themuffled tones of the viol family giving way to the thicker yetmore piercing tones of the violin, viola, and 'cello, the delicateharpsichord and the more than delicate clavichord yielding tothe piano with hammers, and so forth; these mechanical changesin turn brought it about that a large amount of the chamber-music of Bach and his forerunners is virtually obsolete, in spiteof its great beauty, because the better a piece of music is adaptedto the peculiar tone of a clavichord, a viola da gamba, or whatnot, the muddier and clumsier it sounds on our modern instrumentswhich are accurately designed to fulfill new purposes, at thesacrifice of their capacity to continue old. Similarly the growthof the vocal solo with homophonic accompaniment as a substitutefor the old contrapuntal ensemble, has in two centuries bred arace of singers who know or care nothing about ensemble, counter-point, or harmony; and while a chorus or choir singerhas to learnat least some slight responsibility for balance with his or her col-leagues, yet to the average vocalist of today, all music is either"tune" or "filling," and if the artistically satisfactory performanceof a mass of Palestrina, a madrigal of Lassus, or a motet of Bachis beyond the technical powers of the average chorus of today,it is still further beyond the interpretative intelligence of theaverage choral conductor. Last but not least, the admission intogood repute of stereotyped forms, accompaniment figures, andharmonic progressions, has perhaps made composition and analysisa shade easier for lazy people, but it has certainly more than offsetthis somewhat doubtful gain by extensively corrupting musicaltaste; only today, after more than a century during which com-posers have even died for the cause of musical freedom, have webegun to throw off our mumbling worship of rule-of-thumb to adegree which enables us in some measure to appreciate not onlythe free forms of today, but also those of the past.Technique is not the end, but the means, of artistic expression;but as means it is vitally important, in that any serious limitationof technique draws a deadline which expression is powerless tocross. Certainly the technique of composition, and probably thatof performance, was during Bach's life at one of the highestpoints which it has attained during the history of music; and


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  • 7/29/2019 Sebastien Bach, Modernist


    Sebastian Bach, Modernistequally certainly fifty years later, in the time of Haydn andMozart, it was at one of the lowest. It is the purpose of thisarticle to analyze what was the nature of this general collapse,and then to show by examples that music has been and is graduallyregaining Bach's high ground by the long-drawn-out series of"innovations" of Beethoven and his successors.The expressiveness of music suffered from the drop, as it wasbound to do, because the tinkling formal stereotypes of Haydnand Mozart were utterly inadequate to express the mighty ideasof a Bach until a Beethoven should appear on the scene to pummelthe models into some degree of flexibility. In the process ofregeneration, however, expression has progressed more rapidlythan technique, for outside reasons. The coincidence of an eraof mechanical discoveries with political and geographical re-adjustments has brought different parts of the world into touchwith one another, with the result that there are a few more ideasand a much more general sophistication than in Bach's time; andwhere small men have bred to degeneracy and mediocre men havepersisted in their ruts as a result of the new strain of living, afew very great men have found only opportunities for growth anddevelopment in our modern complexity. Thus isolated composershave reattained, or in very rare instances even surpassed, Bachin expression, where few or none have even approached his masteryof technique.In turn, if Bach represents a technical highwater mark whichwe have not yet passed, his expression was the utmost which canbe expected of his period. A composer is subject to the outsideinfluences of his musical past and his social present, and theinner influences of his specifically musical facility, the keennessof his intelligence, and his general vitality. In all these influences,Bach was fortunate. He happened to be born in time to epitomizethe contrapuntal and coloristic achievements of over two centuriesof cumulative effort; sacred, secular, and dramatic technique wasripe, and waited only for a great man. So far as social influencewas concerned, Bach was fortunate in coming of a family in whichmusic was second only to religion and in living in communitieswhere at least music was respected and esteemed; if his educationwas not remarkably broad or far-reaching according to modernstandards, it was at least somewhat better than the average inhis day, and was wholesome and practical. His musical facilitywas unequalled before or since, his extraordinarily large outputbeing of high average quality, in spite of his having had to writeto order nearly every day; his intelligence was keen, as is shown


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  • 7/29/2019 Sebastien Bach, Modernist


    The Musical Quarter