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Johann Sebastian Bach

His Predecessors

In the context of a very critical discussion on Bach, I was asked about the influence of his predecessors on his music….

It is easy to see Bach as very much a part of the German keyboard school… indeed almost inevitable to the decline of the forms then in vogue, because Bach presents them with such distance whether through the abstract conception of his cycles or the sterile nostalgia of his handling. He summarizes Baroque forms and he ends them – not, let us remember, at center stage but with a quiet provincial existence. If he had not existed, we would have been forced to invent him. Perhaps Felix Mendelssohn, Ferruccio Busoni and others did just that.

It's certainly no secret that Bach derived so many of his flamboyant organ mannerisms from the North German Dietrich Buxtehude, whose major achievement was a sense of capricious invention added to the variation technique of the great English masters, as transmitted via Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck & Samuel Scheidt. Indeed, Bach's early works show such a raw eagerness, so far removed are they from the masters of melody-yielding form. Bach was able to transmute this virtuoso temperament into a grandeur motivated by learning. The change in impetus was frequently uneven, especially when he tries his hand at grave textures in the organ chorales. There is always this underlying lean toward the grandiose, perhaps the essence of the German synthesis of what were essentially the styles and forms of other nations.

Of course, Bach did not stop with the German school. He also studied Girolamo Frescobaldi – the man who made the divergent Italian keyboard techniques cohere into a balanced harmonic synthesis. Just like Bach, Frescobaldi is the end of a tradition. But unlike Bach, he did his work at center stage, and made waves throughout Europe. It is frequently asserted that the organ is the paramount instrument of the era. So now I quote Giovanni Maria Trabaci, one of Frescobaldi's most important predecessors, and the most harmonically adventurous of the Neapolitans: "the harpsichord is the lord of all instruments in the world and on it everything may be played with ease." Trabaci was first organist of the Royal Chapel in Naples. If anything, colorful as he is, Frescobaldi simplifies the ideas of Trabaci et. al. and strives for a dynamic harmonic balance at the expense of further chromatic experimentation. In Bach's early harpsichord toccatas, we see an attempt to master this style; the attempt does not go far, lacking familiarity and poise as it does.

Then there is France, and Bach's studies of Nicolas de Grigny's only publication. Universally acclaimed as the most polyphonically inclined of the French organ composers of the era, de Grigny's works have a suppleness in each line, yet they also have a homogeneity long since forsaken by Buxtehude and Frescobaldi. Jehan Titelouze is clearly the motivator for de Grigny and his contemporaries, and known as the father of French organ music. Titelouze proudly proclaims that his fugues are researched. In fact, his cantus firmus hymns are so perfect in every note, that one can only wonder what the young Bach would have made of them. Here we have the last glimpse at the exalted fusion of art & science, lurking under what has become obvious effort. The gravity of a Titelouze – or a Orlando Gibbons – was simply not in Bach's temperment, which always remains that of the anxious virtuoso, keen to impress by planning if not not by fast fingers.

When Bach does finally synthesize these ideas, foremost in the Well-Tempered Clavier but also in the Clavierubung series, he does so within a self-consciously rigid framework. This apparently satisfies his need to be playing so many notes at once, yet to unify them. At times, the framework itself seems so unneccesary and indeed I believe many of Bach's keyboard works can be productively arranged with fewer voices, yet it can provide its own magic. In the end, Bach managed to produce more hours of enjoyable keyboard music than any of those named, even if he never reaches the heights of some of them. In fact, I believe that as a youth he must have learned better than to aspire to them. At his most sincere, he is writing to affirm the yearnings of the masses, rather than to interact with the thoughts of the theologian.

It was suggested that Bach is the pivot point for the transition between music as mathematics and music as melodic inspiration. In answer….

Perhaps retrospectively, through the lens of Ludwig van Beethoven, and the neglect of his predecessors. That Bach was somehow able to be appended to the canon at a later date points further to his centrality, in some sense. Perhaps Bach fits this bill so well for the modern audience because he excels more by artifice than art… satisfying the craving for an easy present and one tradition, with the past as a merely necessary training ground for future progress.

Of course, there was a time when music and mathematics were centrally linked in discourse and study – the medieval quadrivium consisted of Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy and with the trivium of Theology, Rhetoric, Logic provided the core of the university curriculum. Let me quote Antoine Busnois' 15th century tribute to his teacher:

Long ago, when Pythagoras was wondering
at the melodies of water organs and at the
sounds made by hammers against surfaces,
he discovered through the inequalities of the
weights, the essentials of music.
You, Ockeghem – the chief singer before all in the
service of the king of the French – strengthen the
youthful practice of our race when, at some time,
you examine the results of these aspects in the
halls of the Duke of Burgundy, in your fatherland.

Yet for the medievals, great masterpieces do not arise from mathematical artifice, but rather from the spring of the internalization of formal principles such that this transition between melody and mathematics occurs not once, but continually at the moments of invention. And indeed this invention is neither prospective nor retrospective, but rather continuous. That is the explosion of correspondence which shapes each note and resonates in the mind.

Yet later, we hit Josquin Des Préz as the pivot point for the transition of music as form into music as the illumination of text. And then the Baroque figures arise from the illumination of minute textual detail. That is why it is Baroque. (8/95)

Copyright © 1992-2000 by Todd Michel McComb