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.)