Bach Family - Organ Works (Disc 2)
Works: Prelude and Fugue in D Major (JLB) / "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" (JMB) / "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" (JMB) / Chorale with Six Variations on "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein", BWV Anh. 78 (JSB) / Capriccio in Eb Major, BWV 993 (JSB) / Prelude and Fugue in Eb Major (JCB) / "Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz" (JCB) / "Wach auf, mein Herz, und singe" (JCB) / "Aus meines Herzens Grunde" (JCB) / Passacaglia in Bb Major (JBB) / Partita on "Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ" (JBB) / Fantasia and Fugue in F Major (JEB)
Performer: Wilhelm Krumbach (organ)
Label: Teldec Classics
A little less than a year ago, a friend and I put on a concert of our music in New York. There were a lot of performers involved, so in order to save space in the program, we decided that everyone would get only a one-sentence bio. Mine said: "Alex Temple's secret goal is to like all music."
I've become a little more jaded since then. I'm still pretty good at finding something to like even in very problematic pieces, and there's plenty of music that I love despite, or sometimes even because of, its flaws. (In the "because of" category: David Thomas's voice, and the Beatles' wonderfully idiotic "Birthday.") But there's a difference between liking something and loving something, and there's a difference between being seeing a piece's good points and actually thinking it's a good piece. When I start teaching composition, it will serve me very well to be able to find the positive aspects of my students' pieces; that way, my advice will be more "here's how you can bring out what you're trying to do more effectively" and less "you should be trying to do something else" (because what good is the latter to anyone, really?). But does that mean that I'm going to actually like every piece my students bring to me? Is that even necessary? Is it even desirable?
I keep thinking about a friend's definition of the phrase "nice guy": "easy to get on the friendship ladder, hard to get on the romance ladder." I feel that way about people in general, but I'd take it a step further. It's easier to see someone as a friend than as a romantic partner, but it's also easier to see someone as a friendly acquaintance than as a friend, and easier still to see someone as a person with some good qualities. That's how I feel about music, too: it's easy to find good qualities in a piece, but only a subset of those pieces will actually become "friendly acquaintances" -- pieces you'd actually bother to "hang out with" (listen to) more than once. Only a subset of those will become "friends" -- pieces that are really present in your life, that you'd speak highly of and "introduce" (recommend) to other people; and an even smaller subset will become "lovers" -- pieces that can give you chills, alter the way you see the world, and stick with you for years even as your life changes dramatically.
Saying that is easy. The hard part is figuring out what makes a piece fall into one category or another. As with people, I suspect it's partially to do with the piece's "objective" qualities: some people, and some pieces of music, are really just kind of boring, hard to tell apart from the next person or piece. It's also partially to do with compatibility: if you really dig spiky counterpoint, or puns, you're going to be automatically predisposed to "get along well" with spiky contrapuntal pieces, or people who play with words. But that only gets us to the level of "friendly acquaintance." Beyond that there seems to be some irreducible quality that makes certain pieces (and people) stand out above others, that makes certain musical gestures (and personality traits) feel important and unique and specific. I tried to explain this last winter in terms of questions and answers: music that gives you all the answers is less likely to stick with you than music that leaves some of its questions open. But of course, musical passages can only ask questions or give answers in a metaphorical sense -- which means that my "explanation" doesn't really explain anything, because we still don't know why some passages feel "mysterious" or "open-ended" and others don't. It's not just a matter of eschewing cliché, because a conventional gesture can turn into something new if it's used in the right way. The real answer is that I don't know, and I don't really expect to be able to solve the problem that artists have been puzzling over for centuries. What I can say, though, is that as aesthetically magnanimous as I try to be, the best I can do is to make myself enjoy pieces that I initially didn't. Making myself care about music that doesn't initially affect me is a much harder task.
All of which leads me to this CD. The short version of my response to it is, "Yeah, these pieces are nice and enjoyable and well-crafted, but I don't really care about most of them, and I guess there's a reason everyone listens to Johann Sebastian Bach while nobody's ever heard of Johann Michael or Johann Lorenz Bach." I could talk about the jovial monumentalism of Johann Lorenz's D Major Prelude, or the mahogany elegance of Johann Christoph's chorale prelude on "Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz," and I can't say that there's anything wrong with either piece. If they were written by students in a Baroque-style composition class, I'd give them A's for sure. But would I care if I ever heard them again? Do they mean anything more to me than some guy I once had a fun conversation with at a party? No, not really. That irreducible element is just not there.
Not that it's there in everything Johann Sebastian ever wrote, either! His variations on "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" are actually less engaging than the two pieces I mentioned above: for the most part they're downright boring, just endless formulaic sixteenth-note figurations with the chorale tune as cantus firmus. And yet one of the disc's most surprising, original moments, one of the few that I feel a need to keep in my life, is in this same piece. After two variations of bland generica, J.S. throws in a totally insane chromatic variation, with inner parts slithering queasily up and down by half steps while the chorale melody sits there, serene, motionless and unaffected. The very fact that it's inspiring me to use this kind of language feels like it's evidence that there's something special here.
Two other pieces really stood out for me. One is Johann Berhnard's Bb Major Passacaglia, which at first reminded me of Pachelbel's Canon -- a repeating four-bar harmonic progression, with slightly sentimental minor chords in a major-mode context, and a remarkably inventive series of variations on top. So far so good: a respectable piece that I'd probably forget about. But then, right at the end, Bernhard expands the four-bar phrase to an eight-bar one, and the second group modulates into a very juicy minor. It's the first time in four and a half minutes that we've heard anything but the same endlessly-repeated chord cycle, and it's both startling and very satisfying. It might not even be worth it to sit through the first four minutes if weren't for this payoff -- but the fact that there is a payoff is a sign that the composer actually had a reason for writing the piece, and not just "my congregation needs me to play something before the service" either.
The other piece that grabbed my ear was Johann Ernst's F Major Fantasia. Johann Ernst is of a younger generation than the other composers here: born in 1722, he's a contemporary of Johann Sebastian's most famous son Carl Philipp Emanual Bach. His style is similar to C.P.E.'s, too: a product of the late-18th-century obsession with sentimentality and harmonic convolution, the Fantasia is rhapsodic, bitingly chromatic, willfully eccentric, and oddly reminiscent of Beethoven. It announces its intentions from the very beginning, when an F major arpeggio is followed by a big, loud, low, nasty Eb. Now, it may be that this piece caught my attention simply because it's so different from the other pieces on the CD. Maybe if I heard it alongside a big pile of music by C.P.E. Bach, it would seem like just another generic instance of the empfindsamer Stil. But the fugue that follows is good enough and distinctive enough, from its snaky chromatic theme to its solid, traditionally Bachian sequential development, that I suspect that Johann Ernst Bach is just better than a lot of his similarly obscure relatives. I feel that way especially when I compare his chromatic, Baroque-style fugue to that of Johann Christoph -- the latter being a rhythmically tedious piece whose use of chromaticism seems obvious and uninspired.
I still haven't answered the big questions I started out with, and as I said, I don't know that it's possible to. But I think I have pointed to a few specific details that make certain pieces stand out, and that's worth something, anyway. And now, back to the most famous member of Bach family, and my possibly damaged recording of The Art of Fugue. See you next post!