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:



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!