Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Who really wrote the 8 Little Preludes and fugues (part four)

Last week I finally made a trip to the library to do some research into the problem of the 8 Little preludes and fugues and to find out why there is a debate over their authorship. Before I did that, I examined why many of us don't want to do our own research or consider the positions of those professionals who spend appreciable portions of their lives tracking down sources and considering styles when those positions conflict with what we think we already know. Being challenged does not go down easily in the human psychology, particularly when one's tools are unchanging certainty and little sense of how someone else even came to a different conclusion in the first place--in other words, lacking an understanding of research methods and a thorough acquaintance with musical styles of the time, it is not easy for the average music maker to get his or her head around the idea that some composer they've never heard of might have written pieces they love instead of a composer they so revere.

Of course, this doesn't automatically mean that the experts are always right, either. In this case, there seem to be quite a lot of differences of opinion, even if they are sometimes (and only sometimes) grounded in a lot of erudition. There does, however, seem to be broad agreement that the one person who probably did NOT write these pieces is Johann Sebastian Bach. Why?

Basically, there are two reasons. There are a lot of faults and imperfections in these pieces--this was my argument a couple of installments ago, and it seems to be in the musicological literature as well--and so a mature Bach would probably not commit them to paper. For one thing, the voice writing is often not independent--the pedals double the left hand in several places, for instance, or there are places that may not actually be parallel octaves or fifths but which come pretty close and would qualify as clumsy and unclear. The master of counterpoint doesn't seem to have been at work here--at least in the fugues. And the short motives in the preludes are developed in a pretty predictable, paint-by-numbers kind of way much of the time, which doesn't suggest that a musical genius was at work on those, either. On the other hand, proposing a young Bach as author has its problems as well.

I had already suggested in passing that perhaps Bach might have been very young when he wrote these, in which case those inelegant passages might be explained. He may have been Bach, but he still had to learn his craft. But in that case we have a problem of style--namely, that the Vivaldi-esque sounding sequences and short repeated figures--an Italian influence--would have been unknown to Bach until (and this can be pinpointed rather accurately) the middle of 1718. But even more problematic is that the galant style of many of these preludes (C and F in particular) seem much more likely to be the product of the generation after Bach--his son's generation.

This is the broad canvas; I'll paint on it more specifically next week as I describe my trip to the library and get into some of the research in more depth.

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