Monday, November 9, 2015

Where the rabbit comes from

There are really two major differences separating persons of eminent ability and recognized genius and people who spent their lives on the couch watching television. One of those is the willingness to work, very hard, for countless hours at whatever it is they are pursuing.

The other is the ability to even believe in the utility of work to start with.

What I mean is that a lot of not very successful people don't even believe in work as being much of a factor. They tend to believe that people who are brilliant at something are just that way because that's the way they are. They may even think that those folks never have to break a sweat: it all comes naturally. And, of course, if you aren't one of those brilliant people you might as well not even bother because it either happens or it doesn't. no effort is required; none will make any difference.

It's a convenient little belief system.

What I'm about to do is mess with a closely related symptom of this mindset which is the thrill of not knowing where something came from or how it got there--the kind of astonishment that comes when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat.

The thing is, the rabbit had to come from somewhere.

In fact, great classical composers can usually be found to have had influences of one sort or another. Other composers. The works of other composers. Teachers. Mentors. Musicologists spend a lot of their time tracking these down so they can ruin everybody's fun.

No, really, they find it fascinating, and it is not meant to ruin anything. The astonishing thing is that when people find out something they somehow thought was completely original sprang from somewhere else, they find that disappointing.

Why is that?

Today's exhibit is the towering Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. I played it on my organ concert just over a week ago. What you may not have noticed is that a few weeks before the concert a couple of little organ pieces quietly entered the pianonoise catalogue. These were a couple of passacaglie (what in heaven is the plural of passacaglia, anyhow?) written by a French organist who, while quite famous in his own time, has left barely a mark on musical history. His name was Andre Raison, and the reason for my interest in his music is that someone found an interesting similarity between his piece and Bach's. Basically, the theme is the same:


A passacaglia is a kind of piece in which there is a continually repeated musical idea in the bass, and each time that 'theme' is repeated, different things occur in the parts above it. It is a chance for a composer to pour his ingenuity into a form which, thorough the restraint of constant repetition, allows the composer to find as much variety as he or she can in the counterpoint of a single theme.

Raison managed to get about 90 seconds out of his; Bach decided maybe it would yield around seven or eight minutes, and then attached a fugue that added six minutes more. But there is another difference.

Raison's theme is four measures long. Bach's is twice that. Assuming that the young Bach started with Raison's theme in front of him, he appears to have extended it, which was a very wise idea.

Where did he get the extension? There is a theory that what he actually did was to combine two of Raison's themes from two different pieces. The one you just heard furnished the first half, and the second, despite being in a major rather than a minor key and being pitched a step down, can be shown to have the same notes as the rest of Bach's theme, provided you take both themes and transpose them to c minor.


At this point someone always puts up their hand and asks "couldn't Bach have just come up with the tune on his own?" We are nothing if not suspicious of a little scholarship. And I would have to say that the theme seems so natural, and Bach so clever, that it does seem possible for Bach to have simply thought of the tune himself. But it is quite likely that he took it from somewhere as well.

I haven't had a chance to check the musicological literature as I was preparing for the concert. It may be that someone has established a definitive link between the pieces. It is possible (but not likely) there is even a copy of these pieces in Bach's hand. Often, though, that is not the case and all we can do is make a good guess. What we do know about Bach is that he often used the works of other composers for study and imitation. There are, for example, several organ transcriptions Bach made of concertos by Vivaldi and others (I played one a few years ago). Bach was aware of composers all over Europe and often wrote pieces in the 'French' style, or the 'English' style, or in imitation of some kind of piece that was popular in one of those places. This practice was hardly limited to Bach: composers did this frequently. You learned from others, and then you tried to surpass them.

The most obvious point of contact between Bach and another composer is Dietrich Buxtehude. We know that Bach spent three months with Buxtehude when, as a young organist, he took a 250 mile trip to visit him at his church in Lubeck. Perhaps it was Buxtehude who showed Bach the Raison pieces. Buxtehude himself wrote several passacaglie (there's that darned plural again) and when I get a chance I'll be looking for similarities between his and Bach's to see if there were more influences.

This is hardly a disappointment to me. I find it fascinating to trace the connections. It doesn't make Bach a two-bit plagiarist with no compositional genius. Even if we posit that he "stole" the theme (and if Raison found out and reacted the way Clementi did when Mozart cribbed a theme from his piano sonata for use in the "Magic Flute" overture then we have to admit composers didn't always encourage such borrowing)--even then, he did something quite amazing with what he found. It is as if Raison was sitting on a gold mine the whole time and didn't realize it. And Bach did.

But then, Bach was Bach. Ask any organist. See if they don't sound in awe and enthusiasm just saying the name. I'm not saying it might not seem a bit over the top. But it's true. The man could write music like nobody else.

Listen for yourself to the great

[Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor]

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