Bach’s Extramusical Agenda?

I’ve been anticipating the difficulties of blogging Bach ever since this humble project began, and sure enough, the master is upon us and the perfect approach to presenting his music is proving illusive. (It also doesn’t help that the last three weeks have been punishingly busy for Mark and me.) Where does one start when dealing with one of the two or three most transformational figures in western music? RT begins his discussion circumspectly, introducing Bach along with his exact contemporary Handel (they were both born in 1685) and demonstrating the vastly different careers both men enjoyed. Handel was a musical cosmopolitan extraordinaire, traveling from Germany to Italy to England; Bach, on the other hand, never once left Germany. Handel primarily composed secular music, particularly opera seria, although he is remembered today more for his sacred music (go to any large church in the western world around Christmas and you’ll witness the work that has won Handel a spot in the collective memory); Bach, who specialized in sacred music, is perhaps more revered today for his secular instrumental music (or rather, it is through his instrumental music that most people first encounter him). The question of how this group of gifted composers who share a birth year (including D. Scarlatti) came to influence our musical tradition is a monstrous, woolly one indeed, and Taruskin spends about a third of the volume sorting it out.

Tackling Bach is mighty intimidating. I’m just going to jump right in with one tiny question related to this giant. Check out the clip below (Brandenburg Concert 5, mvt. I) for a quick primer:

Something very peculiar is going on here, although it might not be immediately apparent (and no, I’m not talking about the darling duckling image that accompanies the clip). All the Brandenburgs are equally kooky in their own right, and instrumentation plays a major role in historians’ head scratching and brow furling. The concertos are all scored for different ensembles, some of them quite unorthodox, then as now. However, this one performs perhaps the most radical flip in instrumentation; listen to the harpsichord here, and compare it to the role of the harpsichord in all previous music. Got it? Indeed, this instrument has always served an accompanimental role as a continuo voice, but here, the harpsichordist goes off the tracks. You can first hear it at around 0:22, and all hell breaks loose at 6:20. All of these lighting quick flourishes are strictly notated, moreover; this isn’t simply a ground bass that the player is realizing on the fly. Bach is putting a continuo instrument right into the middle of the concerto as the featured voice. In the view of one musicologist (McClary), the humble harpsichord “hijacks” the ensemble.

In Bach’s time, the orchestra was seen as a “social microcosm, a compact mirror of society. The orchestra, like society itself, was assumed to be an inherently hierarchical entity.” (II, 290) It is no surprise, then, that historians have pondered Bach’s odd harpsichord-centric structure. There are other instruments in this ensemble that would have made a lot more intuitive sense to feature, but just when one expects the violin or the flute to step forward and take the hierarchical reigns of the piece, they drop out and the harpsichord goes wild in pure virtuoso fashion. This would be like featuring the bass guitar in a rock band (well, Primus did it..).

So why did Bach do this? What does it signify? Clearly any compositional choice this bold must have been made for some reason. Historians have concluded that perhaps in this transgressive musical gambit we can see a strain of social subversion. It’s purely speculative, as Bach left behind no musings on political philosophy, but nonetheless it’s an argument that can’t be ignored. According to Susan McClary, the harpsichord in this concerto is a musical “storming of the Bastille”; it expresses “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.” (302) (It should be recalled at this point that Bach himself had a somewhat frustrated career, consistently trying for more prestigious gigs and getting turned down. In fact, the Brandenburgs were a gift to a powerful local elite in the hopes of patronage. They were shelved, apparently never having been performed, until after the elite’s death.)

Michael Marissen, however, posits that the elevation of the harpsichord to such a position of prominence in Con. 5 reflects more his religious thinking than his political leanings. Bach accepted the notion that musical hierarchy reflects God’s will on this earth; however, Marissen argues, he held the Lutheran idea that the present world is of little significance compared to the kingdom of God. Transgressions like these might simply be reminding listeners that the order of this world is ephemeral.

There are of course other explanations as well. Maybe Bach had a transgressive sense of humor. Perhaps he simply got tired of his beloved instrument always playing second fiddle (figuratively) to the violin and other solo instruments. We will probably never know for sure. Nonetheless, this little case study poses a fascinating question for music lovers and historians: when composers or performers subvert a well-established musical code, how should we approach it in the absence of documentation? Should we plumb for speculative conclusions based on what makes the most sense in today’s world, or in theirs? Should we throw up our hands and let the matter rest? Just what do you make of Bach’s subversive harpsichord anyway?


  1. What about the story about the new Michael Mietke harpsichord that Bach brought to Cothen from Berlin? I always thought that was the main reason for the harpsichord cadenza. The cadenza in Brandenburg 5 seems to me like an elaboration (or a series of elaborations on) on the violin cadenza in Brandenburg 4, but there’s nothing else like it in any of the other Brandenburgs. But then again, there is nothing like any Brandenburg in any other Brandenburg.

    I have always thought of them as experiments in tone color and implausibility (consider the implausibility of matching a trumpet up with a recorder in Bandenburg 2), messing with tessitura (consider the horns in Brandenburg 1, as well as the violino piccolo), pairing unlike instruments (Brandenburg 2), pairing like instruments (Brandenburgs 4 and 6), having a concerto grosso without a separation between soloists and tutti (Brandenburg 3), using a completely plausible concertino–a triosonata group–that can act on its own during the slow movement (Brandenburg 5), and having only a chord progression as a slow movement (where you can plug in whatever improvisation you choose) between two very active fast movements (Brandenburg 3).

    I also like to think of Brandenburg 4 as belonging in the upper partials (kind of like a high set of organ pipes). The violin acts effectively as a bass for the two recorders sometimes. Brandenburg uses the whole spectrum–all the way down to the independent part for the double bass, with that frog-like pedal point in the first movement, which is then echoed in the harpsichord cadenza. Then for Brandenburg 6 we live in the lower spectrum, with the violas as the top voice, like a low consort of viols (with viols too).

    1. Wow, Elaine, thanks for the perspective! RT doesn’t mention the new harpsichord in the text, but that sounds completely plausible (and indeed it offers a more elegant solution to this little question than either McClary or Marissen).

      Very interesting perspectives on the other Brandenburgs. I’m glad we have a resident Bach scholar checking in occasionally!

  2. I’ve always disliked that particular McClary article; it’ so *very* speculative that it makes one pine for some good old morphological formalism. Also, for whatever reason, it’s frequently held up as an example of what New Musicology “can do” (apparently: speculate). But that’s really just my $0.02.

    I’m currently digging a Bach book:

    Dreyfus, Laurence. Bach and the Patterns of Invention. 1996: Harvard University Press.

    …that’s pretty excellent. He makes a good case for the collusion of ritornello idioms, dance forms, imitative counterpoint, and national styles as a good way to understand/approach much of Bach’s music.

    (As far as the “transgressive” harpsichord: *obviously* Bach thought that the means of production must belong to the worker.)

  3. I don’t pretend to be a scholar, Bachian or otherwise, but I have played the Brandenburg concertos (on various instruments: baroque flute, modern flute, recorder, violin, and viola) for the greater part of my life. Studying Bach is one thing, but playing Bach is another. The more you play Bach, the larger he becomes. The more you get to know Bach, the more you see and hear, and the more you become aware of how much you can do as an interpretive musician to “meet him halfway.”

    1. What an important point. There is a lot you can learn from the act of performance that is completely inaccessible to the analyst with the score or the historian in the archive. Bach, fortunately, is one composer who is probably approached for the first time by most people through performance, not scholarship (if only in elementary school piano lessons). (This is much more than can be said for virtually the entire canon of 20th century composers.) Some grad schools tell their young musicologists to put their instruments in the case while they get their Ph.D., but I think this approach is really misguided. As you say, studying music is one thing, and playing is another. Without the performance element, something drastic is missing in our analysis.

      1. Zach said: “(This is much more than can be said for virtually the entire canon of 20th century composers.)”

        Yes, except for Rachmaninoff. But then you become a music scholar only to find out that you shouldn’t have liked his music in the first place—he was 60 years behind his own time!

      2. Don’t forget Bartok “Microcosmos”, which is still widely used in piano pedagogy. (Snarky comment about Rachmaninoff withheld.)

        As an aside, and a reply to Zach’s last comment: unfortunately, due to the practical requirements of assembling middle school bands, some of us ended up with primary instruments that made advanced study in performance impractical and/or silly (in my case, euphonium).

        I can’t argue that the performance/performative element (of musical study) isn’t important. (And I’m a theorist, not a musicologist, for what it’s worth.) But not everyone’s going to have any opportunity, really, for performance during grad school.

        That said, there’s always singing and [excruciatingly poor] piano playing. I’m always newly surprised to have to tell undergraduates that they have to PLAY their counterpoint exercises. You know, to hear, uh, the *music*.

        Also, and not for nothing: Keep up the good work, guys.

      3. Great point, Sator. Performance in grad school will not always be an option for theorists and musicologists. I think my beef is with grad programs that expressly forbid students from playing while they’re doing their degrees. I’ve never been in this position personally, but I hear it’s out there.

        (Also, I’ve always wondered what serious euphonium players do when they graduate from high school band.. Hey, there’s always that solo part in the 1st mvt. of Mahler 7. Or is that trombone??;)

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