Sunday, October 20, 2019

Bach the Rebel -- NOT!

A frequent commentator alerted me to a piece in Lapham's Quarterly. Wow, you must really be a well-connected insider to get two big excerpts from your upcoming book published in the same week. The other one was about song outsiders in the Wall Street Journal.

So following in the fine tradition of Michael Crichton and Kanye West, who both warned against believing anything you see in the news or read in the paper, let's do a bit of a hit and run on Mr. Gioia's take on Bach. J.S. Bach the Rebel: The subversive practice of a canonical composer. My first question is how does Mr. Gioia define "subversive" and "canonical" and will either of these definitions be anywhere near the usual ones?
You can hardly find a more sanctioned and orthodox insider than Johann Sebastian Bach, at least as he is typically presented. He is commemorated as the sober bewigged Lutheran who labored for church authorities and nobility, offering up hundreds of cantatas, fugues, orchestral works, and other compositions for the glory of God. Yet the real-life Bach was very different from this cardboard figure. In fact, he provides a striking case study in how prickly dissidents in the history of classical music get transformed into conformist establishment figures by posterity.
We do have some receipts from an inn where Bach was staying where he consumed a remarkable amount of brandy while finishing a cantata, but on the whole I think it is safe to say that he was "sober." Certainly his music is quite sober if by that you mean clear and well-organized. And yes, any portraits of him we have show him wearing a wig. He was also unarguably a Lutheran, employed by the town fathers of Leipzig and patronized by various nobles. So how is that a "cardboard figure"? Ah, right, because it does not fit the narrative that Mr. Gioia is going to foist on us. As for character, yes, he did not suffer fools gladly so he could be described as "prickly" but it boggles the mind to try and see Bach as a "dissident"! So it seems that this argument, such as it is, is getting off to a very rocky start.

I have mentioned before how the political corruption of our day has been slowly seeping into our musical historiography. Every important composer has to be seen as a subversive or dissident in some way or be downgraded. Schubert was oppressed and possibly gay so that makes him more important. Beethoven was a political dissident, Berlioz an inveterate innovator, Wagner a creator of a new kind of subversive harmony and they are all important because of those things, not primarily because they wrote great music. Pretty soon you find yourself creating a narrative out of whole cloth to justify the importance of a composer like Bach, who, if you just look at the music, not only doesn't need it, but doesn't deserve this distortion.

I'm not going to quote all of it, but Gioia inserts a long list of Bach's excesses and indiscretions ending with the comment:
This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.
Bach and the city fathers had a lot of disputes over the twenty-seven year tenure in which he was in charge of the music, not only at the Thomaskirke, but the other main churches in Leipzig as well as teaching the choristers not only music, but Latin! Over that long a time, you could easily assemble a list that would present Bach as incorrigible or irascible. And I imagine you could assemble another list of occasions in which the city fathers were incorrigible and irascible, or at least unreasonable. There was a time, not too long ago, in which all this would have been simply disregarded as irrelevant crap, but that was when writers on music tried to present a balanced picture instead of, as now, forcing everything into the Procrustean bed of their noxious narrative.

Once you go down that dangerous path you find yourself writing nonsense like this:
When the mythos of Bach’s genius finally emerged, it coincided with a rising sense of German nationalism and a religious revival, movements that envisioned ways they could use this now long-dead composer to advance its own agendas.
There is nothing mythic about Bach's genius and it was there all along. It just took a while for public taste to shift around to it. Both Beethoven and Mozart were big admirers of Bach's music. I'm sure that German nationalism did not suffer from clutching Bach to its bosom, but to use that as a way of characterizing Bach is to seriously distort history and causality. And yes, Mr. Gioia is using this long-dead composer as a mere pawn in his agenda.

But enough, I am losing interest in this argument, largely because it does nothing but rehash all of our prejudices and biases about culture and history.

Bach for our envoi. This is a little different. Someone has taken a performance by Grigory Sokolov of the Art of Fugue and lowered it to the "early music" pitch of 432 hz.


Marc said...

I was afraid it was Dana Gioia begun writing nonsense, the poet and former NEA chairman: I never much enjoyed his poetry but at least his existence proved that not every person 'in the arts' must by necessity be a radical 'progressive'.

Gioia's "it is impossible to dismiss the gestalt that emerges from a broad-based and open-minded survey of this seminal figure, his life story and body of work" is true enough, from his perspective, since he himself is the creator of the "gestalt" in question. Pft. I'm going to return to feeding peanuts to the squirrels.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, it's the other Gioia, Ted.

Ted Gioia said...

I read your blog regularly, and have for a long time. And I enjoy checking out what you write. Of course, you have a right to disagree with me. But I must say that if you read my quoted passages in context, I never said Bach's genius was a myth, merely the attempt to turn his genius into a tool of German nationalism perpetuated a myth. Nor did I ever say Bach composed while drunk, etc. etc. Also there's an implication that my views represent some hostility to Bach, when in fact he's my favorite composer. I don't mind criticism, but I want to ensure that I am criticized for my actual views—-not views that are falsely attributed to me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ted, I am delighted that you read my blog and also delighted that you are answering my critique. You make some very fair points. Yes, I think it was shifting the meaning of what you intended when I said there was nothing mythic about Bach's genius. I accept entirely that what you meant was that the mythos was how Bach was used in the cause of German nationalism. That wasn't quite what you said, but of course that is what you meant. I do stand by my quibbling about the description of Bach being a "cardboard figure." But I do very much accept that you weren't trying to muckrake Bach!

As someone once said, "come, let us reason together."

Thanks very much for your comment.

Ted Gioia said...

Many thanks. I'm glad we could have dialogue on this. Keep up the fine work on your blog. I am a regular reader and have been for quite a while.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ted, that is really good to hear.