Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The "London" Bach

The Bach family was probably the greatest artistic dynasty of all time. From the sixteenth century right into the 19th century they played such a pervasive role in the musical life of Europe that some German communities used the word "Bach" as a generic term for any musician: "We need a new Bach to run the band concerts on Sundays." I previously wrote about musical dynasties and the Bach family in particular in this post.

Tom Service has done an excellent thing in this week's symphony guide by picking a symphony by one of J. S. Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, the "London" Bach, to talk about. At this point in music history the symphony is still close to its origins as an overture or entr'acte in an opera so it is a fairly short work in three movements: fast slow fast. Tom picks the excellent Symphony in G minor, op. 6, no. 6:


Nice stormy example of "Sturm und Drang" which, since it was composed in London and before the German literary movement from which the name derives, demonstrates again that the musical phenomenon probably doesn't have much to do with the literary one. As Tom mentions, J. C. Bach was a big influence on the very young Mozart when he (Mozart) visited London in the 1760s. This piece by J. C. Bach could stand up pretty well against a lot of lesser Mozart. It may have even been an influence on the early G minor Symphony, K. 183 by Mozart written a few years later:


But there is a whole lot more going on in the Mozart. There are more melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas in the first two minutes than in the whole symphony by J. C. Bach. What we hear in the Bach symphony is the rhythmic stiffness and predictable sequences of Baroque music, without the contrapuntal interest. Listen for example to the development section from about the 1'34 mark to about the 2'15 mark in the first movement of the G minor J. C. Bach symphony. One long sequence in which nothing much happens that isn't predictable.

Apart from his childhood tour of the capitols of Europe, Mozart as an adolescent spent quite a bit of time in Italy and perhaps some of the grace and effervescence of his music in all dimensions, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, comes from Italian music. Certainly when we listen to the Mozart symphony we hear a harmonic and rhythmic flexibility that makes the phrases much more fluid than the ones in the J. C. Bach symphony.

I hope very much that Tom also gives us a symphony by the older Bach son, C. P. E. Bach, the "Berlin" Bach. He was a much more eccentric composer as we can hear in this symphony in B minor:


Tom Service's series is really about the best and most educational one on music in the mass media these days. Thanks to him for it. The only problem with it is that it tends to present every single piece as an stunning bit of innovative wonderfulness, which is both untrue and a bit dull. He is striving for the utmost diversity in the series, which is good, but one of the reasons for listening to, say, J. C. Bach and C. P. E. Bach, is to notice the ways in which the generation of Haydn and Mozart far exceeded them. A list of the fifty greatest symphonies is likely to be a lot less diverse than Tom's selections as it will probably consist 90% of symphonies by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart with a few by Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich and possibly Mahler, unless I am right about him, in which case, Brahms and maybe Bruckner. And for a token modernist exemplar, Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms.

Our urge for diversity often ends up conflicting with critical aesthetic judgement. You can't simultaneously ride the horse of diversity and the one of quality. You can't have your horse and eat it too--wait, I think that was a Metaphor Too Far.

2 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting to compare J.C. Bach with W.A. Mozart & C.P.E. Bach. You're right, Mozart and even C.P.E. Bach seems to be a lot more interesting, at least in terms of symphonic writing (the symphony by C.P.E. Bach you linked is very enjoyable). I think there is a quote by J.C. Bach where he roughly says that C.P.E. Bach lives to write music and that he (J.C. Bach) writes music to live. I suppose J.C. Bach might have had a more "popular" approach. There is an interesting documentary about a counter-tenor and J.C. Bach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1yUQJj7NbI

However, I don't agree with your statement that 90% of the symphonies would be by Mozart, Beethoven & Haydn in a top 50 list. I would guess maybe up to 50% or so. Not because of diversity reasons but because there actually are many great symphonies not written by Mozart, Beethoven & Haydn. We have 7 symphonies by Sibelius that deserve spots. 5 (4th, 5th, 7th, 11th & 12th) or more by Shosty. 4th and 5th symphonies by Nielsen. Kurt Atterberg's 6th Symphony "Dollar". Then we have Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin taking maybe two spots each. Eduard Tubin's 3rd. Maybe at least 4 by Bruckner (1st, 4th, 8th & 9th symphonies). Then we have Schubert with a few additions (dunno which exactly, been a while since I've listened to all of his symphonies). Maybe some by Tchaikovsky. Dvorak also has some amazing symphonies. Even Mahler and Brahms might have some here and there. So just taking mostly romantic composers we have quite a few.

Bryan Townsend said...

You could be right. I didn't think through to the actual numbers. But if we start making a list of the 50 best symphonies we probably would have:

all 9 by Beethoven
fifteen or twenty by Haydn (yes, really!)
ten by Mozart
Isn't that nearly forty right there?

Then add in three by Shostakovich, three by Sibelius, two by Schubert, one by Brahms, one by Stravinsky, one by Mahler, one by Bruckner, one by Dvorak and one by Tchaikovsky. Heck, maybe two by each of the last few. I think that takes us past fifty?