Friday, February 8, 2013

Bach vs Beethoven

Most lists of the greatest composers start with two names: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827). Usually Bach is first and Beethoven is second as in the list that the music critic for the New York Times came up with a few years ago.

J. S. Bach

Ludwig van Beethoven

I've been writing a lot of program notes lately and every time I have to write notes on Bach or Beethoven I try to write something different. It keeps bringing me back to who these two composers are, what makes them stand out. They are very different figures. Bach is the master craftsman. To this very day, music students study how Bach handled harmony. A decade or so after he died, in 1764, people (among them the scholar F. W. Marpurg and Bach's son C. P. E. Bach) started putting together a collection of Bach's chorale harmonizations. The collection, revised many times over the years, finally comprised 371 chorale harmonizations and 69 chorale melodies with figured bass. The melodies were not original with Bach, but traditional Lutheran hymns; Bach just contributed the harmonies. This collection has remained in print ever since and I have a copy on my desk as I write this. I suspect it is the longest-running music publication ever, now almost in its 250th year. It is still in print because Bach is universally recognized as the great master of harmony.

Beethoven is rather a different figure. Rather than summing up, perfecting, gathering together all the musical traditions of his day, as Bach did, Beethoven challenged every tradition, delved into the depths of the structure of music and reconstructed it from the ground up. Bach was the master craftsman, Beethoven the perpetual revolutionary. Bach built towering edifices of music, brick by brick. Beethoven created dynamic structures where every element is being constantly dissolved and re-created. Let's find some examples before my prose spins off into the mystic!

Here is the chorale "Jesu, joy of man's desiring" from Cantata 147 by Bach. It is one of his most famous pieces, a setting for choir and orchestra of a traditional hymn.


Beethoven creates an entirely different kind of musical world. Here is one of his most famous pieces, the first movement of his piano sonata op 27 no. 2, nicknamed the "Moonlight":


The feeling of solidity, of mastery, is also evident in more expansive pieces by Bach, such as his Magnificat. Here is the opening section:


While the dynamic energy of Beethoven, that always seems about to tear the music apart, is also evident in larger pieces. Here is the first movement of his 5th Symphony as an example:


Ever since Beethoven's example, the "composer as revolutionary" model has tended to prevail. Most 20th century composers saw themselves as revolutionaries, not master craftsman. This may be about to change as perpetual revolution tends to lead to chaos and fewer ticket sales! My personal feeling is that I am inclined, as a composer, to look back at all the crazy things that were done in the last hundred years and see what interesting things can be adopted or salvaged. For example, in my setting of a poem by Li Po for voice and guitar, I took my cue from a mention of "bells of frost" in the poem to use an idea from John Cage. I have the guitarist put a paper clip on the sixth string of the guitar which creates a very unusual and unexpected sound, much like a bell. This single element gives the song another dimension. Here is the result:


21 comments:

Augustine said...

Not Mozart?

Bryan Townsend said...

Mozart is certainly a great, great composer--on the New York Times list he comes at number three. But I doubt if you could find many serious musicians who would put him ahead of Bach and Beethoven. Mozart was a great composer of opera and piano concertos, with peers, but probably no superiors. But he learned almost everything he knew about symphony and string quartet from Haydn and was excelled in both those areas by Beethoven. Beethoven also greatly excelled everyone in his piano sonatas.

As for Bach, well, he was the master of everything!

Augustine said...

You should do a top 10 (or 20)!

Bryan Townsend said...

Funny you should mention! I was just planning on doing a series of posts on Mozart. A couple of symphonies, a few piano concertos, maybe a string quintet...

Matilda Woodhouse said...

Great blog post Bryan. Beethoven is my favourite composer for the reasons you mention! I am not as familiar with Bach's music- I am more into Classical and Romantic than Baroque.

I do love The Art of Fugue though- I saw this played live last Thursday. It was the first time I heard it. The Escher Quartet played it. They walked on stage sat down and the lights in the nineteenth century hall were dimmed then the 2 violinists immediately began to play the Fugue. It was magical!

I like your music to the Chinese poem- I don't know this poem but the music compliments it well.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Matilda! One of my favorite recordings of the Art of Fugue is by Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov.

The song is from a large song cycle of twelve songs on poems by quite a few poets including Wallace Stevens, Victor Hugo, Aristophanes, Robert Graves and Rilke.

Have you listened to the clip I put up a few days ago of my Symphony No. 2?

Anonymous said...

Mozart is the greatest of all of them (he incorporates the best of Bach, and prefigures the best of Beethoven, albeit without the obvious passionate superimposition of emotion). His sense of rhythm, of timing (the transition from movement to movement), and his sense of harmony (to which you ascribe Bach superior), are all second to none. In MANY ways, you don't have Beethoven without Mozart - he is the link that binds the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. Beethoven infused much of his best work with work from Mozart: Beethoven copied a passage from Mozart's 40th Symphony into the sketchbook he was using when he composed his Fifth Symphony, the third movement of which opens with a theme similar to one from the Mozart. Mozart's C minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, is a model for Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto in the same key, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, for Beethoven's quintet for the same instruments, Op. 16, and the A major String Quartet, K. 464, for Beethoven's A major String Quartet Op. 18 No. 5. Mozart's C minor piano sonata, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457, as the model for Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata, Op. 13, in the same key

Bryan Townsend said...

You can certainly make those arguments and the examples you choose are telling ones. Beethoven did take a great deal of inspiration from Mozart in just the pieces you mention. But, to mention just one genre, I think you would be hard-pressed to continue your argument to conclusion when it comes to the late Beethoven string quartets. I think most people would agree that they go far beyond not only the string quartets of Mozart, but those of anyone.

But let's be sure to give Mozart his full due: there was never a child prodigy anywhere near him: he began to compose at age five, first symphony at eight and first opera a eight. Poor old Beethoven didn't compose his first symphony until he was thirty! Mozart in the areas of opera and piano concerto has no peers.

I think I might be tempted to make the argument that, in some ways, Haydn is the greatest of them all. It would certainly be an enjoyable debate.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry for the mis-typing, I meant to say that Mozart wrote his first opera at eleven.

Will Wilkin said...

There is more than one "best." That's why I prefer the term "nobody's better than ____." There is more than 1 way to make perfect music. Nobody'd operas are better than Mozart's, but neither is anyone's opera better than Puccini's! I often say to my classical friends, "nobody's better than Willie Nelson!" --and I mean it. When a musician (composers are included) reaches your soul and transports you out of your personal circumstances and place you in a marvelous new world...they are the BEST!

Anonymous said...

You are forgetting that without the example and influence of a Mozart being there wouldn't be the Beethoven we know, though...

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh heavens yes! And Haydn gets some credit as well.

Unknown said...

Bryan, I thought that this article was about B vs B not a chance to plug your Li Po setting! I will listen to it though. On the main subject, and I'll put my cards right on the table up front as a Bach fanatic - so much so that I named my firstborn Sebastian (good job it was a boy, eh?), I find your analysis specious and superficial. No disrespect intended. To summarise I think that the view of Bach as the master craftsman and Beethoven the unsettled tortured soul is nothing more than a received perception and a self perpetuating myth. Its a chicken and curate's egg really - of course the reason for this is the era of each composer and the perception of the composer's role at the time. Of course Beethoven was losing his hearing, smashing up pianos, dealing with public doubt over his genius etc. - it's right out of the tortured rock-star playbook, in fact it is possibly the archtype (as opposed to Archduke, perhaps) of that meme. The only thing missing is that he didn't top himself with a massive heroin overdose. Bach, of course had no emotions, despite losing a wife, more kids than you could count and his eyesight. So the narrative was cast and the analysis is driven by that. It's all a great story except that it doesn't hold water under objective analysis. Bach's music is of the greatest humanity, beauty and invention despite the potentially "damning by faint praise" characterisation of Bach on the artisan vs artist axis. Exhibit A in Bach's supremacy? Well for starters, Mass in B Minor - the nuclear option - blows everything else out of the water and always will - and I don't even particularly like choral music! Or how about "the" Chaconne, which he wrote on hearing of his first wife's death - well of course, there is no emotion in that, no heartbreak. I think that the message here is that Bach transcends all aspects of music in a way that no other composer - yes, Beethoven, Mozart etc. - could match. His music is technically perfect but creative too. Music of the deepest humility, humanity and beauty. You might prefer the sound of death banging at the door in c minor but it's Bach all the way for me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Superficial, yes, of course. You can write about topics like this on various levels and since this is a brief blog post, it just skated on the surface. But specious? Not at all. Bach and Beethoven are very complex figures and both our descriptions are correct. Of course Bach's music is of the greatest humanity, beauty and invention. Equally, Beethoven was also a master craftsman. They were also both working within a particular historical context. Bach, because of where and when he worked, summed up the whole Baroque era, drawing together French expressivity, Italian energy and clarity and German contrapuntal complexity. It took a master craftsman to do this, but the results are some of the greatest music ever. The Mass in B minor is everything you say it is--and Bach wasn't even Catholic! However, there are pieces by Beethoven, yes, and Mozart, that also transcend all other pieces in particular ways. Has a better symphonic finale than Mozart's to his Symphony 41 ever been written? Has anyone ever written a better string quartet than Beethoven's op 131?

Unknown said...

Thanks for your response Bryan. My name is Nick by the way. In the B 'n B discussion you suggest Beethoven's op 131 with a (rhetorical) question. Well Bach never wrote a string quartet, it was not part of the "canon" at that point so hard to compare. Despite much listening I have never gotten on with the late Beethoven Qtets though I think I can see where he was trying to go. However, if you were to listen to the Emerson Qtet version of Art of Fugue BWV1080, I think that you can see that Bach had already mastered this form before it's invention. A cheeky point, I'll admit but then Bach was the master of Invention (as well as Sinfonia). I don't know the Mozart but will definitely grit my teeth and listen to this. Hang on..... right, good old YouTube..... OK, auditioned this a few times and, as previously encountered with Mozart, there is nothing there for me. Yes, all the usual Mozartian qualities are to the fore, mellifluous enough and lots of forward momentum, gallant even, but it's still lightweight and obvious, as everything else I have heard from Mozart is. Is this really the best that he can manage? Just confirms my view that whilst he may have been a very natural composer he is second rate. While his music sounds bracing it is not moving, he fails to explore minor key tonalities. Instead, everything bounces along agreeably enough in a jolly major key. I'm looking for a lot more from music and he completely fails to deliver it. Possibly the most overrated composer - maybe if he had lived long enough he may have produced something a little more profound. If you like this sort of music then probably there are better composers such as CPE Bach who predated Mozart and had greater versatility. Even though music is highly subjective I think that it is worth trying to cut through the received wisdom, Mozart is largely popular due to his popularity and accessibility. He is a light classical composer nothing more.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Nick. I am reminded of when I was an undergraduate and was discussing Mozart with my composition teacher. I too accused him of being a bit lightweight. I think I said he was a "hothouse flower." It took me a while to come around. Yes, I understand your preference for Bach and no-one would blame you for putting him first. But I think it is safe to say that you have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Mozart, a composer recognized by most classical music aficionados as being one of the most profound who ever lived. I wonder what you think of Haydn?

Unknown said...

Thanks for your patience Bryan in the onslaught of a highly partisan set of views.

Continually revisiting Mozart to find something of worth and in fact this very morning was listening to the Piano Concerto no. 23 which has an Adagio section that starts promisingly but quickly lapses in major key lightness - it's like this is his default position to which he unerringly returns after a more profound foray into a minor tonality.

Haydn seems more substantive. I have made less effort with him,h having the odd disc but I have listened to the The Creation several time. Still not sure that I have got to grips properly with but certainly preferable to Mozart and more innovative.

Wagner I also struggle with though I think that his textures are interesting. Here my patience has not really paid off despite repeated attempts at Parsifal, Tristan etc..

My listening includes many types of music including music that I do not actually enjoy - discordant Jazz, eg Ornette Coleman Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, anyone? But this is all part of one's on-going musical exploration. Just starting out on the piano and finding an admiration of Chopin, Satie (clearly certifiable) and an increased one with Debussy. Now there's a composer who really moved the dial. Maybe this chimes with an interest in gamelan.

For classical music I find that my interests are more around the baroque, Bach, Corelli and then leave out the Mozart, Beethoven, Schu X 2, Waggy, Mahler etc era and reconnect around the late 19th C and on until about the 20's when things start to get a bit crazy with the 2nd Viennese School which I regard as my "point of departure" though I have dallied a little with the "sacred minimalism" period, Part, Gorecki & Co.

I'm probably a bit of an outlier but think of myself as a musical explorer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nick is this your comment? I think that exploring unfamiliar music is one of the most exciting things we can do. Let me just throw some names at you: Steve Reich, The Desert Music, Conlon Nancarrow, player piano studies, Rameau on piano played by Sokolov, Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis, Denis Gaultier, lute music, and so on.

Have fun!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, and have a listen to the Mozart Requiem.

Unknown said...

Hi Bryan, yes that is me. Yes to all of Reich, Nancarrow, Rameau (which I play on harpsichord along with Couperin, badly I might add), Miles Davis and John Coltrane and that ilk, lute music via my connection to Bach and also Weiss - both in guitar transcription which actually works very well. I will look into Gaultier and The Desert Music for sure as that is new to me.

My own tastes include latin/Cuban/Brazilian as well as jazz which is IMO the most creative genre of our times with musicians of a staggering quality - particularly interested in Gary Burton, the vibes player, have you heard him.

The Mozart I have listened to but will go back for a refresher.

Currently also very interested in Debussy - brought on by working through the Arabesque no1 with my sons piano teacher (not that they are at that level) and tried Suite Bergamesque for the first time last night including the very famous Claire de Lune - five flats needs a lot more processing from me but very beautiful music.

A fellow explorer in the world of music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Two very interesting later pieces by Steve Reich are The Desert Music and Tehillim, both with singers. I really haven't looked into a lot of jazz, I must confess!