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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 04 2007

imageI’ve been doing homework on a possible podcast that Alex Singleton and I may or may not be doing, about J. S. Bach.  The reason we may not be doing it is that I suspect that Alex may not be that interested in J. S. Bach.  There is no point in us doing a podcast about something we don’t both of us find interesting and amusing.

But meanwhile, the mere possibility of me holding forth on this fascinating topic has made me hit the Bach books with unprecedented enthusiasm.  What a man!  Even if we never do the podcast, I’ll still be delighted to have done the reading that I am in the course of doing about this amazing and amazingly industrious and productive musician.

One of the better ways to mug up on the great composers is to read The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.  Here is what Schonberg says about performing Bach (p. 37 of my 1992 Abacus paperback edition):

One of the great problems posed by Bach’s music in the twentieth century involves matters of performance practice. Obviously, it is impossible to re-create a performance that would duplicate one in Bach’s day. Too many factors have changed. And every age has its own performance style. The Romantics, as they did in everything, took a very free attitude toward Bach, and played him in their image, Romantic performance practice has extended into our own day, and it has been only within the last few decades that serious attempts have been made to come to grips with the problem. Musicians, thanks to intense musicological research, now know much more than previous generations did about the salient points of Bach’s style in performance. Not enough, however, is known. As a corrective to Romantic performance practice, a generation of young artists grew up playing, singing, and conducting Bach with mechanical rigidity, using approved editions and relatively small forces in an attempt to be “authentic.” The trouble has been that the music then sounds sterile - a Bach robbed of humanity, of grace, of style, of line. If we know one thing about Bach, it is that he was a passionate man and a passionate performer. He undoubtedly played and conducted his own music with infinitely more dash, freedom, and spontaneity than modern performance practice will admit. Bach himself told a pupil, one Johann Gotthilf Ziegler, that an organist should not merely play the notes. He should express the “affect,” the meaning, the emotional significance of the piece. By a strange irony, it might eventually turn out that the derided Romantics, even though lacking today’s scholarship, were instinctively closer to the essential Bach style than the severe, note-perfect, and literal musicians of today.

Quite so.  I would add that just because Bach typically had to make do with a small number of musicians, that is no reason to assume that, presented with a much larger number of satisfactory instrumentalists, and in particular a much larger number of satisfactory singers, he would not have been delighted to have used them all, at least for the more splendid of his choral works.

Just because his music sounded a particular way when it was first performed, that doesn’t mean that, as far as Bach was concerned, these performances were ideal.

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