The Glory of Bach

A few months ago, I mentioned the Washington Post story where they got Joshua Bell to busk in the Metro. It prompted a blog post about the importance of context, but it also made me realize I miss having music in my life. I actually started listening to the audio of the performance for a few days before I realized I could just buy a few CDs. So I bought a Joshua Bell CD and a Leila Josefowicz CD, but neither of those were quite what I wanted.

I really liked the unaccompanied purity of the pieces Bell performed in the Metro. So I ordered a CD I’d thought about getting for a while, the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma. I had fond memories of these pieces from hearing somebody perform them at the Cafe on Sunday at Burning Man in 2000 – they seemed appropriately peaceful and reflective after the chaos of the Burn. And I was pleased to find that Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of them was as satisfying I had hoped.

I later was at HousingWorks and happened to see the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould and bought it since I’d always wanted a copy. And it’s great – I’m listening to it right now. All of the different variations of a simple theme show off Bach’s playful mastery. Okay, I’m also getting the urge to watch Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal Lecter listened to this as well, but that’s a separate issue.

Now that I had works of unaccompanied cello and piano by Bach, I needed to find the equivalent for the violin, my former instrument. I remembered the Bell article mentioning that he had played the Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor, so I looked that up on Amazon and discovered that Bach wrote three unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin. After reading various reviews, I settled on the Sonatas and Partitas as performed by Nathan Milstein (although I was tempted by the Heifetz and Perlman performances).

I’m not quite sure why Bach appeals to me so much. I love his work in all of its forms. The St. Matthew’s Passion is one of my favorite choral works, as is the Mass in B Minor. The Bach Double Concerto for violin was the piece I most wanted to learn when I was a kid. But I really like these unaccompanied works. They are almost like a magic trick – there’s nothing up his sleeve, no orchestra to fill in the gaps, and yet this wonderful music keeps pouring out of these seemingly simple setups.

Bach wrote the rules on counterpoint. Literally. In my harmony and counterpoint class in college, our teacher told us that student composers in the centuries after Bach were given his cantatas and motets with notes or chords missing and had to figure out what Bach did, because Bach had constructed his pieces so that there was only one possible solution.

And yet despite working within these rules, Bach always found ways to be inventive and surprising. When sight-reading Bach, I always had to pay attention because the line would be going one way and then take a completely unexpected turn. But after singing it a few times, I would understand the underlying rightness of what he did. If he had continued in the original direction, it would have been boring and saccharine, as evidenced by the chorales in his cantatas that were intended as the Sunday hymns for the masses to sing.

These unaccompanied works are a great example of embracing constraints. One instrument. No accompaniment. Strict rules of counterpoint. No dissonance. No funky rhythms or time signatures. And yet Bach created these wonderfully complex works that continue to resonate for centuries. I’ve been listening to them almost every morning, and I still haven’t gotten to the point where I know what’s coming next, a point which I can reach within a couple listenings of most pop songs. No matter how strict the rules are, there’s room for innovation and creativity and surprising direction.

2 thoughts on “The Glory of Bach

  1. Mmmmm, Bach. Some days I wish I’d kept up my study of pipe organ so that I could’ve learned more of his organ works. Perhaps now would be a good time to visit a music store and pick up somebody else playing Bach instead (playing a lot better than I ever would’ve anyway, no doubt).

  2. Man… I love all of those pieces you cited–Goldberg Variations, Cello Suites, St. Matthew Passion. Next time I’m down in NYC, I’ll see if there’s any Bach MP3s I should add to your collection.

    These unaccompanied works are a great example of embracing constraints. One instrument. No accompaniment. Strict rules of counterpoint.

    Absolutely–I’ve found a great deal of just straight-aesthetic-level appeal for the unaccompanied pieces. For instance, I borrowed my dad’s Bach Transcriptions CD, and the orchestral version of Toccata and Fugue seems completely overwrought, relative to the solo organ version. And a non-Bach example–I have the orchestrated version of Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel version), and the original piano version (played by Sviatoslav Richter). The orchestral version seems almost like cheating–“I guess this opening promenade needs to sound like a fanfare… time to throw a solo trumpet at the melody line.” In comparison, the solo piano version has the restraint of a charcoal sketch–you can concentrate on the composition that much more, without the layers of colors/instrumentation on top of it.

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