Concurrent Styles in JS Bach’s Lifetime, Visually [UPDATED]

Ralph Locke aptly reminded us recently what epiphanies can come when we step back and juxtapose different stylistic streams that occurred concurrently in history. Just for fun, I decided to make a timeline to visually reinforce his point. The timeline is quite circumspect, with JS Bach’s lifetime as the rough overall frame, and only including the pieces under our recent discussion (JS’s cantatas, Pergolesi, and WF Bach’s keyboard sonata in F), and many more could be included. But you can easily see that Pergolesi’s entire short life fits within the span of JS’s mature career. I also couldn’t resist including Johann Stamitz on the timeline to represent the symphonic tradition, about which we will be reading soon. Though Stamitz outlived JS, Handel outlived Stamitz by two years. (Click on the image to pull up a larger version.)

The timeline was made with the demo version of Timeline 3D.


Here is an updated version of the timeline incorporating suggestions from Jonathan Bellman (see the comments). It includes bookends of JS’s career: Brandenburg concertos at the front end, and Musical Offering at the tail. I also made the image file larger. If these images seem helpful to anyone, feel free to save them and use them freely for your own purposes.

Ralph Locke: The Old and the New, Concurrently

A guest post from Ralph Locke:

I’ve been reading vol. 2 of Taruskin’s Oxford History (for my own purposes and pleasure, in the paperback edition), and visiting your blog occasionally. I recently “caught up” with you–finished W. F. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and J. C. Bach yesterday and began Pergolesi this morning.

I was therefore startled to see Zach’s essay on ugliness in J. S. Bach, since it discusses the preceding chapter (7) and thus might have been posted earlier.

I found it provocative to be reminded by Zach – now with Enlightenment- and commerce-oriented entertainment in my ears and mind – of Taruskin’s ideas about intentional ugliness in J. S. Bach, especially in the (not at all commercially oriented) sacred vocal music.

And Zach’s audio-clips help make Taruskin’s descriptions of Bach’s music about groaning in worldly slime (etc.) vivid indeed!

In any case, the chronological back-turning turns out to be relatively slight (or non-existent): Pergolesi’s La serva padrona was composed in 1733–less than a decade after most of Bach’s cantatas and while Bach was still continuing to compose music of ineffable . . . ugliness.

The same is true of course about Bach’s sons: they were composing in one or another new manner while Dad was still very much alive and active.

There may be simple, practical reasons why this discussion of J. S. Bach got posted after Mark’s essay on W. F. Bach. Still, the surprising juxtaposition ended up reminding me that (as Taruskin occasionally points out) widely divergent compositional and expressive trends can flourish simultaneously–often in different social and cultural contexts, or practiced by composers of different generations who may have known each other’s music and liked it, or hated it.

The Aesthetics of Ugliness

When his music was pleasing, it was usually in order to indoctrinate or cajole. Just as often Bach aimed to torture the ear. (Vol. II, 364)

Not that people today would know this. We moderns, accustomed to Bach’s greatness since childhood, might take issue with RT’s assessment – how could the Bach of Mass in B Minor, Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Brandenbergs possibly torture the ear? His music is upheld as the very sine qua non of divine pulchritude. Just what is Taruskin talking about?

It’s a fair reaction to be taken aback by the suggestion that Bach regularly made deliberately ugly music. Indeed, for most of us, the only Bach we’ve ever heard has been rendered with perfect, crystalline clarity, grace, and beauty (or at least this has been the intent). Contemporary performance practice of Baroque music often dictates that the music should be “pretty” – this is an interpretive, aesthetic evaluation shared by much of the early music movement (along with their marketers), a point that RT makes careful effort to dissect in Text and Act. Of course Bach’s music is beautiful – after all, he’s the godfather of Western music. If his music is “good,” then it’s beautiful. Right?

Yes and no. It depends in large part on how we define beauty. Aesthetics is, of course, an ocean of a topic, and I can only hope to dip a toe in here. Thinkers have been pondering this question for ages, and RT’s treatment of Bach in this respect presents us with an ideal case study. Plato equated beauty with “the Good,” arguing that it was a reflection of the ideal manifested in our shadow world of mere forms. Further, he thought that music should reflect only beauty, even going as far as to equate beautiful music with goodness of character (The Republic, 97). It takes a good person to make good music, but, reciprocally, music can also ennoble or corrupt a person depending upon how beautiful it is. It’s the sworn duty of the musician, therefore, to only create music that is beautiful; there is a moral imperative to it. Indeed, the stability of the state depends on it.

To Bach, this classical view was poppycock, as was Enlightenment aesthetics. A devout Lutheran, Bach considered music to be the handmaiden of the truth. The goal was not necessarily the pursuit of disembodied beauty; rather, much of his music was put to the service of expressing ecclesiastical, theological realities. RT puts it magnificently: “Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served – Luther’s truth – was often bitter. Some of Bach’s most striking works were written to persuade us – no, reveal to us – that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, and that reason is a snare.” (363) To paraphrase: life is ugly, and you need ugly music to express it. (This passage is positively punk rock-ian.)

How did Bach enact his aesthetics of ugliness? In many cases, he deliberately broke the rules of counterpoint, treating dissonance in ways that would have affected a sense of – in RT’s estimation – literal nausea. For example, see the bass aria from the cantata “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” BWV 13. Here, in a tangle of bizarre, unpredictable harmonic activity, is a series of parallel motion by sevenths, a forbidden (RT: “diseased”) musical gesture. Of course, the text of the aria begins with “Groaning and pitifully wailing or worrying won’t relieve sickness”; to be sure, musical beauty would hardly be appropriate for such a hard-core subject. Listen for all the devilish tritone leaps and worm-eaten chromaticisms. Here’s the aria, in all its ugly glory.

It’s a potent musical strategy, even to jaded, modern ears that are plenty used to dissonance. Another example of this form of deliberate ugliness can be found in the opening chorus of “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott.” There are a lot of disorienting cross-relations and harmonic leaps here that sound like mistakes (and this clip is Harnoncourt, so they’re definitely not!):

But Bach didn’t just conjure the ugly truth through sophisticated, “wrong” compositional gambits; he also deliberately set his musicians up to fail. RT’s example, the aria “Liebster Gott,” comes from BWV 179, wherein he pairs a boy soprano with two oboi da caccia (an ancestor of the English horn). Bach pushes his poor performers to the depths of their registers with notes so low that they would have been nearly impossible to tune correctly.

Not that people today would know this. Indeed, this piece is often performed now with modern English horns (though not in this clip), which can handle the low stuff with intonational aplomb. The boy soprano of old is replaced in most modern performances with women, who can easily hit all the right notes. In other words, the intended effect of ugliness, struggle, and ultimately failure is lost in most modern performances. Instead, it is rendered pretty.

This gets us back to the opening thoughts. It’s hard to imagine an “authentic” performance of such a piece today, with the pathetic boy soprano trying to hit pitches his little voice can’t muster (see around 3:40, which this singer handles beautifully). Is this piece still, then, ugly in the way Bach desired it to be? Or are we merely improving on it when we make it beautiful? Or – to go one step further – is the violation of its original truth content (which Bach valued above beauty) actually enough to make the modern performance uglier than the original? Is truth the same as beauty? (In which case, we can eschew the whole question.)

The Taruskin Style

A really fine historical argument can be written with as much artfulness as any sonata form movement, and thus is equally as ripe for formal analysis, as any student of rhetoric will tell you. RT’s “The Comic Style” (Ch. 8 of vol. II) is just such a chapter. Here is a rough-and-ready outline of its rhetorical structure:

  • present a problem: Though historians have tried for generations, we can’t get from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn in a single straight line.
  • offer a feint that only draws out the nature of the problem: W.F. Bach seems a predecessor of Mozart and Haydn, but diverges from JS Bach in several mysterious (for the sake of suspense in the argument) reasons
  • make the problem even worse by adding other unexplained evidence: CPE and JC Bach
  • then, when the desire for a resolution has been whipped to a fervor, offer it: The comic style of 18th century opera—especially in its naturalness—was the germ that spread to all late 18th-century style.

I know how paltry this stripped down recounting of the argument must seem. It’s like showing you the skeleton of a peacock and telling you to imagine the true glory of its plumage. You simply have to read it yourself to get the full effect. But it got me thinking about how a structural analysis of the argument of many of Taruskin’s chapters in the OHWM would generously repay the analyst.

Pardon a momentary effusiveness, but allow me to step back and say wow. It is truly remarkable that RT maintains such a high level of writing craft throughout this behemoth work. It’s like Telemann—in all that prolificacy, you would think that there have to be some bad apples, right? At some point, Taruskin must have just stitched together an argument, gotten lazy—and who would fault him for one pedestrian argument anyway, as long as the logic was sound? But if there are seams in the writing, they are hardly noticeable, a fact that not only displays his skill, but sheer diligence. And if I’m getting carried away and exaggerating, it’s only a little bit.

Okay, effusiveness abated. Here’s my question to you all as fellow students and practitioners of writing: what is that one essay that you keep going back to as a model of how to craft an argument? That article that, when a student asks you how to craft an argument you say, “read this.” Musicological writing would be preferred, but interdisciplinary examples are game too. And in a few words, tell us why the writing caught your eye.

Resuscitating W.F. Bach

Most general histories of music blow past J.S. Bach’s eldest son like a bellows to a dust bunny. Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84) gets a passing mention in Richard Crocker’s classic A History of Musical Style, if only to point out his failure to “find the proper stylistic framework to support a steady output.”* This is more than WF (to use Taruskin’s nickname) gets in the current edition of Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, where his name isn’t even mentioned. Even more specialized studies, such as Giorgio Pestelli’s The Age of Mozart and Beethoven, only generalize, once again noting his stylistic waffling between Baroque and the more modern galant and empfindsamer (sentimental) styles. Pestelli also mentions WF’s quirky character (“changeable, discontented and prickly,” 22), the other bane to both his career and his legacy to history.

Enter Richard Taruskin. At the start of Chapter 9, “The Comic Style,” RT (to continue using Taruskin’s nickname system) promises that he will not follow the traditional historical path trying to connect the dots from JS Bach and Handel directly to Haydn and Mozart. Instead he will deal with the so-often-forgotten-or-at-least-hurried-through-so-we-can-get-to-the-good-stuff generation in between. He makes good on that promise right away by contributing a nine-page analysis of a keyboard sonata by—you guessed it—none other than our forgotten WF. Nine pages? you ask. In a general history of music? This must be a first.**

What is gained by RT’s detailed hash-through of the 1st movement of WF’s Sonata in F (Falck catalogue no. 6)? First, we actually get to see the stylistic hodge-podge that so many historians reference. It’s all in there: JS-like canon, galant rhythms, motivic proliferation and contrast. But most importantly to RT, there is an overall structure to the piece that plays with symmetry in structure and harmony, with periodic outbursts that destroy the prevailing texture, melody, and phrase length. This schism comes—and this is important—at the FOP (or “far out point” in the harmony—RT and his abbreviations!). After the music travels abroad harmonically and motivically, there is a double return of the “home” harmony and the opening melodic motive.

RT points out that, as opposed to D. Scarlatti, for whom it was anomalous, the double return was standard for WF. He then makes the connection (with a historical perspective that WF never had) that this was central to the thinking of Haydn’s generation: “Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to dub the whole later eighteenth century the Age of the Double Return, so definitive did the gesture become.” (II, 407)

There is the connection between the dots. So maybe we should give WF another listen. His sonata in A is as fine a place to start as any:

*Richard Crocker, A History of Musical Style, 369.

**If there’s a comparable passage in a general history, I’d love to know!

More on Borrowing

Compare (just the first half a minute or so will suffice):

The first clip comes from Handel’s “No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” an erotic “chamber duet”; the second comes from the Messiah (No.12). Clearly, Handel borrowed from himself here, and there’s no disguise to indicate he’s trying to protect himself from charges of wrong-doing. Rather, this is an uncomplicated case of self-borrowing: he simply took a texture and a melody from an earlier work, reorchestrated it, changed the lyrics from Italian love poetry to English Biblical fare, and voila!

This sort of compositional cannibalism was not at all uncommon in Handel’s day. Indeed, as mentioned before, it would have been close to impossible to produce as much music as was required of the typical 18th century composer for the church, the crown, or the theater without digging into the back catalog a bit. This mode of musical production is consonant with the “craftsman” role musicians and composers played in society at that time. Autonomous compositional originality (inventio) was not as important as the ability to produce appropriate music for specific occasions, events, and social contexts; if a melody from an earlier piece ends up regurgitated in a new context, then so be it. It’s doubtful whether many listeners (if any) would have even noticed – this was the day, after all, when music was only available through performance, and thus individual pieces would only have been heard a limited number of times. (Messiah, however, was a standard repertory piece from the very beginning.)

The notion of the composer as a talented craftsman changed profoundly during the 19th century. Genius, which previously had been an adjective only, came to apply to individuals through a gradual change of usage (and a few dictionary definition wars with such notables as Voltaire and Diderot chipping in). A Genius, in the Romantic view of things, was an extremely gifted individual with a sui generis creative mind. In this paradigm, there was little room for unimaginative self-borrowing; to be sure, this seemed to impugn the very idea of Genius. As a result, you don’t tend to see the same level of blatant borrowing in canonic 19th and 20th century music as you in the 18th and before. (There are some very notable exceptions, of course, which I’m dying to write about when we get there.)

Another effect of this ideological shift in the nature of originality can be clearly evinced by the change in sheer creative output. Handel, as we know, wrote dozens of oratorios and operas; if we think back to Vol. I, we’ll remember that Renaissance composers like Lasso wrote hundreds of (extant) pieces. Of course, not all of these works are purely “original” in the 19th century paradigm. Indeed, self-borrowing (and borrowing from others, within limits) was an accepted compositional method; how else would one get through that much music? Once the paradigm shifted, however, composers concentrated their creative energies into fewer and fewer works. Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies compared to his teacher Haydn’s 104; Brahms published 4. And into the 20th century this pattern continued – few symphonists broke the magic number 9 (though for superstitious reasons as well), and opus numbers were applied only when a work was deemed satisfactorily original by the composer (we don’t get Schoenberg’s op. 1, for instance, until the composer was in his mid-twenties). [Interestingly, the same process happened with literature: compare Balzac’s 100+ published novels to James Joyce’s 4.]

When composers were aesthetically required to be 100% original 100% of the time, naturally the bubbling creative effervescence that pushed composers like Handel and Bach to produce (and borrow) music on strict deadlines slowed down, and a more focused, methodical, and calculating approach became common practice. This shift also corresponded with a heightened degree of historical awareness and a recognition that one’s own compositional career fits into a larger historical narrative. One wouldn’t want something musically trifling and un-serious (or cannibalized or plagiarized) to dog one’s historical reputation as a Great Composer, would one?

This will be an issue that pops up again as we progress through the book. It might seem obvious to state it, but the concept of originality is not a universal; rather, it is conditioned by cultural and historical contingencies, like anything else. Before calling Handel a hack, therefore (not that anyone is rushing to do so!), we should remember that borrowing meant something different in his day than it does in ours. (For the younger generation who grew up on hip-hop, mixes, mash-ups, and DJing, however, it might seem a stupidly obvious point that creativity lies in what you do with musical material, not only in what you invent out of the ether.)

What do Handel and hip-hop have in common?

Not the hoodie, as you might suspect.

Handel was a prolific “borrower” (RT’s scare quotes), regularly swiping from both his own compositions and the music of others. Recycling the same material in multiple compositions was common practice back then; indeed, it would have been impossible to meet tight deadlines without it. (Handel wrote Messiah in just 24 days.) But when we see Handel’s whole-scale appropriations of other composers’ music (including Stradella, Scarlatti, Muffat, Jennens, and others), we have to ask ourselves: when does “borrowing” become outright plagiarism?

This question is quite a raging debate in Musicology Land. Defenders argue that borrowing was common at this time, and intellectual property ideas were virtually nonexistent. They also point out that Handel suffered a stroke at the beginning of his period of heaviest borrowing, perhaps incapacitating his writing hand (and maybe his imagination). Most defenses, however, are aesthetic. Donald Grout writes: “If he borrowed, he more often than not repaid with interest, clothing the borrowed material with new beauty and preserving it for generations that otherwise would scarcely have known its existence.” (II, 329) In other words, who cares if Handel ripped other composers off: he made the music better, and they’re all dead anyways.

The prosecution has a pretty tight case, though. Excessive borrowing was looked down upon in Handel’s day (although you couldn’t get sued for it); to be sure, his contemporaries often criticized him for it. Further, with much of the music he borrowed, Handel tweaked and “updated” the original so as to disguise it. (Many of these disguises are fairly thin, however.) If he didn’t think there was any problem with what he was doing, why did he try to conceal it?

This whole debate seems mighty familiar. Indeed, the question of Handel’s borrowing is like the question of sampling in hip-hop. When does creative “borrowing” become straight-up, unimaginative, lazy plagiarism? What if the sample preserves music of the past that otherwise would be forgotten (Grout’s argument)? The legal landscape has changed substantially since the mid 1700s – Handel presumably disguised his samples for reasons of reputation, whereas hip-hop producers disguise them for fear of legal repercussions – but the central issues remain unchanged.

At the core of it is the question of originality. Both Handel and sample-based hip-hop prod at the imaginary wall separating originality from copying, forcing a fundamental question: is there anything truly new under the sun? RT writes: “Comparing Handel’s dazzling reworkings with their often rather undistinguished originals can even cast some doubt on the importance of inventio (as Handel’s contemporaries called facility in the sheer dreaming up of themes) in the scheme of musical values, and cause us to wonder whether that is where true ‘originality’ resides.” (II, 329)

Handel would have appreciated the creative play going on in good hip-hop beats. To close, here’s a particularly baroque example (“Eggman,” from the Beastie Boy’s 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, which combines “Superfly,” “Psycho,” “Jaws,” Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, and dozens of other samples).