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.


  1. Elaine Fine says:

    So nice to see you (or read your post) in this context, Ralph! And I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Thank you, Prof. Locke, for your thoughts!

    My reasons for posting on this earlier topic now were purely practical (I was catching up with reading!), but it inadvertently reinforced the historiographical question of stylistic development, as you point out. Perhaps it is an effect of reading itself (linear, left to right) that lends to much of historiography its diachronic character; after all, you can only read about one thing at a time, and when movements, people, and events proceed in lock-step fashion in a text, it can be easy to forget that a whole lot is going on at once, from the stile galant to Bach’s deliberate ugliness. History is non-linear, but historiography is.

    I really admire the fact that Taruskin often doubles back on himself in fleshing out a historical narrative. It’s an effective rhetorical technique for getting at the cross-cutting, synchronic element of history, emphasizing that Western music has numerous geneses, not just one genesis.

  3. Nathan Baker says:

    Did the Aesthetics of Ugliness post get removed? I was looking for it earlier today (it’s one of my favorites on this site) and can’t seem to locate it–references to it and its date (3/27) abound, but the post itself seems to be missing.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Thanks for pointing this out, Nathan. How odd; it was moved to a “pending” folder. I’ve re-posted.

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