Bach the Romantic

I want to follow up on a remark I made a post or two ago about Bach seeming “more Romantic” than Beethoven. According to a conventional view of music history, Beethoven is leaning out the window of the Classic, and seizing the Romantic by its budding ear. In the meantime, he is a bad tenant; he leaves the Classic house he inhabits in ruins. But there is a second layer to the Beethoven myth: the perpetually modern, the adventurer who knocks on every door, who makes any avant garde look tame. Neither decadent Romantic nor well-proportioned Classic, he is the force which converts one to the other: distilled Revolution.

Bach is distilled Something Else. He composed against the currents of his day; he swam upstream; he was a reactionary (for example: composing elaborate difficult counterpoint when the musical world was simplifying into homophony). His genius, according to the usual view, is not that of inventor or destroyer, but belongs to that colder virtue of perfection. Separation from Time is part of the Bach myth; against his island of perfection the vicissitudes of music history uselessly and cyclically break their waves. He ushers in no new Style, no Movement, no Ism; he opens the door to no Revolution; and therefore he is “pointless,” historically speaking. He would not “Stick it to the Man;” he is The Man.

It is harder, therefore, to empathize with Bach than with Beethoven.

After immersing myself a long time in Bach, I was reworking some familiar Beethoven Sonatas, and from the first moments of playing them I had a odd, unsettled feeling. Even the most revolutionary passages seemed somewhat quaint, like the customs of another era. I blinked and tried again, but the feeling persisted; I was being roughly jolted from one culture to another. And further: the Bach (in my mind) seemed to be, in a reversal of the “actual” chronology, more modern, while the enunciated phrases of Beethoven seemed outmoded… like a style to be shedded … how can this happen with the “eternally modern” Beethoven?

Suppose we take one of the “hallmarks” of the Classic style: dialectic. The question-and-answer construction of phrases, merged with the pendulum of tonic and dominant, and peppered with contrasts of loud and soft, changes of character and material; the reasonable disposition of opposed phrases, like sentences in an comparative paragraph, or the argumentative model: phrases in conflict. Classical style so often depends (on a red wheelbarrow?) on the juxtaposition of two- and four-bar ideas, of different character… he said/she said, etc. …

All of this sounds hopelessly general. But in Bach, so often you have a short, clear phrase at the beginning, circling I-IV-V-I, outlining the home key, followed by a much longer outpouring in which beginnings and endings are far less clear… an opening answer followed by a much longer question? The logic of his comparisons is held somewhat beneath the surface, not always enunciated or articulated. And at the ends of these arcs, when the sense of “wrapping up” threatens to destroy the carefully preserved aerodynamics of Bach’s writing, to close the enigma, to bring it in a sense “down to earth”: often at these moments Bach inserts an unexpected, bizarre dissonance, some inexplicable nuance or event, some mitigating shade of light or dark. I was recently savoring with a student how, towards the end of the E-flat Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach provides in the right hand an almost “Arabian-sounding” descending scale; it is difficult to reconcile this bizarre scale with the overall gist of the fugue; is it a taint, an impurity of conception? I feel these events are not just meant to be quirky (though they often are), but work to create a more comprehensive sense of enfolding, a more inclusive cadence: an answer that is still a question, that allows for non-answers. (How Romantic is THAT?) Whereas, so many of Beethoven’s answers are indisputable, almost irritatingly conclusive (end of 5th Symphony). Their certainty is powerful but is this kind of certainty really modern?

And I have been thinking a lot lately about the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven, in which the shifts, jerks, and starts of the Classic are answered or rebuked by long, gradual processes: continuity as antidote. For example, Op. 109: both the first and second movements are riven by dialectical shifts, by rhetorical emphasis, by sturm und drang; but the last movement begins with a tremendous UNITY of conception, with the affirmation of long, uninterrupted line. Different solutions occur in Op. 110, in which fragments of classical ideals and molds are gradually replaced by chaotic recitative (reminiscent for me of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, of early Italian monody), and evolving fugue (reminiscent of you-know-who). And of course the two movements of Op. 111: notice, for example, the tremendous dynamic contrasts in the opening Maestoso and compare them to the still, unperturbed dynamics of the opening of the Arietta. Beethoven teaches us, in these late works, that the grass is always greener, in every style. I am not sure he is yearning for the Romantic, so much as for anything that is not the Classic, any way whatsoever to define a different space. This dissatisfaction is ironically married to music that gives the appearance of total renunciation and serenity. These works are culminations, yes, but also they seem to cast a skeptical, destructive eye back on the whole language of Beethoven’s lifetime, on the Classical rhetoric itself.

I do not think Bach manifests this kind of dissatisfaction. His styles do not yearn for other styles.

Lately, I find myself making emotional, “Romantic” decisions about the Partitas, and feeling nervous about them. Bach is universal, beyond the personal, I tell myself guiltily, and try to get back at the “purity” of the notes. But then the guilt passes, and I dwell on different shades of elation in the 4th (D Major) Partita, for instance; the more I immerse myself in this idea of elation, paradoxically, the clearer and purer the music seems to get. My Romanticism does not seem to obscure anything. I make comparisons. The 5th (G major) Partita is happy, in a playful, down-to-earth kind of way; sometimes jokey, even silly, unpretentious; but the D major’s joy is more exalted: a spiritual happiness far from a joke. And in each movement, the dark comes in to shade the light. Bach works his way, kaleidoscopically, through the keys; no matter how buoyant the gist of a movement, somehow a minor-key episode manages to exist. In Beethoven, perhaps, these different keys are willed; they express by turns anger, suspense, doubt, affirmation, melancholy, happiness, playfulness; a whole spectrum of conflicting emotions, motivations, characterizations; dramatic turns of events, forces in opposition. The minor keys in the major movements of the D major Partitas do not seem to oppose the prevailing mood but to fill it out; these momentary sadnesses seem to make the overall joy believable.

In the second half of the Courante, for example, Bach finds himself in the vicinity of E minor. A short plaintive passage follows, a descending sequence, which concludes by confirming that we are, in fact, in E minor. But then there is no knowing what will happen next, what this minor key will inspire. With no hint of contradiction or rebuke (E minor is not “a problem”), Bach pens an extraordinary passage, taking us out of E minor, and towards the home key, with a sustained line in the top voice and cascading, replying arpeggios in the other voices…

For me these measures are unplayably beautiful; in short, a miracle; turning on a dime from minor-key melancholy to a kind of flourish of joy, without appearing at all manic. There is no sense of transgression or shift, just the turning of a corner. The turn to major arises from the confirmation of minor; sadness is a cause for celebration and vice versa; the happier and sadder moments do not rebut each other, they are no dialectic; even the terms “happy” and “sad” may not be applicable; they each draw on the other, and blur the other, in a chain of logic, inspiration and cause.

I have digressed? The skeptic may call the 4th Partita simply seven dances in D major, to which I say (being the Romantic I often am): a transcendental vision of a possibility of D major. At least so it has seemed to me these days: each dance a complicated emotional state of its own (excepting perhaps the Menuet and Aria), elation ranging from still contemplation to crazy overt display, to pouring enthusiasm … and all of them together a kind of impossible, infinite constellation, a kaleidoscope with a message. Bach, to my mind, creates little mini-universes with these Partitas, like the fantasy houses I used to invent in daydreams as a child, with endless rooms and closets and nooks … Beethoven’s houses have open floor plans; you tend to see an architectural arc all at once. The uselessness of a word like Romantic! In some ways the dialectical traumas and narrative gestures of Beethoven are perfectly, stereotypically Romantic (the conflicted Romantic soul), but this less dialectical vision of Bach suggests to me another kind of Romantic. The Romantic shaking his fist at the world; vs. the Romantic looking to make a new space within.

When I returned to Beethoven, it was as though I had to abandon an internal quest I had been on for some time, and come back to the world. I’m sure after some more time with Beethoven I will have forsaken some other world. But: Bach the escapist? He escaped from the drama of music history; he merely had to create masterworks and wait for rediscovery. The kind of personal, emotional associations I have been making with the Partitas do not seem like indulgences to me, as much as a kind of extended meditative act. I have always had a grudge against meditation: that it seems to forgo sensual pleasure. Not so with my meditations with Bach! We seem to share all kinds of sensualities, across centuries. And not so for another famous meditator:

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window and lo! where yesterday was cold grey ice there lay the transparent pond, already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon. I heard a robin in the distance, the first I had heard for many a thousand years, methought … O the evening robin, at the end of a New England summer day! If I could ever find a twig he sits upon! I mean he; I mean the twig

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty …

Call me crazy if you will, but in my Romanticism I am imagining some affinity between Henry, patiently building his cabin and farming his beans and looking at the bubbles in the ice as it changes all winter long … and Bach working, day in and day out, at his tonal ponds, exploring every permutation of happiness.

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  1. jult52
    Posted December 20, 2005 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, I have spent much of the last few years learning the six Partitas and also the Op 109 & 110 Sonatas. I’m sure I’m nowhere near as good as you 🙂

    The Arias from the Op 110 also make me think of the Monteverdi lament, but I’m not at all sure that’s a justified comparison objectively.

  2. Chris
    Posted December 20, 2005 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, a lot, for this meditation, Jeremy.

    Regarding childhood fairy worlds, I wonder if you are familiar with Frances Yates and her work on Renaissance era aides-de-memoire, which were modeled on palaces full of rooms, corresponding to things one wanted to remember? What is it Alain Delon says in Visconti’s version of The Leopard – something to the effect of “My grandfather always believed that if you knew the number of rooms in your palace, it wasn’t worth having.”

  3. Anonymous
    Posted December 21, 2005 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps a theological analysis can shed some insight into the difference in rhetoric between Bach and Beethoven. For a Reformation Christian like Bach who believed in the eternal truths of the Word of God many of the essential problems and issues of life were at least partially resolved though there is some aspect of ‘here and not yet’ to those promises and convenants (process in the fulfillment). Take for instance the issue of death. For most people their mortality would be a cause for fear and anxiety and even anger perhaps leading to renunciation or acceptance (was it so for Beethoven?) but for a Christian believer there is no longer any dread of this most painful and inevitable of human experiences as Christ has conquered the final enemy. As Bach expresses in the ‘et resurrexit section’ of the B minor mass: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55, NIV)” Thus for Bach even death can be a cause for rejoicing as he awaits fulfillment of God’s promise because it is the end of human, earthly suffering and the beginning of the joys of eternal life. Even suffering has an eternal and joyful purpose for Bach: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28, NIV)” Perhaps the reason for the ‘completeness’ of Bach’s rhetoric lies in this Christian world view while the sometimes manic-depressive dialectic of Beethoven’s and especially Schumann’s rhetoric can be related to the rise of a newer 19th century Zeitgeist which has rejected God and now is somehow complete and in mourning since it can no longer have eternal joy and purpose.
    It was interesting to hear about Sebok’s theological insights into Bach transcriptions from his students. I wonder how far this knowledge extended?
    Isn’t a view of Bach’s music as ‘absolute’ a 19th century interpretation to advance a certain position in the Brahms-Wagner debate? (cf. Dahlhaus 19th century music)

  4. Anonymous
    Posted December 25, 2005 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I find litte evidence of Bach’s faith in his secular music, which allows me to listen to it with pleasure. (You’d think someone so musically intelligent wouldn’t succumb so quickly to such a childlike idea as God.) Beethoven, on the other hand, always seems to reek of ego and militarism. Is he a Romantic? A Classicist? Definitely an ass. I much prefer Schubert.

  5. Anonymous
    Posted January 31, 2006 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I also enjoy playing Schubert more since it fits my personality better. The music is often meditative and basks in the beauty of the moment as opposed to having some relentless need to accomplish or reach a goal.
    Your insights on Beethoven are interesting. I’m not bashing Beethoven and do feel a special connection with the late sonatas especially (perhaps it is because they foreshadow Schubert or look retrospectively back to the Baroque: homogenous affect, fortspinnung, sequential structuring, counterpoint).
    There is something clarifying and cleansing though about practicing and thinking through Beethoven sonatas (is it that they remind me that how I can’t just sit and have coffee and read blogs all day?). I think they help me tap into my masculinity since he is one of the most virile composers. It seems that at least Beethoven overcame his depression and dark night of the soul instead of wallowing in it like Romantics like Chopin and perhaps Schumann liked to do (though there is a beauty in that as well).
    Perhaps that is why I find most of Chopin’s writing when he is trying to be heroic is unconvincing. I also don’t feel the need with Beethoven to rewrite or excise some of those redundant transitions in the 1st mvts of the 1st Concerto or 3rd Sonata. With Beethoven there is a depth of intellectual Durchfuerung and feeling that seems only to age and grow with time and with further inspection which is not always true of Chopin.
    I propose that the ‘renunciation’ that Beethoven found at the end of his life is something Bach knew almost all of his life (though perhaps not always in daily practice and application) and more clearly articulated in the idea of finding God’s rest from the wilderness wanderings which is an allegorical representation of the Christian’s rest of striving in works of self-righteousness and resting in the grace of God (cf.Hebrews).
    Concering Bach’s secular music have you considered the P+F, WTC #24 which Schiff calls B minor mass in microcosm? There is use of the rhetorical lamento bass, the fugal theme occurs 13 times just as in the Crucifixus of the mass, and there could be a case for the symbol of the cross. I think the incredibly dissonant writing can only point to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Your sacred/secular distinction is not one Bach seems to have espoused as he would write even on his secular scores, Soli Deo Gloria (cf. also copy of music in secular/sacred canatas).
    An atheistic viewpoint to a 17th century European of Bach’s time would have been unthinkable. I propose your position is just a reflection of the 21st century post modern Zeitgeist. As Isaiah the prophet said more than 2 millenia ago, the grass withers and the flowers fade but the Word of God remains forever. Anyway you’ll have to do much better than just some off-hand dismissal to convince me otherwise.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted February 5, 2006 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Is it so hard to consptualize Bach’s workings as nothing more than the brilliant product of a man writing from the viewpoint of his own backgrown? Inded, music is the ink blot, and we are too-often desperate to turn it into language. None of us, in our 21st century critical internments, could possibly lay to rest the many lenses and interpretive sensibilities that stand between us and the old master’s tunes. That said, you make many cogent remarks about the music itself–bravo. But also, don’t get too carried away. Bach doesn’t require a titanic exigetical industry: in fact, if you try to sit in the background with him, you find that the music is — and I do ask for forgiveness — already expressed. How marvellous. Life is this way. So, in sum, you ask if Bach was a romantic (or sorts), I say: perhaps, but I consider him an architect of everything we risk to lose of our non-essential human existence. He fashoined the roadmap of the background.

  7. Sotiris
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    About Well-Tempered Clavier Book I:
    If you are curious this might be interesting. ( You might already know it)

    but this is my favorite:

    note for Jeremy: You played great at Justin’s recording.


  8. Anonymous
    Posted July 25, 2006 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    A comment from a very humble level of training: Some people think of Bach as mathematical. To me, he is, yes, systematic. But the impact of his music, particularly playing his piano music, is a powerful pounding on the heart…very emotive. For example, the fugues and preludes. His music for flute and piano, but leaving out the flute. His B-minor mass is to me highly sentimental…on level that redefines what is possible through human sentiment. (I don’t know whether this personal observation is relevant to the more eruidte conversations in this blog.) Beethoven’s music is more lyrical, more decorative…but with genius and pain. I do think that music intended for performance before aristocracy in their drawing rooms for entertainment has a different tenor than music for the church. Early Mozart is an extreme example. I tend to prefer music that was written for the church, although I’m not christian in the usual sense. Handel and Bach foundin the context of the church a depth that’s missing from the entertainments produced for secular audiences by Mozart. However, each great composer, begins in his later years to find depth and imposes it on whatever context is available to him. That all composers should be allowed long lives.

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