“There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill: whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.”I think we could have something similar in music that we could call "The Bach Test." You can tell quite a lot about music scholars by their attitude towards Bach. In his case, of course, there are no unpleasant details to reveal as he conducted no mass-bombing campaigns, though he did recruit his children as copyists. Even according to the New York Times, Bach stands at the head of the Western Classical Music Tradition, so how musicologists regard him might reveal something. As a proxy for surveying them directly, let's have a look at the postings over at Musicology Now for an indicator. There should be a caveat, though, as these posts are quite different from articles published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Here is a link to the contents of the current issue. Nothing on Bach, but serious articles on several subjects nonetheless. What do we find over at Musicology Now? Here is a list of the subjects of the most recent posts in reverse chronological order:
- urban busking
- Estonian composer Helena Tulve
- student gun protests (voice and silence)
- Cui Jian and Chinese rock music
- Japanese composer Akemi Naito
- Philippine vaudeville and "oriental syncopation"
- recording industry 1905 - 1926
- interpretive labor in experimental music
- mechanical instruments
- musical labor
- Parisian music journalism
- Justin Timberlake at the Superbowl
- music in Star Wars
And, believe it or not, this is a considerable improvement as for a long time it seemed that all they could find to write about was movie and videogame soundtracks. What we have lately is a couple of articles on composers from eastern Europe and Japan, both women, by the way. Then we have a number of posts that I would term sociological on things like busking, protests, musical labor and the recording industry. That leaves a couple of posts on pop music both current and historical. Not a horrible mix, but one wonders if the bias against white male composers will continue indefinitely. No, nothing on Bach.
So, despite the fact that Bach is possibly the greatest composer in the Western European tradition, he is resolutely ignored by current musicology. Mind you, if they could find some dirt on him, that would lead to a spate of articles on that. There is one legitimate reason to ignore Bach and people like him and one illegitimate reason. The legitimate one is that it is thought that everything worth saying about Bach has been said. Well, perhaps. I can certainly see a graduate student having a very difficult time pitching a thesis on Bach to his advisor! But two recent biographies on Bach, one by John Eliot Gardiner and the other by Christoff Wolff, both show that there is more to be said even about Bach. Taruskin's discussion of his music in the Oxford History also had quite a bit to chew on.
The illegitimate reason to ignore Bach is that he simply contradicts your narrative that there are no "great men" in history or in music and that behind the public image of every great man lies a sordid tale of oppression and murder. That's a pretty hard sell with Bach, but the strategy has proved fruitful with a long list of historical figures including, yes, Winston Churchill. At the end of the day, though, it is rooted in nothing more than nihilism and resentment.
Let's listen to some Bach. This is the Art of Fugue in two performances. The first by Grigory Sokolov in Leningrad in the late 70s early 80s:
The other is by the Emerson String Quartet:
Honestly, did you have something better to do this morning?