Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bach, the not quite god

There is never a shortage of worshipful persons gathered around significant figures of the past, unreservedly declaring everything they have done without blemish and a clear summit in the progress of the human race.  In the case of Bach writers have gone particularly overboard, which is hard to do, it seems to me, considering what an incredibly accomplished composer he was.

Nevertheless, if you are a composer, it is helpful to know that even Bach didn’t always arrive at perfection the first time out, and that he often changed his mind, reworking music he wrote, even correcting mistakes. This statement of mine is in direct contrast to that of Phillip Spitta, his first major biographer, who was constantly declaring Bach’s unerring, unswerving, sure mastery from the start: That and Spitta's rampant nationalism make me want to gag sometimes. 

Which, again, isn’t to gainsay any of Bach’s massive achievement. It’s just that, the man himself apparently valued hard work above all else, saying that “anyone who works as hard as I did would get the same result.”

Ok, that might be a bit of a miscalculation in the other direction, but it still underscores something I’ve been noticing for a long time. Persons who are particularly accomplished in some area tend to stress the hard work required to get there. Persons who are not accomplished in something tend to talk in terms of talent and “just having it” and other magic. There might be a lesson in that.

The reason I was reminded of Bach’s work ethic is that there is a short chorale prelude, which just happens to be based on the same hymn tune. It is the shortest of what are commonly called the “great 18” or “Leipzig Chorale Preludes,” but as it happens, it was once even shorter. In fact, the first half of the Leipzig version exists in a shorter version in Bach’s “Little Organ Book.”  It is a setting of a single verse of the hymn and it takes only about 45 seconds to play. Apparently, Bach later decided to add on to it, setting a second verse.  Bach decided to move the hymn melody from the soprano to the bass, and change the surrounding texture. Essentially, it was another standard method of setting a chorale tune, which Bach then tacked on to the first portion with a bit of connective material, and a new piece was born, and a quite effective one, too.

At that point, actually, Bach had what has become known as the Weimar version of the chorale, because that was where he was working at the time, and only later revised it, even fixing a couple of places where the counterpoint (gasp!) was faulty. (I kid you not: the great Bach actually wrote parallel fifths in the first--or rather the second--version!) It wasn’t until a third reworking of the original chorale that he arrived at the Leipzig version that most organists play.
I’ll leave you with a recording of the second of these multiple versions, the one from Weimar, since I’ve taken a vow to learn all of the early versions before embarking on the later ones to study what Bach changed. 

This is far from the only example of Bach doing something like this, and it is a reminder to composers who have come up with an idea for a piece that seems too short or too ineffective, that it often takes a second look, maybe even months later, to realize the potential in that initial idea (not to mention an accomplished technique). Despite all the nonsense you read about great composers envisioning their music whole and perfect right from the beginning, or knowing exactly what they want and how to get it, because any amount of floundering in the dark, even for a moment, would somehow make them less great, don’t buy it. And don’t try composing that way yourself. It stunts your growth. It is the result that matters in the end anyway. If you are so worried that people are going to find out you had to work hard to get it, burn your sketches or something! (worked for Mozart)

As a teacher of mine, who clearly revered these musical immortals, once said, “they weren’t gods.”

But I think they did OK anyway. You?

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