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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

Isacoff Describes Bach's Universe

From:

Larry Sherwood <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 21 Feb 2006 06:30:10 -0600

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text/plain

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text/plain (109 lines)

Some might be interested in Stuart Isacoff's musings about WTC, which
appeared in today's Wall Street Journal.

   Bach's Infinite Universe

   By STUART ISACOFF
   February 21, 2006

   Robert Schumann advised musicians to treat it as their daily
   bread.  Beethoven copied it by hand in an attempt to work loose
   its secrets.  And Goethe, hearing its composer's labors for the
   first time, said, "It is as if the eternal harmony were conversing
   within itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God just
   before the creation of the world." Yet the 1722 manuscript of
   the first volume of Johann Sebastian Bach's landmark "The
   Well-Tempered Clavier" circulated underground -- like a seditious
   manifesto -- for nearly 80 years before finding a publisher.  By
   the time it did, in 1801, Bach had already been dead for half a
   century.

   It's not that Bach's work -- 24 preludes and fugues in all the
   major and minor keys to be played on a keyboard instrument of
   no specified type -- was considered too revolutionary. On the
   contrary, his art, as Albert Schweitzer explains in his biography
   of the composer, was the culmination of an era: "All the artistic
   endeavors, desires, creations, aspirations and errors of his own
   and of previous generations are concentrated and worked out to
   their conclusion in him." He was of the old guard, soon to be
   swept aside by an artistic tide -- the Classical style -- that
   valued symmetry, transparency and grace over complexity and
   emotional extravagance. When Bach received an appointment in
   Leipzig in 1722 (he was third choice for the post), a member of
   the town council expressed concern that his music would be too
   dramatic. Changing fashions nearly guaranteed that many would
   fail to recognize the genius of his individual voice.

   Bach himself described his work (book two of "The Well-Tempered
   Clavier" followed over 20 years later) with the modest announcement
   that it was "for the benefit and use of musical youth desirous
   of knowledge as well as those who are already advanced in this
   study." There is no hint in this description of the unsurpassed
   virtuosity, the stunningly infinite musical universe executed
   with an almost inhuman command of beauty and logic that unfolds
   in its pages. Melodic strands are taken up in one register of
   the instrument, then in another -- tossed back and forth or
   staggered so that one entrance interrupts what another has already
   begun. Themes are played forward and backward and stood on their
   heads in mirror form. And, amazingly, in Bach's hands all of
   these individual musical lines blend into the most thrilling
   harmonies.

   Musical detectives are forever searching for new aspects of the
   play of Bach's imagination in this work: claiming, for example,
   that number mysticism arising from the name BACH (B3D2, A=3D1,
   C=3D3, H=3D8) emerges stealthily in the very first fugue as a
   14-note theme.  Whether or not all of these discoveries are true,
   it's difficult to fault those who make them.  As in the music
   of Edmund Pfuhl in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks," we find in "The
   Well-Tempered Clavier" "technique as an ascetic religion...holy
   in and of itself."

   The title "The Well-Tempered Clavier" describes music intended
   for a tuning that allows every one of a keyboard instrument's
   keys to be utilized. For technical reasons, tunings before Bach's
   time often rendered some keys too sour to be useful. Whether
   Bach wanted something close to what is found on today's modern
   pianos is a matter of dispute, however. In his day, tunings
   existed that made some keys sound purer than others, giving rise
   to the idea that each key had an individual "character." But
   Bach's work transcends such narrow considerations and has been
   played successfully in all kinds of tunings, and on everything
   from the clavichord to the Moog Synthesizer. His art is truly
   universal.

   Inherent in this composer's music are the qualities cited by
   his contemporary, the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, as necessary to
   great art -- attributes such as formal completeness and law-like
   coherence. Yet, filled as it is with joy and anguish, and marked
   by the intangible shadings of a thoroughly human spirit, the end
   result is so much more than mere logic.

   That's why, over 250 years later, the work still has the power
   to inspire.  Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee has written
   about the time when, as a 15-year-old boy in Cape Town, South
   Africa, he heard it emanating from a neighbor's house. That
   afternoon in his garden, he wrote, "Everything changed." The
   philosopher Martin Buber, facing a crisis of faith in his youth,
   was considering suicide when, so he later said, he had a sudden
   insight into the fragile possibility of a just human existence.
   "Bach helped me," he explained.

   One might imagine that the solace triggered by Bach's unfailing
   mastery arose because it conveyed the sense that a clockmaker
   God still ran an orderly universe. Buber obliquely suggests
   another explanation in a passage from his philosophical masterpiece,
   "I and Thou." The creation of great art, he states, involves
   both a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice is that of endless
   possibility offered up on the altar of form: Like a prophet, the
   artist labors to bring down to earth the beauty of eternal,
   unseen worlds. The risk arises because true artistic expression
   must be uttered by the whole self, with no protective buffer
   against the world. In Bach, we perceive the generosity inherent
   in both.

   Mr. Isacoff is editor of the magazine Piano Today and author of
   "Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds
   of Western Civilization."

Larry Sherwood

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