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.)


  1. Mark Samples says:

    Thanks, Zach, for laying this out for us—and with strategic recorded examples as well. I have been intrigued by Bach’s Lutheran Cantatas quite a bit recently, and my next question would be: wherefore all this ugliness? Yes, in the narrow context of Lutheran liturgy, we’ve established that Bach was using this specific tool to make visceral the lowly sinful flesh of man, in good Lutheran fashion.

    But was that all? Did the congregants just wallow in ugliness for a bit, then say “Amen. You are dismissed.” ? Not exactly; that’s just the beginning of the trajectory. It is the groundwork that is laid for the ultimate revelation of God’s salvation. I would think this would be the traditional trajectory of a Lutheran sermon (you Lutherans out there can corroborate/correct), and I would expect JS would follow that insofar as these pieces are considered to be “musical sermons.” I haven’t done much research on these pieces, but one of these days I will. It would be worth looking into this as the _other_ “there and back again” trajectory in JS’s music: the first being a harmonic journey, the second being a theological journey from ugliness to beautification, from sin to salvation.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      I’m glad you pointed this out. RT doesn’t go into any detail how ugliness fits into the narrative structure of these cantatas, but I suspect as well that they fit into a larger spiritual journey etched out in musical affect. As you wittily put it, it’s not as if congregants are forced to wallow in ugliness without ultimate edification. These examples, of course, are movements within the larger structure of the cantatas, most of which end on an up note.

      Like you, listening to these Lutheran cantatas really makes me want to dig deeper. Of course, that’s the way I feel whenever I listen to Bach (“gee, I wish I could spend more time with “The Art of the Fugue; wow, it would be great to do a study on “St. Matthew’s Passion.” One of these days it will actually happen:)

  2. Robin Wallace says:

    Well, I’m a Lutheran, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard anybody preach a sermon that even wastes much time on ugliness before getting to the good part. It’s usually disposed of early in the game. Whether German Lutherans in Bach’s time were so upbeat is doubtful.

    It’s interesting that much of the language quoted here comes straight from T’s NYT review of the Teldec cantata cycle, which was reprinted in Text and Act and which I’ve assigned for years. My more religious students usually love it. Those who know church history also nod when I point out that what T calls a Lutheran viewpoint is really an Augustinian viewpoint, which means it is at least neo-Platonic as well. Contempt for the world was the flip side of Plato’s ideal beauty, after all. Whether it is authentically (Judeo-) Christian is a hot theological topic these days. See N. T. Wright for the opposing view.

  3. Ralph Locke says:

    Robin, I hadn’t heard of Bishop N. T. Wright before. I went online and looked around. Is this the article by Wright that you had in mind?

    Does he elsewhere address Taruskin’s descriptions more directly?

    Interesting to see these issues in Bach interpretation being discussed in different quarters…..

  4. Robin Wallace says:

    Actually, Ralph, I wasn’t aware that N. T. Wright had written on Bach; bravo for digging this up. I was citing him purely as a theologian and New Testament scholar. As such, he has argued forcefully and with enormous erudition for a re-affirmation of the Jewish concept of the goodness of creation. This is one theological debate that has enormous practical consequences, since many churches and individuals are rediscovering “creation care” as a vocational calling (to coin a redundancy). This is in direct opposition to some influential trends in modern religious thinking, epitomized on the popular level by the Left Behind series. Plato to Tim LaHaye may not be a smooth or inevitable line of development, but I’m glad to see Wright working here to situate Bach differently. I think he makes some strong points.

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