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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday February 21 2016

imageI have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).

The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing?  Worshipping God?  Being Beethoven before Beethoven?  More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.

Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:

One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment.  Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries.  Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years.  But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras.  The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.

Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality.  This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable.  The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.

Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong.  Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt.  As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music.  Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible).  Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.

Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity?  Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art.  In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.

Art as social climbing.  Discuss.

It certainly worked for Bach.  (And Beethoven.)

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