|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: