Monday, June 2, 2014

Who really wrote the 8 short preludes and fugues? (part three)

Youtube can be a nasty place. Most of you already know this, and my pointing it out is rather like telling you that dogs have been known to bite people. People can bite people, too, in the comments section.

People get easily frustrated with other people who don't see things their way, particularly when they badly want something to be true and someone tells them that it isn't. As it happens, I've finally gotten around to finishing the 8 short preludes and fugues that I started recording back in the fall. It was a purely extracurricular activity fighting for time and space in and around other obligations and desires, so it got sidetracked for a while, but last week I got around to the last two. The last one's a charming little piece, even if the fugue needs a little help to make it go.

As I sometimes do, after, and only after, I had recorded my own version, I went online to see what someone else's version sounded like. This is where I ran into the Youtube wars. Anytime someone posts one of these pieces someone has to point out that there are people who believe J. S. Bach didn't write them. Usually this is done simply as a statement of (apparent) fact. This is then met with angry comments about musicologists, the dogmatism of the comment posters, and various other things.

I mentioned last fall (when I promised another installment a week later!) that I, also, am a heretic, in that I think it is unlikely that Bach wrote these pieces. Having not played these pieces for almost three decades, since I was a teenage organist, I've only come to that opinion recently, and I don't hold it as a matter of unshakeable belief. I am willing to listen to argument, and I am particularly interested to read what scholars have had to say about this, though as of yet I still haven't gotten around to the library to do some research into the matter. I have, of course, already let fly with some of the thoughts I've had while playing the pieces and what leads me in the direction of Krebs', rather than Bach's, authorship.

I think it is important to note that I am not dismissive of those who spend their lives studying these sorts of things (musicologists) and that I don't believe being an expert makes you an idiot whom any regular person could best with superior logic (ie, common sense). Nevertheless, musicologists are not gods, either, and they do have biases and do make mistakes, sometimes even egregious ones. I will want to know what they are saying.

For now, it is easy to see what uninformed people on Youtube are saying, because their comments are available without going to the library or signing on to read a journal article. Here is one--it is typical. One of the commenters, one David White, had to point out that musicologists believe Bach didn't write the piece being played in the video, to which another person responded with attempted sarcasm:

Amazing! Another musical genius lived in the same time as J. S. Bach, and we've never heard of him, yet we have his music, and it comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach and sounds like his music... yet we somehow KNOW it wasn't Bach?

This is some comment. Not on its merits, however. While I can sympathize with the emotional state of ccoraxfan, I think that it is mostly emotion that speaks here, rather than knowledge. ccoraxfan doesn't like it at all that David White has suggested that Bach is not the composer, (without, I should add, saying anything to back it up) and, when challenged, as many of us do, lets fly with what he or she thinks is a pretty fine example of logic. But let's take the clauses one at a time. There are a lot of incorrect assumptions here, all clustered together. ccoraxfan and I are a long way apart in the way we see the universe. My 42 year old self who is writing to you and my teenage self who first played (and enjoyed) some of these pieces are also at a great distance from each other. Maybe there is a chance to bridge some of it. There are risks associated with my strategy. Of course, when you don't agree with someone you can shout at them, which makes you a jerk, or you can patiently try to explain things to them, which may make you seem patronizing. Also a jerk, perhaps. In which case, I apologize. At least I tried.

"Another musical genius lived in the time of Bach, and we've never heard of him..."

Actually, quite a few other composers lived in the time of Bach, and people who study music in this time period, as well as top rank musicians performing this music, have heard of them. Persons who are not expert in this area often have not. When a professional academic challenges the authorship of someone they usually have in mind someone else who could have been the author, based on a close comparison of stylistic traits in the known music of the author and the unknown piece. This is what led to the theory that it was Johann Ludwig Krebs (or his father Tobias) who actually wrote these pieces. There is no manuscript in Bach's writing, either, and the works do exist among Krebs papers. That doesn't make them automatically his, though. Composers did copy one another's works for study by hand. It is mainly the stylistic characteristics of the pieces that make the case for this lesser known composer. Now if it makes you feel any better, ccoraxfan, other than the name, I myself knew next to nothing about Johann Ludwig Krebs until about a year ago, when I played some of his music and saw for myself that there were some similarities between those pieces and the 8 little preludes and fugues. I do not consider this opinion fully formed--I am not an expert on this--but it was enough to peak my interest and to consider his authorship might make sense. As to him being a musical genius, that is actually part of the point. I don't consider these pieces to be works of genius; I don't consider Krebs to be a genius, either, so we have a match. You may feel otherwise, which is where we will have to leave the matter.

"...and yet we have his music and it comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach and sounds like his music..."

In fairness to ccoraxfan this music was once thought to have been the music of Bach himself. By at least one expert. But then, early Bach biographers did tend to make mistakes, most embarrassingly in the case of Phillip Spitta, who showed how superior certain pieces which Bach had written were to the inferior efforts of some of his contemporaries. It later turned out that some of those pieces which were too good to have been written by those lesser composers actually were the work of said lesser composers.

But when ccoraxfan asserts that the music "comes to us ascribed to J. S. Bach" what he's apparently unaware of is that that was then. There has been more research and more thinking on the subject since then. Sometimes "we" (collectively) change our minds. That is confusing for the population at large, who grew up being taught to walk against traffic and then somebody comes along and says you should walk with traffic and then they change their minds again, or a glass of wine  a day turns out to be good for your heart but then it can lead to various forms of cancer....

I sympathize. I also realize that musicological journals are not distributed to everybody, and that we can't all possibly know the latest findings in all branches of knowledge. On the other hand, most of us probably wouldn't pay attention even if these things were readily available in snack-sized broadcasts on our favorite media outlet. And having an attitude of contempt toward all those "pinheads" who come forth with challenges to what we thought we knew doesn't make it likely we're going to care either. It would be nice it people were kinder toward musicologists and the musicologists tried harder to disseminate and explain their findings. As it is, it is like most things. Lack of understanding and lack of good will breeds wars. But at least nobody is getting shot over it, that I know of.

Then ccoraxfan claims that it "sounds like Bach" which is also at issue. Of course it doesn't sound like Sondheim. It sounds like music written in the Baroque period by a German. It has the stamp of the time and place on it. But it does not necessarily have Bach's individual character in it. Someone else in his time and place, say a student of his, perhaps (which is exactly what Krebs was) could have written it. But unless you know the "Bach circle"--and most non-experts won't have heard of most of their names--you will certainly feel it sounds like Bach, particularly if you can't think of anyone else whose music sounds at all similar. Once you know the contemporaries of, say, Mozart, you realize that a lot of what Mozart was doing is not unique to him; it is part of how composers in general worked at the time in his part of the world. Could you tell, for instance, if I played you some Salieri? So with Bach, and other people who were not J. S. Bach but lived at the same time and wrote similar music.

"...yet somehow we KNOW it wasn't Bach?"

The final part of this sentiment is designed to paint ccoraxfan's opponents as inflexible dogmatists who are just SO CERTAIN of themselves, when, as far as I can tell, we aren't. Maybe some people are. I am not. Scholars tend not to be, because they are particularly aware of how a change in evidence can produce a change in results. But it shows that a person whose certainty is challenged often accuses others of that very thing. And, quite often, it is the other person's burden to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are correct in their assertion, namely that Bach did not write those pieces, because otherwise, without needing any proof of it themselves, they will assume that he did. As I have stated, the critical assumption here in the minds of the frustrated comment-leavers is that Bach is great, these pieces are great, and to deny Bach's authorship is basically to cast aspersions on great pieces. One really cannot win against an ironclad belief like that.

It is not, however, my intention to win, but simply to try to explain what kinds of things musicologists know about music that other people frequently do not, and why they might come to the strange conclusions that seem to upset everybody.

What to read more? On to part four....

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