--Somebody (we're not really sure who)
Yesterday I indicated that I don't much care for Baroque music, because of its inherent sanity. But as in all things, there are exceptions, and the major one for me is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music transcends nearly everything. Bach is one of the great transformational figures of all time, and there are very few figures in the history of Western music whose influence has been so wide-spread and so lasting.
Why is this? Well, the above quote provides a way in. Writing about music is slippery business, because it's just plain hard to capture in one medium the essence of another. As Leonard Bernstein once wrote, in discussing a Chopin etude, "If Chopin could have said in words what he was trying to say with the music, why would he have used music at all?" When writing about music, we can only ever get what feels to the writer an approximation of the essence of the work, which is why good music writing is so hard to find and so valuable.
The quote above also pertains to Bach in that, in the course of drawing an absurd metaphor in order to make a point, it uses precisely the word that leaps to mind when I think of Bach's music. That word is architecture.
Bach's music is, to me, architectural. It is mathematical. Now, to some that might make it sound like the music is clinical and sterile in emotion, but nothing could be further from the truth. Bach's music often suggests, more than any other composer's, something cosmic, and his work springs from the deep connections between music and mathematics. It's the primal sense of wonder that may well be the very first emotion we all experience, that sense of grandeur before a Universe that is vaster than we can conceptualize and yet we have innate abilities to conceptualize a great deal of it. That's what Bach means to me.
Architecture. Every great Bach work is an edifice, in which you can sense each musical building block as it is laid into place. In every great Bach work, you can see how each phrase relates to another, how each chord is structured together. The melodies that emerge from the unerring logic of his musical architecture make sense in a way that few other composers' do, and it's that emergent quality of his melodies that is so remarkable about them. Bach draws the ear to a certain place just as a great architect, or painter, knows how to draw the eye to a certain place.
Here is one of Bach's most famous works, and indeed, one of the most famous musical works in the entire history of the world: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I'm providing three versions here. First, you can hear the work as it may have originally been heard, as written for church organ. In the second, the Toccata is played as a MIDI recording (surprisingly good-sounding), but with an accompanying visualization that really clarifies the way Bach stitched this astonishing piece together. And finally, you can hear what many purists likely consider an abomination, but which I enjoy a great deal: Leopold Stokowski's arrangement of the Toccata for full orchestra, in the piece's segment from the Disney film Fantasia (Watching Stokowski here, I always wonder if he was mugging or if that's really how he conducted, because some of his motions are incomprehensible).
Tomorrow: a piece that chewed up the teenage me and spit me back out.