Monday, October 28, 2013

Who really wrote the 8 little preludes and fugues? (part two)

Last week I said I would furnish some support for my contention that J. S. Bach did not write the "8 little preludes and fugues" that were (or are) sometimes attributed to him. This plan of action is none too popular with some musicians, I've noticed. Whenever scholars make some sort of pronouncement about the authenticity of pieces of music, some folks like to simply roll their eyes and mutter under their breath. I think it shows more maturity and intellectual growth to read the arguments and consider what they've said rather than stubbornly cling to whatever we'd like to be right without informing ourselves of what they've said.

At the moment, however, I haven't read any of the literature yet, either, and I don't expect to get a chance in the very near future. I am, instead, offering my own thoughts on the matter, and, later, I can find out whether some of the people who have written scholarly articles on the subject have come to the same conclusions I have, or have things I haven't yet considered, or both.

As I wrote last week, part of the issue seems tied to the question of quality. If you think highly of these works you want them to have been written by Bach, particularly if you are an amateur organist, because these pieces are much easier to play than practically everything else that we can certainly attribute to Bach, and that way you can feel you are playing something by the great J. S. On the other hand, if you don't think much of these pieces, you might be willing to suggest, or even want to suggest, that someone else wrote the pieces. A large part of my argument today is the point out flaws in the compositions, to unpack what someone might mean when they suggest that the pieces are not of high quality. If you disagree, you may need a strong stomach for this one. I'm sorry to poke holes in your musical favorites, although I will say that growing as a musician often requires reassessing our most cherished opinions, and questioning what we know.

There is the matter of counterpoint. These pieces do not contain any parallel fifths or octaves that I can think of; however, there is often weak counterpoint nonetheless. For example, the opening of the G major prelude contains this passage in which the tenor voice gives out an A to G, and this is followed immediately by the alto voice, also with an A to G. The octaves are staggered: they do not occur at the same time. But they still sound like the independence of the two voices has been compromised, which is what is at the heart of the prohibition of parallel octaves and fifth. The counterpoint is less full and less rich because of it.


When you listen to it it actually sounds like the same voice repeating itself because with various stops drawn each note is sounding at its own octave and the octave above, so it is harder to distinguish between the voices. This counterpoint doesn't help that any. It is not an example of a technical "theory class" infraction, but it is weak writing nevertheless.

Something that occurs toward the end of the same prelude is a very short dominant pedal point. This, to me, seems very abrupt, and I have a hard time believing that Bach, who was able to stretch such periods of tension before the final release to incredible lengths at times, would write a dominant pedal that has barely begun before it is over.


These are two different kinds of defects, one related to the quality of the counterpoint, another to the handling of compositional structure.  There are many places where the harmony is left incomplete so that one voice may double something that is in another voice, unnecessarily. I would list them but I seem to have left my scores on the organ. Can you trust me?

There are, of course, places in the same pieces where the counterpoint is stronger, and also where the structure is not so perfunctory. I am reminded of a long pedal point at the end of the A minor fugue, which, together with its prelude, is currently my favorite of the set, and may well be the best, from a compositional point of view as well. It also brings up the possibility that not all 8 necessarily came from the same source. Could Bach have written some but not others? Although I still am not sure I would assign the A minor prelude to Bach, it might be first in line if I changed my mind.

A large part of a musicologist's argument often tracks not whether the ideas a composer has are any good but what the composer does with them. This is often the difference between composers of genius and those who simply aren't half bad. Whether this kind of argument takes hold in you or not will depend on your ability to appreciate the working out of ideas rather than to just enjoy the presentation of the ideas themselves. I will state baldly that I have gone from one side to the other as I have grown in my musical ability, and so, I imagine, would anyone else. In other words, it takes a more developed person to appreciate arguments, whether in words or in music, that are well developed, and not simply to enjoy the tang of a catchy musical idea which is repeated many times with little development, as happens in most popular music.

For instance, as ebullient as the C major prelude is, the sequence of chords that follow the opening measures and get us into the new key are only impressive if you haven't heard them from any number of other sources (Vivaldi himself has given us several hundred examples!). It is a very quick and efficient way of getting us to G major, which is the necessary structural point of this sort of composition, but the chords, which, by the way, would furnish a simple example for a theory class learning secondary dominants to label for homework, don't go outside of this Baroque/classical cliche. It's pretty, says Kipling's devil, but is it art?


One thing that those ready-made sequences suggest (other than that he could have gotten them from IKEA) is that this composer was not in command of a rich, abundant harmonic palette. Just as Shakespeare had an enormous vocabulary of over 600,000 words (many of which he created himself), Bach usually does quite a bit more than hand us a chord progression that could have been written by just about any composer, and not do anything unique with it. And that is the point: it is present here at the start of the F major prelude as well:


It sounds to me as if part of the spirit of these pieces belong really to the generation after Bach, when simple harmonic outlines, short and elegant phrases, and less contrapuntal involvement were on the rise. It was a simpler time. Could that thought point us in the direction of who might have actually written the pieces? The two questions are related, though it should not be necessary for us to be certain who DID write the pieces even if we feel that Bach did not. Krebs, after all, was a student of Bach's, and much younger. Our scant Wikipedia research suggests he was stylistically attached to Bach and that his counterpoint was thought to be almost as good. All I can say to that at present is hmmm. I don't really buy it.

But the hour is growing late, and I have more rehearsals to run off to. Shall we carry this discussion over 'till next Monday?

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.