Today is the First of April, commonly known as April Fool's Day. It is also Rachmaninoff's birthday.
That is a total coincidence.
If you know anything about Rachmaninoff at all, you also realize how ironic it is. Of all the composers who never smiled, he smiled the least. It is hard to imagine him joking about anything, even if he did once look down upon a young Leon Fleisher who had expressed interest in a concert career and dead pan in his thick accent, "music----baaaaadd business." He may have been in total earnest, but at least it's funny the way Fleisher tells it.
There is, however, another composer who practically no one ever accuses of being funny, one Johann Sebastian Bach. This, however, may be a mistake. Sure, he's not smiling in the portrait, but apparently family gatherings in the Bach family could be quite raucous. Besides, if you know anything about the history of April Fool's, or human nature, you know that pranks are not always of the completely harmless variety, nor are they quite malicion-free. And that just might describe what is happening here, in the piece I'm going to play for you.
Why? Well, for starters the musical material ain't all that grand. Bach takes for his theme a simple scale, and this windy exercise drives the joke. Several times in the piece the two-voices chase each other around the scale like a pair of squirrels who can't figure out what direction to run in. The rest of the material is a slowly descending chromatic scale which does not sound very light-hearted at all. Some commentators have suggested that here Bach was responding to critics who were complaining that his music was too serious and did not have enough charm and crowd appeal. Taking light and flimsy materials with which to build the kind of artifice that they would not have appreciated in the least may have been a kind of musical back-handed slap.
And after you listen to it, you just might come away thinking that Mr. Bach, the man you thought was so serious and dignified, really is pulling your leg, showing you what happens when you take an intentionally silly and empty theme and try to make it sound like a banquet of musical riches. The whole thing may function as a lugubrious cautionary tale--it is in a minor key, after all, and it isn't nearly as lighthearted as its neighbor, the second duet in the series, which is just as silly, and all smiles and sunshine. This one may not be so obviously humorous as its cousin. Call it a bit of dark humor, or bitter humor, but humor nevertheless. And the scales....
If that isn't enough to convince you, I've chosen a particularly hollow organ registration to drive the point home. It is missing its middle--a so-called "gapped" registration, in which the shiny mixture stops aren't sufficiently grounded with a full chorus of foundations. So if it also sounds a little odd aurally, that's why.
Enjoy Bach's little joke.
Bach: Duetto no. 1 in e minor