Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Does Bach Suck?

It's not often that you see a classical music-related comment that makes you spit out your coffee:

"Bach sucks because he was not a true composer. A true composer hears the music before he writes it. Bach composed using a mathematical system of numbers which he tought[sic] his students. After his death one of his students published a book “How to write a menuet[sic] with little or no musical knowledge”. Frankly, the result of his work is not musical, the opening bars always sound musical because he copied someone else’s melody, broke it down into numbers and wrote counterpoint from it. Handel did not even like Bach, because Handel wrote music. Anyone who does like Bach does so because they are told to. For a comparison, listen to music by Frescobaldi, Rameau, or Couperin, then listen to Bach. The difference? Something that is musical throughout the entire piece, and something that is musical for 10 seconds and quickly loses interest."

Once I'd finished mopping the coffee off of my laptop, I had to admit I found myself agreeing.

Not with the claim that Bach sucks per se, but that Bach is one of the conundrums of classical music. How can a man who wrote such an impressive mountain of stunning music, who revolutionized Western music's entire conception of music theory, harmony and counterpoint (even to the point of revolutionizing how we tune our intruments), at the same time write music that all sounds the same?

Here's an example. Listen to the twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier and try to come up with a single hummable melody or a single memorable motif. And, while you're enduring this exercise, tell me, do these works arouse any emotion in you, other than perhaps a sense of aesthetic beauty at the symmetry and mathematical perfection of the music?

Depending on your memory for music, you might find all twenty-four works interchangeable, even nearly identical. I think I understand now what Glenn Gould was trying to say in the liner notes to his ham-handed recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Yes, they are all beautiful. But it's a robotic beauty, a mathematical beauty. Not one of them has a climactic moment. There are no lulls, no surges, no sweeping emotion. Nothing. The music is hypnotic, but there is not a single component part that stands out as memorable or notable.

Perhaps this is why Bach's music collected dust for centuries, until Mendelssohn and others rescued it from obscurity.

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13 comments:

Martini said...

I agree that Bach's music is less moving, less climactic than the one of Beethoven or anyone from 19th century onward, but in fact you are asking Bach to predict Romantism. It's as valuable as criticizing him because his keyboard music doesn't have the diversity of timbres the piano made possible for Chopin, Rachmaninoff, etc.
I see in that lack of climax and "feelings" a kind of beauty that no other composer has: Bach's music sounds mostly perfect. Perfect in a super-human sense.
So 80% of the time I prefer listening to more moving human music, but for the other 20%, when I want music above (or despite) humanity, Bach has no rivals at all.

Daniel said...

Martini:
That is a really interesting and counterintuitive point of view, and it makes a lot of sense.

And needless to say it's not terribly fair to expect Bach to make music "as good" as compositions by people who were yet to come and about whom he could have no way of knowing. Thanks for the thoughts.

DK

Deutsches Requiem said...

1.-
It’s preposterous and dull.
Why caveman were unable of drawing like Picasso? Therefore cavemen paintings suck!
2.-
Bach is not a romantic musician! Bach is a musician from “aufklärung” completely proud of reason! The Age of Enlightenment has a timespan which approximately runs from Descartes' Discourse on the Method, published in 1637 or the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687 to the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15). Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] and died on 28 July 1750 so he lived surrounded by Enlightenment and Luther in the cradle almost infancy of modernity.
3.-.
Besides I don’t think Mendelssohn made a mistake about Bach. The problem is that feelings and passions are not a mere monopoly of romantic visions but a creative force of human nature. Bach is like science. It requires from people something else than just heart and romanticism, Bach asks for guts and brain.

Regards

Your Friendly Physicist

Ed said...

1.-
It’s preposterous and dull.
Why caveman were unable of drawing like Picasso? Therefore cavemen paintings suck!
2.-
Bach is not a romantic musician! Bach is a musician from “aufklärung” completely proud of reason! The Age of Enlightenment has a timespan which approximately runs from Descartes' Discourse on the Method, published in 1637 or the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in 1687 to the French Revolution of 1789 or the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1804–15). Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] and died on 28 July 1750 so he lived surrounded by Enlightenment and Luther in the cradle almost infancy of modernity.
3.-.
Besides I don’t think Mendelssohn made a mistake about Bach. The problem is that feelings and passions are not a mere monopoly of romantic visions but a creative force of human nature. Bach is like science. It requires from people something else than just heart and romanticism, Bach asks for guts and brain.

Regards

Your Friendly Physicist


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An artist is somebody who produces things that people don't need to have. (Quote by Andy Warhol)

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8ITVwwS-ts

you might find this interesting.watch the whole thing, he addresses the questions that you've posed in your original post..

I do agree that sometimes he can be repetitive and like bernstein says in that video - he can sound like just a mindnumbing motion of 16th notes one after the other... but you are completely ignoring other whole aspects of bach's music.. the cantatas, the mass in b minor, the concertos and what not....

flor said...

Well i get Romanticism was about exposing emotions, sometimes exaggerating them was used as a resource to get this.
And Bach maybe wasn't pretending to expose feelings in his music, but sometimes experimenting, sometimes trying to show and make you get his idea of God as mathematical perfection and beauty.
But it's important for you to know that people who has feelings and emotions when listening to Bach exist too. I can't see any of the inventions as interchangeable. I do have feelings about any of them and each one sounds different to me than the other. I get he composed so much music using a mathematical method he repeated himself here and there. But i can also see this happening with so many other composers, each composer repeats himself using his particular method. It's just Bach wrote a lot much more music than other composers did, his method was pretty massive.
But even if we're talking about, i dunno, Goldberg variations, which is about a lot of work, logics and mathematic and, as it says variations of the same thing, i do have feelings over any of that pieces, i like some much more than others, some of them i dont like, and i love a few above them all, and we can add of course the different interpretations from different players.
If i listen to, let's say, a bunch of Chopins preludes i've never heard before, they may sound empty and 'all the same' to me. Believe or not, that happens with any kind of music (for example that's the impression that reggae music gives to me, it's for me like listening to the same song over and over). It's not like Chopin sounds all the same (or reggae, maybe) it's just i have to let some time pass, and let my hearing of it matures. It's like with wine i think, except i don't like wine (yet).

YGslayer said...

Finally I find someone who exposes Bach for what he truly is... a wannabee poser who had to use theory and write variations on peoples music not to mention probably plagiarized many, for example Vivaldi who was a fine musician of the time and who had real soul, or substance, in his music: music for the sake of listening and not to practice how well you know music theory. Overall Bach offers us his genius through his knowledge of counterpoint and harmony, but not as being a true musician, which for me is someone who composes from the ear and feels what sounds right. Listen to Vivaldi if you want to hear great baroque music... and btw Bach didn't write Toccata and Fugue (the famous one everyone loves). NOT ONE youtube video or website have I found disliking Bach... NOT ONE... the whole world is brainwashed by the onslaught of BACH... and this needs to stop

Samir said...

perhaps this is why the Minimalists (especially Reich, Young, and Riley) had such an affinity for the Baroque period. Phillip Glass studied counterpoint intensively with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, as did Reich at Julliard and Lamonte Young at Berkley.

Anonymous said...

Absurd generalizations. Read a book. Get an education. Stop wasting time on a blog making irresponsible and uneducated comments. Same goes for the rest of the commentators.

Anonymous said...

No he has a point but title is misleading it should say why bach "sucked " after his first wife died. There is a mention after liepzig bach composing declined.

Anonymous said...

Ygslayer you don't know what your saying. Bach was a composer and virtuoso. His clavier works has some logic. Plaigarism imposible sharing works or deal like clementi did with beethoven posible. He didn't invent the fugue?? Then who did ??? Not a musician?? You need to read more bach owned a virtuoso in those times I don't remember name he was french in a keyboard duel that's not even the organ. In those times there were no printers it was HARD to produce more works. Its a miracle many of the works survived.

Anonymous said...

yes very true if we are talking about virtuosity vivaldi is a fine musician and perhaps better than Bach on the violin but in terms of composing or composer Bach wins. but telling me bach is not a musician almost gives me a heartattack.

Anonymous said...

I just can't agree with this at all. Bach's music absolutely fills me with emotion, the depth of it is always stunning, and while I don't want to crown anyone the best, Bach's music certainly has no equal. That seems to be one of the most important aesthetical considerations, that a composer can create not simply music, but an art that is unique and complete in its own way. If you think his music is without climatic culminations (and of the absolute perfect proportions) then I suggest that you continue your studies in music. To use his mathematical and logical approach against him shows to me a need to enhance one's awareness of the nature of music. Music that sounds good is mathematical, melodies and harmonies are balanced, smaller motifs and phrases echo architectonic relationships with the larger-scale formal designs, even notes and the intervals between them, regardless of temperament, are entirely mathematical. I could go on and on and then on some more. This is all true of romantic music as well, it is just simply the way that human hearing works. Symmetry, which exists in many ways, is essential for beauty.

The problem is we tend to think of mathematics in the boring and irrelevant way we're taught in school.us "Jill has 80 dollars to raise at a bake sale how much cupcakes must she sell?" Real examples of how math is a universal phenomenon that can't be escaped from is ignored. All the beauty we encounter in life has mathematical significance. This doesn't mean that rigorous procedures in set theory and/or atonal music is necessary or will produce superior music. but if one is aware of the logical nature of beauty while keeping in mind the expressiveness of humanity, it will not endanger the composer's work.

I respect everyone's opinions, and as some on who spends almost every waking moment of my life studying and pondering deeper into music, I feel inclined to offer my help. Because afterall, I firmly believe that a life that doesn't experience Bach has not been lived to the fullest! Thanks for reading.