Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bach: a book

Review of Eric Siblin's "The Cello Suites"

This is a good book, a little over-written, and a little self-indulgent. Siblin presents parallel portraits of Johann Sebastian Bach, composer of his six famous cello suites, and Pablo Cassals, who resurrected them into the top-drawer recital pieces they remain today.

It is extremely interesting, and probably the material on Cassals was added to fill out the void that is our knowledge of Bach's personal life. But to me it seemed a strongly tragic story, with Bach unrecognized as a great composer in his lifetime, and his wife dying in paupery. How could this be? Now, Bach is all the rage, with full releases of his hundreds of cantatas, and thorough scholarship of his over one thousand-work catalog. But in his day, GF Handel couldn't be bothered to visit Bach even when passing through a town 25 kilometers away. And those famous suites where pretty much unknown for almost two hundred years after being written.

It makes you wonder whether disco is going to take the world by storm in some future epoch. Music goes in and out of fashion, and in Bach's time, his music was very much going out of fashion, which was travelling from sacred polyphony to popular opera and homophonic song (in the early 1700's). He was as fusty in his musical tastes as in his politics, religion, and dress. But the music, ah! Bach also didn't get around much. After visiting the Hamburg area in his youth, he spent his whole life in his homeland of Saxony. Having 20 children probably didn't leave much time for travel.

Speaking of which, the notorious genetics of the Bach family are a clear indication of eugenics (or at least assortative mating) at work. That musical talent is heritable seems as clear as the heritability of intelligence, height, and all sorts of other behavioral and physical traits. Whether we have the philosophical or moral foundation to even want to put such principles into practice is a separate question, but the potential is obvious enough.

Bach is, moreover, characteristic of great composers and great periods of composition in that he was paid more or less by the yard. Like the great broadway composers, (Richard Rodgers comes to mind), or the Motown era, it was simply expected, in the competitive system of the day, to crank out music continously, on demand. And the fascinating thing is that some composers rise remarkably to such conditions.

And, heartbreakingly enough, some unknown portion of Bach's work is lost. Siblin tells stories of Bach manuscripts found used for wrapping paper and for potting plants. His son C. P. E. Bach was the most filial and successful, but even his collection of his father's manuscripts was sold off under the auction hammer in 1788.

What makes music transcend its time? Innate quality is the first ingredient. But someone has to recognize it and perform it, which can demand going against fashion. The appreciation of other musicians finally turned the situation around for Bach's legacy. He was loved and appreciated by Beethoven and Mozart, but only really popularized by Felix Mendelssohn, who, in 1829, properly put on and publicized Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Ever since, we have been treated to a flowing bach of music that seems as endless as it is astounding.

"So the ideological push to make capitalism appear to be fair led to the development of marginal productivity theory. Thus, the theory became that people are paid according to their contribution to production. That was then represented as a fair system and was used politically to negate the claims that workers were being exploited."

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I have always been fascinated by Bach - his work seems to confirm the idea that quality, rather than innovation, is the greatest aim. The "old-fashioned" music he was writing in his day has risen to be a pillar of Western civilization.

    Though I won't be looking for the canonization of disco anytime too soon......... ;)

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