The core repertory of Western classical music is dominated by a small number of composers, mostly German and Austrian, mostly of the 18th and 19th centuries. In their work, perfection – of form, melody, harmony and rhythm – is common; in fact it occurs in their music with a frequency unimaginable in painting (except perhaps for Raphael) or literature. Yet even in such extraordinary company Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) stands in solitary eminence, at the very pinnacle of the art. A large number of his works are still quite regularly performed and, since last year marked the 250th anniversary of his death, he is guaranteed to feature on every hall and church programme. There is also a vast outpouring of Bach recordings, which, until DGG curtailed the series, included John Eliot Gardiner’s amazing cantata performances. One of these took place every week for a year all over Europe and North America – the intention was to match the composer’s own Sunday series for the churches he served as choirmaster and organist. Yet even this enormous quantity of work is not the totality of Bach’s output. According to Christoph Wolff, his most recent and thorough biographer, at least half of Bach’s church oeuvre has been lost, along with many instrumental and ensemble pieces. The sheer density and quality of what remains is all the more staggering.
Like Handel, his contemporary, and Mozart, born nine years after his death, Bach had an aural as well as dextral facility that made people gasp. At the keyboard, whether performing a work of his own, sight-reading or improvising, Bach also had a gift for polyphony unequalled before or since. With the striking exception of Berlioz, who refused to allow Bach to impress him, every major composer has been stunned by his fertility, by the ingenious combining, shaping and weaving of voices that constituted his style and which he brought to a refinement far exceeding that of earlier German polyphonists such as Pachelbel and Buxtehude, from whom he had learned the basic elements. No composer after Bach was so thoroughly the ‘learned’ musician that Wolff describes. The works he composed (and very often performed) were so beautifully and so intelligently worked out and elaborated that they exhausted the resources of tonal sound. In Bach’s counterpoint, the listener is aware of a remarkable complexity but never a laborious or academic one. Its authority is absolute. For both listener and performer, the result is an aesthetic pleasure based equally on immediate accessibility and the greatest technical prowess.
Because it is a highly specialised and even esoteric art, classical music must be studied in a highly organised and structured manner. For the non-musician, to attempt more than just humming or coaxing the single line of a tune out of an instrument is practically impossible. The science of sound-production, the rigours of the well-tempered harmonic system, the formalities of composition, the physical discipline of learning how to play and then perform on an instrument (or to sing an aria or lied) – all these require years of practice and study, especially in the perfecting of mind-ear-hand (or voice) co-ordination and the ability to deploy it unerringly, without hesitation, that lies at the heart of virtuoso performing. Many pretenders to musical proficiency have seen their ambitions for a successful career collapse after discovering that musicality or a love of music isn’t enough, that what one really needs is an inborn capacity to translate what is seen on a page of music or heard in the ear directly into the muscles of hand or throat. All great musicians were and are endowed with this gift, which involves a dexterity, as well as perfect memory and pitch, that one either has or doesn’t have. Age allows one to develop a set of skills, but not to acquire the gift. Musical lore is filled with examples: Mozart’s ability to hear a piece once and then write it all down perfectly; Beethoven’s seemingly unending power to improvise pieces at the keyboard that many witnesses swear were finer than the ones he wrote down; or – one of my favourites – the young Saint-Saëns visiting Wagner and Liszt at Bayreuth, sitting at the piano and giving a perfect rendition of Siegfried, the unfinished full orchestral score of which Wagner had left at the keyboard as he chatted with his father-in-law. Both Wagner and Liszt were staggered by Saint-Saëns’s ability first to decipher a hugely complicated and totally unfamiliar text in one medium and then somehow to reduce it all instantaneously to ten fluent fingers and a keyboard in another.
In the past hundred years, virtuoso performers who are also major composers, figures like Britten and Rachmaninov, have become increasingly rare. There is no one like that today, unless one considers extraordinary conductors – Pierre Boulez, for example, who is also a great composer – to be virtuoso performers akin to pianists and organists. Today’s concerts are extreme events, something quite apart from everyday life. Pollini or Barenboim or Yo-Yo Ma are individuals with unusual musical talent who perform a programme of music in a way that is at the same time risky and challenging for them and enjoyable and exciting for listeners: they don’t need to have the ability to do anything other than play extremely well. The musicians who teach or compose in addition to virtuoso playing are much more the exception than the layman thinks. Musical proficiency is a talent in and of itself, and that, I believe, is related to music’s nature as an esoteric art. Unlike the words of a great poem, which have all sorts of specific meanings and possibilities beyond those made use of by the poet, the notes in a piece of music in the end either refer back to themselves or to other music, and are uncorrupted by references or connotations that stand outside the actual sound. Programme music proves rather than contradicts this, since nine times out of ten it is the music which, by means of a few vaguely mimetic sounds (fifths played by ‘hunting’ horns, growls in the double basses meant to sound like a dragon, a march in a minor key that stands for an army’s defeat etc), confirms the programme rather than the other way round.
Until the mid-19th century, the sense and the intention, if not the meaning, of music derived to a considerable degree from the church (Protestant or Catholic) and the court. It is a cliché in musical history that Beethoven’s distinction as a musician was to have broken the submissive connection between the composer-performer such as Haydn (and many lesser others) and the great patrons, such as the Esterhazy family. Mozart was scarcely more than a lackey in imperial Vienna and a servitor in the Archbishop of Salzburg’s entourage, though our analysis isn’t yet sophisticated enough to allow us to tell whether, in their work, composers like Haydn and Mozart were really acting for, or against, the values and interests of their aristocratic patrons. Maybe one day a case will be made for seeing the Mozart operas with librettos by Da Ponte and some of his grander piano concertos – as well as Haydn’s Creation – as gestures of rebellion and adumbrations of alternative social forms. My own impression is that so much of the music of these two great court musicians is additionally challenging because it seems to express a chafing, in form and content, against the restraint and servility imposed on them by their social superiors. No one has doubted the personal anguish in, say, Mozart’s C minor and D minor piano concertos, or the quiet, although triumphal, self-satisfaction in The Creation (Haydn showing himself to be in direct contact with natural generation as opposed to the requirements of his patron): what if those works were also, internally, an expression of impatient self-assertion, of pushing against the form, stretching it beyond the limits of Charles Rosen’s rather too reconciliatory idea of ‘the classical style’?
One of the great strengths of Wolff’s biography is the detail he provides about Bach’s education and self-education and how, in practical terms, they dictated the kind of music – traditional, yet constantly pushing at the limits of what was acceptable – he would go on to write. Bach was born in 1685 to a family of musicians in the town of Eisenach, a newly independent principality, ‘well positioned on the so-called Hohe or Ober-Strasse – at the time a major trade and post route east-west in Germany – between Leipzig and Frankfort-on-the-Main’. His father Ambrosius was a piper and the director of the town’s music company, a position that required him to perform both in the town hall and in St George’s Church. Immersed in music from a very early age, Johann Sebastian carried on a family tradition that stretched back for generations and remained for the rest of his life a creature of the four institutions that ‘formed the foundation of 17th-century musical culture in Germany: town, court, school and church’.
Throughout the book, Wolff makes it clear that Bach was always reacquainting himself with the basics of his Latin and German education, the premise of which was that religious faith and the science of ‘real things’ were compatible and could be systematised together. The analogy between Bach and Newton that Wolff goes on to make (rather fitfully, but provocatively) is daring but, I think, plausible so long as we accept first that ‘belief in God as creator and the perfection of God’s creation’ were ‘central’ and, second, that the language of music and the language of science are commensurable. I’m not at all sure about the second assumption, although the first was common enough in the 17th and the earlier part of the 18th century.
I can, however, understand the attractiveness of this analogical argument to an assiduous biographer such as Wolff. The magnificence of Bach’s music, its polyphonic ingenuity, and its amazing way with the Lutheran as well as Latin liturgy do not square with the woefully inadequate terms of his unpleasantly hectic employment. Why did such a talent have to put up with the grinding routine and the genteel poverty and servility of his social role? Wolff speaks at one point of Bach’s desire for emancipation and autonomy, linking it (rather timidly) to a wish, in the composer’s early life, to explore the organs of North Germany, thereby eluding his chores for a little while. But this is scarcely enough to satisfy what must have been a genuine wish to break out of his lowly role as chorister-apprentice and, at a later time, loyal retainer in various courts, churches and schools.
He seems to have had a voracious appetite for musical knowledge throughout his school years, copying out scores, walking long distances to listen to other musicians, working long hours day and night. All this in addition to being locked into a rigorous schedule at his school, St Michael’s, in Lüneberg near Hamburg. There he had at his disposal both the harpsichord and the organ, which he studied under Georg Böhm, one of his most influential teachers, who introduced him ‘to the genre of stylised dance in general, and to French music and performance practices in particular … he also provided Bach with compositional models – preludes and fugues of his own and of other Northern composers as well as chorale variations, a genre in which he excelled.’ The wonder of it was that Bach took in everything that was available to him, made it his own, and then pressed on into new territory, even though the circumstances of his life and career were at a further and further remove from his creative energy.
The outlines of his post-school career are unsurprising for someone of his class and background, except in two respects. One is that, as Wolff shows, he was always open to musical experimentation and novelty, even though in all major respects he remained a dutiful Christian and traditionalist. From Italian composers such as Corelli, Albinoni and Legrenzi, he learned how to be proficient in ‘consistent and logical part writing, the design of closed and rounded movements, the differentiation between thematic expositions and related yet non-thematic episodes, and the integrated use and expansion of sequential patterns’. He also soon acquired an understanding of the ‘genuine French musical style and manner of performance’ – i.e. the courtly grace and galanterie prized by his aristocratic patrons. From Buxtehude and Pachelbel (known today only as the author of the lamentably ubiquitous canon) he took the magnificent contrapuntal modes and gave them an unprecedented grandeur. But all of this and more has to do exclusively with Bach’s music. The narrative of his life, except for his last years when, along with his exact contemporary Handel, he was the most celebrated musician in Germany, has so far been buried in the detail of acquiring, keeping and eventually leaving one or another job as organist and choirmaster.
Wolff records examples of Bach’s stubbornness, irascibility and quarrelsome nature. These episodes of unseemly or unexpected behaviour, like others illustrating Bach’s capacity for innovation, stand out from the dense fabric of dates, places, names, financial transactions, job descriptions, patrons, schedules, programmes and hypothetical situations that Wolff revels in. Suddenly, Bach leaps out at us, an animated, seething man whose musical reasoning sometimes overcomes or circumvents the trivial obstacles that make up his life.
In nearly every position that he occupied after completing his education, something of his intransigence may be glimpsed. Several of his students are on record as having been the butt of his arrogance and impatience. His relationships with the various feudal patrons and clerical higher-ups to whom he reports invariably reach a point of sometimes violent exasperation; in Weimar, for instance, he is jailed for almost a month because of his insubordination. He is always dissatisfied with his pay and shrewdly on the lookout for better employment while pretending to be happy where he is. He always wants more recognition and more freedom for himself, despite the fawning letters he writes to his providers. He is an eager combatant when it comes to other musicians, ever willing to accept duels in keyboard improvisation and virtuosity. During his early years of employment as a court musician, church choirmaster and schoolteacher in provincial towns like Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Weimar, so long as he has what Wolff calls ‘opportunities for exploration, experimentation and training’, he exploits them; once they are exhausted he begins to chafe and stirs up his situation so that he will be forced to leave.
According to Wolff, Bach had reached the peak of his keyboard mastery in 1710, at the age of 25; by 1714 he had already explored everything that was available in the harpsichord and organ literature. When the music he was asked to perform or teach seemed too affected and perhaps beneath consideration, he would become agitated and inventive – hence his revolutionary fingering ideas, devised to produce smooth playing and transform the thumb from an obstacle into an equal partner of the other fingers.
Wolff has amassed so much in the way of facts and quasi-facts about Bach’s life as a working musician that one begins to feel he is not so much trying to understand Bach from within (in the memorable phrase Ortega y Gasset applied to a study of Goethe), as compiling a book designed to pre-empt any other biography any time soon. No one else need try, you feel, when, for example, he informs us that we do not have the facts about the guest list or the music performed for Bach’s wedding (he married his first wife on 17 October 1707, ‘a Monday’, he adds helpfully) but then reels off a list of people who might have been there, and another list of pieces that might have been played. Certainly we need to know what Bach’s jobs were, how much he made, and what sort of duties he performed, but the much more valuable detail about the development of his musical mind, his compositional method and the overall structure of his work, is often drowned in lists of thalers, household duties and the like. It is as if Wolff hadn’t thought through or constructed a model in the Adornian sense for what might have been the role of the everyday in Bach’s life as well as its relationship to his deeper concerns about music.
There is no easy or ready-made method for discussing the life and work of a musician whose art in its essence is so different, so remote from his everyday chores or even his career. Yes, the occasions for Bach’s cantatas and organ music are plainly connected to the Biblical texts for a given Sunday in the liturgical calendar, as well as to the titles of Lutheran chorales, and Wolff is superbly complete in his descriptions of these. But when it comes to such long-term projects as the Clavier-Übung, the keyboard partitas and suites, the orchestral works, the chorales, the great contrapuntal studies, and even the choral works, which together form a mighty ensemble, he is disappointingly episodic (what little he says is nevertheless full of insight). Why, for example, was Bach so fascinated by the harmonic possibilities afforded by chorales that he kept producing and reharmonising them up to his last waking minute? What was that all about?
Wolff would have done better to talk about these matters separately, instead of interspersing comments here and there. A more fruitful approach would have been less positivistic, less relentlessly sequential, more reflective, in the manner of Maynard Solomon in his Beethoven and Mozart biographies, which present the known facts and then go on to talk imaginatively and at length about groups of works like Mozart’s serenades or Beethoven’s late quartets and sonatas. When Wolff refers in his preface to Bach’s life as ‘a highly fragmented mosaic’ and his biography as an attempt ‘to walk the bridge between two poles, the down-to-earth backdrop of Bach’s life and the intellectual framework of his artistry’, he underestimates the dissipating effect of that fragmentation. Indeed it’s almost impossible for the reader to see the overarching design of this complex oeuvre even though it is clear from listening to a handful of pieces that there was such a design and that it is worth trying to reconstruct speculatively in a biography as opulent and generous as this one. Better than telling us who the guests might have been at the composer’s wedding.
Wolff’s unwillingness to provide a really imaginative aesthetic construction of Bach is further underlined by what he says at the end of his book about the splitting up of the composer’s estate after his death in 1750. He argues that because many manuscripts were lost or went to different heirs, it became impossible to establish Bach’s musical legacy in its totality for another fifty years. He draws a comparison with Newton: ‘the main ideas for which their work stood were clearly present, even already at work’ in what was recovered or already accomplished before they died.
What then is this stubborn totality that survived, this musical paradigm, which Wolff goes on to characterise summarily as ‘principled yet moving, scientific, yet human’? Isn’t it possible to say more about it from our vantage point? Wolff’s reticence on this matter is all the more poignant for the fact that Bach himself tried to deal with the matter – unsuccessfully or incompletely, as it turns out. In 1735, at the peak of his success – he was soon to be made Electoral Saxon and Polish Court compositeur while still employed at St Thomas’s School in Leipzig – Bach is described by Wolff as attempting to recapitulate the main outlines of his life in a genealogical sketch and family tree. In so doing he
was opening a broad historical spectrum that induced him to look in two directions: the musical past of his family and its future – ancestors on one side and his own children on the other – with himself in the middle. The past, present and future of the family tangibly mirrored the past, present and future of music within his realm and reach … So he embarked on a journey of reflection to critically survey his major works and set the stage for such large-scale projects as The Art of Fugue and the B minor Mass.
Bach seems to have been trying for more and more inclusiveness in his compositions: not just one partita or one prelude and fugue, but a whole slew of them, pushing at the limits of composition and, apparently, at the limits of the daily round, with a string of posts at Arnstadt (1703-7), Mühlhausen (1707-8), Weimar (1708-17), Cöthen (1717-23) and finally Leipzig (1723-50), where he spent the best part of his working life as Cantor et Director Musices. His first wife had died in 1720; the following year he married Anna Magdalena Wilcke and produced several children to add to those he had had with his first wife (some of whom died in infancy).
An endless schedule of teaching, composing, performing, drilling, quarrelling (with musicians or students or anyone else), worshipping and serving seems to have impelled Bach to rectify this time of dissipated effort aesthetically, not just in the composition of more and more abstruse pieces, but in works whose core identity was a compendium of elaborations which encircled, regrouped and reformed sequences of notes and themes into prodigiously detailed structures of contrapuntal sound. In such structures no individual note or even work has a merely ornamental or digressive function: everything – melody, harmony, rhythm, tonality, genre – plays a role. One can get a sense of this extraordinary animation of every last detail from the vast collection of harmonised chorales that Bach produced to the Passions, the B minor Mass and the cantatas, over two hundred of which have survived the loss and destruction of as many again.
The pity of it is that from time to time Wolff has much that is penetrating to say about the work itself – his scattered comments about Bach’s status as learned musician, an adept at ‘musical science’, are just one instance. To my mind, the theme of music being an intermediary between God and the reality of this world suggests not just a servile adulation of God and his work, but also an unconscious desire to rival it, which grows more apparent in massive late works like The Art of Fugue, the B minor Mass and the Goldberg Variations. Unfortunately, because he takes Bach’s almost tiresome piety at face value, Wolff doesn’t even entertain the possibility of rebelliousness. Bach would have been well aware of his power to generate what one contemporary called ‘strange, new, expressive and beautiful ideas’ that must have seemed now and then to have escaped God’s dominion entirely, and to have assumed the outlines of a separate world altogether.
He remains one of the few composers – late Beethoven, Wagner and Schoenberg come to mind – who spent a great deal of time exploring tonality, modality, harmony, the various combinatorial possibilities of themes, rhythm and variation. In Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann speaks of Adrien Leverkuhn’s (and his father’s) inclination ‘to speculate the elements’ (die elementa spekulieren) – that ultimately dangerous pursuit of dabbling not just in nature’s oddities (inanimate crystals that behave like animate forms, for instance) but in alchemy, necromancy and magic, arts not unrelated to music, which put the speculator in the position of creator. In fact, Mann associates the practice of music itself with theology, with Leverkuhn’s demonic pact, and with Germany’s modern perdition. These associations are even more suggestive in the retrospective case of Bach because it is his polyphonic music in particular that makes Adrien an original composer.
I’d like to take Wolff further for a moment or two than he is willing to go, although the analogy with a great scientist is his not mine. All the evidence we have about Bach the performer and Bach the contrapuntal genius-composer is that he had an uncanny power with individual phrases or themes whose combinatorial potential he could understand at a glance. Bach and the Patterns of Invention (1996), a brilliant study by Laurence Dreyfus, reveals how his creative powers derive from a capacity for finding (inventio), fetching out and knowing how to use all the combinations of which a given phrase was capable. Like a mathematician with a rare insight into the heart of natural numbers, what their basic properties are, the way they cohere, combine and behave in groups, Bach saw into the tonal system, discerning its potential for concentration, expansion, expression and elaboration, its harmonic as well as melodic capacities, the rhythmical and logical compatibilities of groups of notes, as well as the articulation of inherently beautiful phrases taken from a huge number of possibilities. No one else in musical history has had that power to such a degree. This meant, as Dreyfus has been by far the most perceptive in arguing, that, taking an almost random selection of notes such as the King’s Theme in The Musical Offering, Bach was able on the spot to put it through every permutation and also to keep those combinations occurring together according to a rigorous set of rules over which he had complete mastery. And on top of all that, he had the digital skill and the instant mind-to-hand power to perform such work at the keyboard, without preparation.
The sheer quantity of Bach’s work adds to one’s amazement. He went from job and job, from Mühlhausen, to Weimar, to Cöthen where, as Wolff points out, he managed to produce ‘the Brandenburg Concertos, the French Suites, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the suites for solo cello’. Any of these might be considered a monument, but Bach’s compositional energies seemed habitually to express themselves in groups of pieces, as if – to use Wolff’s phrase – he resolved ‘to leave nothing untried’. Once started on a work, he let it grow, from an often humdrum or undistinguished core (and in one of his most astonishingly complex late pieces, the Canonic Variations for organ on the chorale melody ‘Von Himmel hoch’, from an almost childish figure), to far-reaching structures, unimaginable to even the most practised musical mind. The little D minor theme in The Art of Fugue is one such example, as is the bassline of the aria of the Goldberg Variations (essentially a descending G major scale), or the King’s Theme in perhaps the greatest of his contrapuntal masterpieces, the ricercare of The Musical Offering. Wolff is particularly fine on the word-generated music of the cantatas, as rich and complex as anything Bach wrote.
In the deliberate, patient, overwhelmingly plotted and elaborated texture of his work, Bach is Beethoven’s exact opposite. Even in those late compositions that show the direct influence of Bach’s counterpoint (the fugues of Opus 106, 110 or 130, the Missa solemnis and others) Beethoven’s mode is dramatic, pulsing forward in phrases of irrepressible energy, conquering territory and moving on rather than consolidating and encircling in an ever-widening arc as Bach does. Every one of Beethoven’s works contains a different set of methods for this attack, whether in the statement, development or recapitulation, very often via tiny themelets that are scarcely more than broken triads (as in the first movement of the Eroica) or thematic patterns fashioned out of repeated notes (the first and second movements of the Seventh Symphony). Bach is epic; Beethoven drama. What I find so compelling about Bach’s last works (the B minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations, The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering) is that, unlike Beethoven, whose third-period works tear apart the genre and leave a set of broken, unfinished, fragmentary forms, Bach seems intent on incorporating every nuance, every twist, every harmony and rhythm.
Steeped as he was in Protestant belief, drilled in its practices, immersed in its music and lore, Bach remains the pious-seeming Christian, which is how all of his interpretive biographers, especially Albert Schweitzer, have persuaded themselves to see him. Yet there is something unmistakably demonic and frightening about his fervour. Of course, he worked on his study of technique and on his scores, but in almost all of them he achieved feats of creativity that must have left him deeply impressed by his own gifts. One can’t help wondering whether all the piety and expressions of humility before God weren’t also Bach’s way of keeping something considerably darker – more exuberant, more hubristic, verging on the blasphemous – at bay, something within himself, which his music with its contrapuntal wizardry also communicates. Surely Wolff must have glimpsed something of that.
Despite its problematic reticence and structure, Wolff’s biography is an invaluable achievement. Not only does it present all the facts clearly and unambiguously, it allows the reader to appreciate the immense labours that filled Bach’s life. There is scarcely a moment of leisure that stands out, even though he seems to have lived a more or less contented domestic life. The heights and depths of emotion are there in his music, however, along with the tremendous range of expression and ravenous articulation of emotion. Beyond the bursts of irascibility and impatience, and the ghostly outlines of a cosmic musical ambition, the great Kapellmeister is convincingly a true believer, a devout Lutheran whose ostensible mission was the glory of God and, to a lesser extent, the fulfilment of his worldly duties. Whatever else he may have felt (his letters provide few clues) we can only intuit from the rare moments when his life and music come together unexpectedly. Wolff offers one such scene from July 1750, as Bach lay on his deathbed, his illness having prevented him from concluding the last piece in The Art of Fugue. This piece still stands, and is performed, as a great torso of a fugue, suddenly broken off after the letters BACH are sounded in the music (in German nomenclature, B is what we would call B flat and H is B natural).
Bach asked ‘a friend’ … to play for him, on his pedal harpsichord, the chorale ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’ (‘When we are in the greatest distress’), BWV 668, now hearing it as a setting of ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’ (‘Before your throne I now appear’). Listening to the piece, he realised that it could benefit from some improvements in a number of contrapuntal, melodic and rhythmic details. He then asked the friend to change the heading of the chorale to ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’ and dictated the changes deemed necessary in order for him to be ready to appear before his Creator’s throne … The extant sources for this extraordinary organ chorale … indisputably verify the composer’s involvement, both spiritual and artistic, with the larger setting close to his end. They offer a true glimpse at Bach’s deep-rooted devoutness … At the same time, the emendations that elevate the final version, ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit,’ from the earlier ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’ represent a final instance of a lifelong striving for musical perfection.
Bach’s unappeased creative energy is so powerfully clear in this vignette that we demur at Wolff’s use of the words ‘involvement’ and ‘devoutness’. Much more is at work here, and this is why Wolff is correct to add that last, slightly dissonant observation. Unappeasable.