Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/21/2012

The most important day of the year

der Bach - the mainstream

der Bach - the mainstream

Today I will give my classes a quiz of one question: Why is March 21 the most important date on the Western World’s calendar?

They will stumble around trying to figure out what I’m getting at. Some few of them will answer that it’s the first day of spring. Others will posit that it’s my birthday. Some will surreptitiously ask their iPhones for the answer. But (if experience is a teacher) none will know the correct answer: It is the anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach (1685-1750).

I will try to explain to them Bach’s importance in the history of music. It’s my own little theory, probably not agreed with or supported by any other musicologist’s ideas (yes, I am a musicologist—I do have a PhD in the field). My theory is pretty simple, actually.

We would not have Western music in its current forms, styles—indeed, its artistic language— were it not for the prodigious musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even Lady Gaga’s music would be some other genre than it is without Bach’s over-arching influence.

Go ahead, shoot me down. He only summed up what had gone before. In his day he was a conservative old fuddy-duddy composing in dead forms. Hundreds (thousands)  of composers in his day and after influenced the development of music more than he. Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Glass—too many to name.

I know all of that.
Now I will get spooky—go off the deep end—be one of those weirdoes your mother (and your music history teacher) warned you about. No one is making you read this. It’s my blog and I’ll say what I want to say.

When I was a sophomore in college, a famous New York organist came to Redlands to play a concert. He played two works of Bach. After the concert my teacher, Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, said of his playing of the Bach, “Too personal. It was too personal and affected.” I’ve never forgotten that. The New York organist had played Bach as if it were Brahms. I knew that. He had forced the music into his own mold.

Bach’s compositional language is the most secure, the most consistent, the most intellectually perfect of any composer’s whose work I know.

But, more important, with his (as close to perfect as possible) musical language and skill he created a corpus of music that challenges my brain—even though I have no way to explain why or how—to ask (OK, I’ll be as corny and sophomoric as I ever am), “What is the meaning of life?” I didn’t say his music asks the question. I said it challenges me to ask myself the question.

It leaves me with the terrifying and awesome answer that I cannot know. But it comforts me with the assurance that my inability to know does not matter, that if I were to find the answer to that question, it would be beautiful and wondrous and safe and satisfying.

When I was in high school, my organ teacher gave me for my birthday one year a recording (yes, a 33 rpm LP vinyl disc) of Marcel Dupré playing Bach on the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris. I played the record so many times that I could hum the “melody” of every work on it from start to finish when I was walking to and from the bus stop for school.

One side of the record was the Prelude and Fugue in e Minor, BWV 548, “The Wedge.” Dupré’s playing was (is) deplorable by current performance practice standards. Too slow, too legato, absolutely rock solid steady rhythm with hardly any agogic accents, registrations that muddied the sound rather than trying to make every note audible. I was affected by that performance more than any I have heard, live or recorded, since. (Of course, that’s ridiculous to say – I learned the work from that recording, so it is naturally the one in my mind.) You notice I said any, not only that work.

I knew even when I was a hormone-driven, angry, uncooperative, loner of a teenager that music was in some way sublime and—remember, this is my blog—eternal in a way nothing else I had ever before experienced was. And now, by the way, since then. OK, so I have arrested development stalled at sixteen.

Since I could sing it from memory, I asked two years later if I could play it for my junior recital. Grudgingly the faculty said I could—it was, they thought, too large and grand a work for a mere junior recital. I played it almost as slowly as Dupré did, and with less of the articulation and phrasing than the faculty wanted (than was correct performance practice), and I heard two types of response. Only two. “Why haven’t you learned how to play Bach—how could they pass your recital.” Or, “Where did a kid your age learn to play with such maturity and grandeur.”

I suppose the reason was not that I had forced Bach’s music into my personal mold, but was in some sense copying Dupré’s mold. Nope. Not true—either one. I was simply lost in something I could do but which I still, at 67, cannot comprehend.

We all know that I never became a famous concert organist (or even a New York organist). That’s OK because I have in my memory (even after 47 years, 22 of which I spent as a falling down wasted drunk) a work of sublime beauty and endless fascination and wordless speech that settles the twin issues of why am I here and what will happen when I am no longer here.

It’s logical for anyone to say, “Well, you think Bach is so special because you learned a bunch of his music when you were forming all of your opinions.” Or course. But I don’t know a single musician who would not admit to having a similar experience to mine with at least one composition of Bach’s.

That’s why March 21 is the most important date in Western civilization. Don’t bother to raise objections. You would have to do so with a negative. And you can’t prove a negative, as we all know. Just accept it. Learn one work by J.S. Bach—let it get under your skin and in the folds of your brain. You may have other music that gives you the same experience. But my guess is you’ll understand something—not simply music—in a way you didn’t before.

Here are two youtube recordings of the e Minor Prelude and Fugue. Neither is as perfect as the Dupré, but you will get a sense of the music.
Put the usual prefix: .com/watch?v=UIIwBmiHB4c  and .com/ and .com/watch?v=uCPY_gcF_94

Herr Bach - the Mainstream of music

Herr Bach - the Mainstream of music

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Responses

  1. A new perspective for me, sir. Very interesting.

    best,
    Jon Wilson
    ps . . . i also recall Mike O’Shea from my Scottsbluff days, although he was at Longfellow when I knew him rather than at St Agnes.

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    • We must have been at Longfellow at the same time. Mrs. Hall, Miss Swanson, Miss Marcy. Then we moved across town, and I went to Lincoln School.

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      • I was at Longfellow for fifth grade (1955-56) and for the first few weeks of the 56-57 school year. Mrs Fuehrer in fifth grade (w/mrs wilkie for science) and Mrs. Higbee for the brief sixth grade stint. Before that, Bryant (third and fourth grades) after attending Fairview District 50 7 miles east of Scottsbluff.

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  2. […] a great piece relevant to these thoughts at Harold Knight’s blog on the occasion of J.S. Bach’s […]

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  3. Superb, Harold. I reposted this to my Facebook page and added it to my own, weaker attempt at similar recent thoughts on my music blog. Thanks a bunch.

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  4. Very nice post — thanks, Harold! I just doubt that Bach’s “standard” organs were as nearly magnificent as the one you are showing here (Gabler Organ in Weingarten / Germany); I guess he played on a number of instruments in Germany, but “his” organs were barely comparable to this one …. 🙂

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    • We have no evidence of any surviving organ Bach played (wee the portrait of Bach — that organ is certainly not grand although given the acoustics of the churches in which he played, it’s likely even a smallish instruments sounded pretty grand. I was organist at an Episcopal Church in Southern California that has an rebuilt old Hinners tracker with nine stops that sounds like cross a between and Schnitger and a Father Willis and certainly fills the room! I’d say the evidence for Bach’s having grand organs at his disposal is great considering the style of his organ music (of course, I think it would be — I’ve done it with the great B Minor — possible to play an entire Prelude and Fugue on an 8-foot principal. At any rate, I don’t think I said Bach ever played on an instrument like that, but any recording available is likely to be performed on one.
      Put http://www. in front of either of these sites for more information. Harold

      organfocus.com/features/scholarly_works/bicknell.php3
      concept-tours.com/pdf/2012_Bach’s_Organ_World.pdf

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      • Hi Harold, I did not mean to criticize your posting, and that Gabler organ is a magnificent instrument, indeed (even just to see it!) — the point I really meant to make is that Bach most likely never played on this particular instrument. Meanwhile I checked, and that instrument was indeed inaugurated on June 24, 1750. I suspect that there are at least a couple organs still around which Bach may have played, be it only as tester / expert — but I suspect these would be in Saxonia or thereabouts. Rolf

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      • Rolf, no offense taken. I love little exchanges like this. And I love (of course) thinking about organs from the 18th century — and listening to recordings of them. The links I sent were more for any other reader who might stumble onto the posting than for you! I will “follow” your blog. Very interesting! Harold

         

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  5. It took me a while to get to this, but it’s wondeful. I am totally in your camp om this one! Thanks.

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