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Bach the Subversive

This is the full text of the 3nd annual Lufthansa Lecture, presented at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square, in London on 14 May 2011.   It was delivered by Laurence Dreyfus, Professor of Music at Oxford University and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford and founder and director of the viol consort Phantasm.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I can well imagine that there must be at least a few of you who became rather alarmed to read that the Lufthansa Lecture this year would be entitled 'Bach the subversive'. Though my intent was to be provocative, there is good reason to be worried. The idea that composers and their music should be judged by crude political labels can easily lead to misrepresentation, indeed caricature, and isn't something I think one should endorse. This is the kind of labelling that leads to such outmoded ideas as Beethoven the Liberator 'The Man who freed Music', as in the title of a 1929 biography by Robert Schauffler. Politics also figures in such characterisations as Brahms the Conservative, Wagner the proto-Nazi, Stravinsky the fascist sympathiser, even Antoine Busnois the anti-Semite. Politics in musicology seems to be everywhere these days. In a series of public lectures delivered at the British Library in 2007 by Philip Bohlman of the University of Chicago, for example, we were exhorted to share in music's silences as a way of hearing and understanding 'the silenced voices that only music can sound'. More recently, Richard Taruskin has launched a tirade targeting the pianist and critic Charles Rosen, judging 'Rosen's literary output - all of it - as Cold War propaganda.' The idea that music and music criticism are seriously complicit in the ills of the world is a kind of silliness which not many people will take seriously, but it is fair to say that this attitude has made seriously inroads in academic life. So perhaps you can see why I'm worried that the title of my talk might, in the current climate, contribute to the politicising of music, a practise, in fact, I'd rather combat.

Although the word 'subversive' used for a person isn't found before the late 1870s, the notion of subversion as in the overthrow of a city, a country or its laws dates back to Classical Rome: the verb subvertere makes a frequent appearance in Roman authors and was transmitted intact in the Middle ages to the Romance languages and into English, where one finds it in Wycliffe's 14th-century translation of the Bible. Yet early on the word and its related forms assume non-political meanings as well, such as in the overthrow or ruin of a system, condition, faculty, or character. In Chaucer's Parson's Tale, for example, one reads: 'It reueth hym the quiete of his herte and subuerteth his soule.'- [Anger, that is] bereaves him of the peace of his heart and subverts his soul.

It's in this sense that I'd propose thinking of Johann Sebastian Bach as a subversive, someone who overthrew a system of beliefs about music, someone who undermined widely acclaimed principles and closely guarded assumptions. There is always a negative element implied in the notion of subversion, which in Latin has the literal sense of turning something upside down. One hope in describing the kind of subversion in which Bach engages would be to overturn the poetic hyperbole which has dominated his reception since the 19th century. As the word Bach means 'brook' in German, Beethoven himself started the ball rolling by his heartfelt exaggeration: 'Not Brook but Ocean should be his name' [Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sollte er heißen!]. It's easy to find a spate of equally famous quotations. Robert Schumann: 'Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder.' Charles Gounod: 'Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass.... He has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach's time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.' Albert Schweitzer: 'Bach is a terminal point. Nothing comes from him; everything merely leads to him.' Pablo Casals: 'Bach is the supreme genius of music... This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done so in the most perfect way.'

In all these formulations, enthusiastic and soulful as they are, there is a sense in which the hyperbole casts a shadow on the man himself, rendering us unable to see or hear what he's achieved in his music. The point isn't that we've been deaf to the quality of Bach's music, but rather that ideas such as Bach the Godlike creator or the Colossus of Rhodes hide from us the composer's artistic struggles, the many ways in which he comes to grips with his musical materials. The problem is an eclipse of agency: the moment his works proceed from his Godlike perfection, we can't see Bach as a maker of music. Even the greater sobriety of the last century and its scholarship doesn't help much, for if Bach became less of a towering deity, he still stands for a kind of normative benchmark. Observe how A-level students still aspire to write a four-part chorale 'in Bach style'. And if they manage to gain a place to read music at university, they'll graduate to write an 'idiomatic Bach fugue'. Note here the unfortunate metaphor of 'idiom', as if 'Bach's music' is some preferred linguistic dialect, akin to a natural language. Surely this is a misguided way to speak about what Bach himself called 'hard work' or Fleiß which results in 'human, all-too human' actions.

Even a serious attempt to rescue Bach from Romantic excess finds it difficult to avoid hyperbole. In Christoph Wolff's meticulously documented biography published in 2000, we read that 'Bach's musical science offers a stable frame of reference even today that neither a Palestrina nor a Monteverdi, a Handel, a Beethoven, nor any other composer can provide.' There is certainly a widespread sense in European music history that Bach offers a benchmark rather than a challenge to composition. So Bach seems to damn us to exaggeration, when even the self-conscious attempt to explode the Romantic myth inspires yet another variety of the very same thing.

Given this kind of hagiography - the kind of writing modelled on the lives of saints - a consideration of Bach as subversive can only be to the good. It allows us to take those feelings of awe which many of us feel upon hearing Bach's works and transform them into a vision of the composer's courage and daring, letting us experience the music anew. Rather than a provide a 'stable frame of reference', Bach and his subversive music might provide the key to his achievement, which, like all great art, is attuned to the most subtle manipulations and recasting of human experience.

To try to persuade you of this point of view, I'll offer six propositions which argue the case for Bach as subversive. My evidence comes from 18th-century reactions to his music as well as from the 'facts' of his works themselves, from the kind of compositional postures they embody. In the interest of time, I'll cite cases located at the more extreme edges of Bach's output, but they are cases which aren't atypical of his oeuvre as a whole.

1. The first subversion is that of gaudium - of musical pleasure. Of course Bach writes music that can be exceptionally beautiful, but if we know the vocabulary of the early 18th century and are honest with ourselves, it is not difficult to notice a more than occasional interest in musical ugliness. Many themes in the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier - Bach's famous '48' - present musical puzzles resolved by the fugal treatment, but some subjects go out of their way to present themselves as horrid upon first hearing. The most flagrant example is the final fugue in Book 1, the Fugue in B minor. The ugliness of the theme is actually based on a clever conceit: Bach dares to include all 12 notes of the chromatic scale ordered in what seems to be a meaningless sequence. The situation becomes even more dire when the second voice enters: one prays that the composer will resolve the mystery of his awkward theme, but with the angular lines and their unprepared dissonances, the counterpoint is even more disturbing.

Music: Fugue in B minor, BWV869 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) - bars 1-7

Here Bach is up to one of his fugal tricks designed to irritate and bemuse the listener. Instead of introducing the 'proper' countersubject, he gives its distorted mirror image in the inversion at the 12th, one of the most complex contrapuntal operations in his toolkit. And I'm speaking of only the first few bars. The subsequent course of this troubled piece is fascinating for the composer endows the least important parts of a fugue - the episodes - with a wholly new function, a respite from the jarring dissonance of his fugal materials.

Music: Fugue in B minor, BWV869 (Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1) - bars 13-21

The B minor fugue is an inimitable work which takes huge risks and, tellingly, could never have been printed in Bach's lifetime. The music is simply too bizarre, and devoid of conventional forms of pleasure.

2. The next subversion is that of logos - the notion which asserts the supremacy of the Word. In Bach's age - whether in Lutheran views of music or in secular Enlightened circles - everyone subscribed to the view that music must serve the text, just like an obedient handmaid waits on an authorised Master, to borrow Luther's own phrase. If we look at Bach's vocal works, however, one notices how the composer's cavalier treatment of poetic texts borders on the reckless. Bach was in fact pilloried by the critic Johann Mattheson as early as 1721 for precisely that flaw, and in the first 'review' of one of Bach's vocal works, he was ridiculed mercilessly for repetitions of words which hindered the sense of the poetry and made a laughing stock of its diction.
But Bach's sins of commission go far beyond text repetitions. In one of his punchiest and most memorable pieces from the St John Passion, the tenor aria 'Ach mein Sinn', the composer not only rides roughshod over the poetry's metre, ignore its strophes, and disregards its end-rhymes, but, worst of all, he has the singer accompany the orchestra for much of the aria rather than the other, 'natural' way around. First here is the complete orchestral ritornello Bach devises for the aria.

Music: Aria 'Ach mein Sinn' (St John Passion, BWV245) - bars 1-16 & 89-91

Next you'll hear a typical passage from later in the aria where the orchestra plays the ritornello while the singer is very much subservient to what was Mattheson called the 'instrumental melody'.

Music: Aria 'Ach mein Sinn' (St John Passion, BWV245) - bars 69-88

Whatever is Bach doing here? Well, he's selected a key phrase from the text - 'whither wilt thou flee?' 'wo wilt du endlich hin?' - and he crafts a lamenting chaconne which characterises the terrified flight of the sinner who, like Peter, has denied his Lord. Rather than elaborate the text, the aria is much more a musical fantasia which enacts in breathtaking detail the impossibility of escape. Failing to respect the text as a whole, Bach engages in a self-authorised act of literary mutilation. Music isn't the poetry's handmaid, but - in an act of subversion - its overlord.

3. Next comes the subversion of proprietas - the attack on propriety or decorum. One of the acknowledged tasks of music in the early modern era is, reasonably enough, to behave properly so as to avoid devolving into a morass of incoherence or worse, 'devilish singsong'. Each musical genre, accordingly, has to be clothed in the appropriate style. As George Puttenham explains in The Arte of English Poetrie (1589), Aeneas, who is a hero, must not trudge into Rome, since it's beggars who trudge, not heroes. Authors must match style to station. Bach's Magnificat, to the contrary, offers a splendid case study in inappropriateness with its weird admixtures of styles and genres. Mary's 'soul magnifies the Lord' from the lowly station of her humility but Bach's opening movement, with its trumpets and kettledrums, inappropriately invokes a majestic operatic chorus of military victory and triumph. 'Magnificent' declamations of the word Magnificat are also found in settings by Monteverdi and Vivaldi, but it is Bach who goes to the special trouble of a furnishing such lavish upholstery for the word in a separate piece of music. He graphically highlights how very far the music is from the text's self-effacing origins in the Marian canticle reported in the Gospel of Luke.

Music: Magnificat, BWV243 - Bars 1-34

The magnification felt by Mary's soul, in other words, is personified and situated within the stunning edifice of an ancient Roman palace on a Baroque opera stage. Her soul is even outfitted with a suitably masculine and warlike majesty along with an exalted choir of angels declaiming a royal fanfare. This is not only a subversion of text but a deliberate attack on propriety. Bach gets away with this - indeed, we adore the provocative error, because we understand his natural to a higher theological calling, taking its cue from the isolated experience of the first word of Mary's canticle as regal rather than as handmaidenly.

In the 'Et misericordia', of the Magnificat, Bach commits another rhetorical error when he sets music evoking a tragic pastoral. The very notion is an oxymoron: tragedies are for heroes; pastorals are for carefree shepherds. While it might seem obvious in retrospect that the Fate of a Lamb of God - an Agnus dei - ought to be experienced tragically, Bach's contemporaries didn't see it that way. Knowing full well of his penchant for tragic pastorals, Bach's former pupil Johann Adolph Scheibe makes a point of insisting that pastorals should avoid chromaticism and sharp dissonance: they must, he writes, 'let nature ... creep into the stillness and not let ... strange progressions and inventions distance us from the peace, innocence and tenderness of such pieces'. But Bach can't help from registering moments of pain that really have no place in the pastoral landscape and in the Magnificat duet for alto and tenor, the middling voices intertwine and sigh in the most wonderfully miserable way.

Music: Et misericordia (Magnificat, BWV243) - bars 14-20

He's almost wilfully mistranslating the words: 'Et misericordia a progenie in progenies timentibus eum'- 'He has mercy on those who fear him from generation to generation'. Instead we participate in a dance of misery. By the critical standards of the 18th-century, this music is subversively indecorous, if also profound in its aesthetic implications.

4. We next come to Bach's subversion of natura or nature, a charge which first surfaces in a 1737 journal article where Bach was attacked by Scheibe for 'taking way the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style [eine schwülstige und verworrene Schreibart], ... darken[ing] their beauty by an excess of art'. Abraham Birnbaum, professor of rhetoric at the University of Leipzig tried to argue Bach's corner for him, noting in a reply
to Scheibe that: 'Many things are delivered to us by Nature in the most misshapen states, which however acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art.' But the damage was done in an age when Nature possessed impeccable credentials, and even Bach's own supporters had to admit that on occasion, the composer perpetrated some wildly unnatural mistakes.

The literary theorist Johann Christoph Gottsched, for example, wrote the words for a rather pompous Ode to adorn a grand service mourning the death of Queen Christiane Eberhard in 1729 - called a Trauer-Ode - and Gottsched fully expected that Bach would compose one single strain of music which (like a hymn setting) would serve for each of his nine stanzas. What did Bach compose? A ten-movement cantata 'in the Italian style', as the Leipzig chronicler acerbically reported, that is, with arias and recitatives, a musical monstrosity which made a mockery of the strophic poetic form. Even Lorenz Mizler, Bach's friend and founder of the Leipzig Society of Musical Sciences, levelled a most serious charge when he noted that setting Odes as Cantatas is 'most unnatural', unnatural being a euphemism for the most monstrous and perverse ideas. Of course Cantata No. 198 is one of Bach's most admired vocal works. One example from that is an evocative accompanied recitative about the ominous sound of the bells' throbbing tone which should have been set - even according to Bach's supporters - as one verse in a choral hymn.

Music: Recitative 'Der Glocken bebendes Getön' (Trauer-Ode, BWV198)

5. Next there is Bach's subversion of inventio, that is - of usual ways of inventing and developing musical ideas. You may know that Bach aligned himself with the rhetoricians when he named his little two-part pieces played by every keyboardist his Inventions. His introductory note states that the works show how to 'get good ideas and develop them satisfactorily'. It's just that when one examines the music, it's exceedingly unclear what Bach means by the distinction between the invented ideas and their development. In the first movement of his Second Brandenburg concerto, for example, his ritornello - the opening idea which is supposed to return - never does, at least not in the identical form. One discovers over the course of the piece, moreover, that there are two competing ritornellos, neither of which sounds quite right, and each of which exhibits complementary defects. The first is in the major mode at the opening of the piece, but it lacks a proper sequential middle section.

Music: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV1047 (1st movement) - bars 1-8 & 31-39

The second, in the minor mode, has a proper middle section but lacks a complete opening.

Bach plays with the insufficiency of both defective ritornellos and acknowledges this fact by finding himself unable to repeat either of them intact at the end of the movement. The notion of ordering one's thoughts logically therefore takes a new turn. What Bach has invented is a musical logic in which the beginnings of thought don't coincide with the beginning of a piece. The ramifications of this subversive method are truly mind-boggling.

6. Finally, I'll mention Bach's subversion of pietas, of piety. This is perhaps my most provocative idea, since it is widely held that Bach - someone who marks Jesus juva (J.J) on the scores of his sacred works - was a deeply devout Christian, someone who kept Luther's complete works on his shelves, someone for whom the composing of sacred music virtually spells devotion. It is not my claim that Bach was in the least impious, but rather that throughout his sacred vocal works, he overthrows conventional notions of how a composer is meant to demonstrate his piety.

It is the exaggerated dramatic stance in Bach's St Matthew Passion, for example, which doesn't ask listeners to be reverent, well-behaved, and subservient, but rather exhorts them through shock tactics to engage with a three-dimensional experience of the Passion story, from the almost cinematic dance of lamentation by the Daughters of Zion, to the earthquake following the Crucifixion, and to the lullaby-like 'goodnight' spoken to Jesus near the end by the solo singers. This was a blood and guts approach to piety wholly out of sympathy with Bach's contemporaries, indeed with successive generations. Even Felix Mendelssohn, who revived the Passion in 1829 in Berlin, had to cut the music ruthlessly to spare his audiences certain embarrassments.

So if, according to these propositions Bach goes about undermining the established order of things - subverting gaudium, logos, proprietas, inventio, natura and pietas - what does he put in their place? Or rather, whom is he placing in charge? Why, it is music herself who takes the reins, and it is music's ability to rise above mere words and their limiting semantics, music's ability even to surmount the limitation of physics in the subversion of nature's intervals - music's metaphysics, if you will - which wins the day. From the time of Plato, through Erasmus and into the Enlightenment - even in Wagner's early theory of Drama - music was meant never to be in charge. It took the likes of Schopenhauer in the 19th century to suggest what it might mean for music to discard mere representation, and grasp human experience in the most full-bodied way. In subverting conventional notions of the six qualities I've enumerated - pleasure, words, propriety, invention, nature and piety - Bach invites a new relation with each.

Perhaps these subversions are in fact the distinctive features of every composer to whom we've offered a place in the Canon. Indeed, we might think of the canon as a virtual pantheon in which great music reflects and refracts human experience in myriad new ways. After exposure to a composer's unsettling discoveries, we're unable to hear music in quite the same way, unable even to live life in quite the same way. To cite a final example, let me recall the opening chorus of Bach's St John Passion in its first and last version: the earthy pulsations and turbulent swirlings in the strings, the jarringly dissonant notes in the oboes, and the anguished declamatory cries of the chorus which mark the opening. These are far from a 'stable frame of reference'. Nor does this earth-shattering music merely mirror a Christian message of 'magnificence through abasement' as some theological readings would have it. Rather, the mix-and-match concatenation of musical styles reconfigures what the genre and the words are meant to signify, and more crucially, how they feel. The music breathes into existence something never heard before, which is why our powers of perception become more acute as a result of Bach's achievement. In fact, I'm not going to play you a recorded musical example, because I'm still waiting to hear a performance which really dares to grasp the coarse violence and debasement of the musical affect along with its awe-inspiring majesty and glorification.

Entering the musical canon means then, subverting the canon, but all the while subscribing to an overthrow which celebrates previous subversions, recognising all such subverters as comrades-in-arms. Paradoxically, it's the negative impulse in great art that we value, though we tend to forget this point of historical fact, and come to misread composers' critical urges naively as merely positive and constructive, with all the negativity drained away. While some people may be content to celebrate musical perfection. I find it more honest, indeed, more pleasurable, to observe the twists and turns of a musician on a rocky but ultimately thrilling journey.

I used to think that Bach was a far-sighted interpreter of music who worked in an age which hadn't yet recognised the power of music to interpret. Now I'm less sure that mere interpretation - obsessed with discovering new meanings - isn't just a limitation which bows before the supremacy of logos - that is, of verbal utterance - and requires ever new ciphers to puzzle out what words mean. The power of music, especially Bach's music, surely extends beyond what words or pictures or gestures can signify. That's why, at best, Bach seduces us with his subversive pleasures as much as he challenges us with his unique insights.


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