Bach in Memoriam

Washington Times 8.22.00
Balint Vazsonyi

On July 28, the world remembered the passing of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, two hundred and fifty years ago that day. On second thought, "passing" is a rather inappropriate choice of words on this occasion. To borrow a phrase from Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," whatever else shall pass, this must remain.

Among all forms of artistic expression, music must be the oldest. Among all forms of artistic expression, music had to wait the longest to reach levels other art forms had experienced repeatedly during earlier periods of history. Why? Historians, musicologists have been puzzling over this phenomenon, proposing numerous explanations or resorting to the most popular mind game of our time: declaring greatness where there was none. That, and other aspects of this anniversary justify a place amidst political commentaries.

To be sure, music reached certain peaks during the 16th and 17th centuries. Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Baptiste Lully are just some of the outstanding names. Famous schools evolved in the Netherlands, in Venice, in Naples. Important types of musical composition were established. Counterpoint emerged as an essential device. But respect for these accomplishments cannot hide reality: whether we look at the greatest representatives of architecture, sculpture, painting or literature, we search in vain for their equivalent in music. It seemed as if music had been forever relegated to the servants' quarters.

And then, Bach.

Most likely it contradicts every contemporary theory that one man, a very humble man at that, could become the source of two hundred plus years of glorious music, and at the same time remain its highest peak - the unattainable perfection all his successors sought in vain. But it is reassuring to recall that the average life span of a contemporary theory rarely exceeds a decade while Bach continues to be Bach, century after century.

What Bach invented (discovered?) is nothing less than music as a universal emotional signal system. In practice, that means a certain sequence of notes evokes a similar emotional response from human beings across time and space.

At the fundamental level, a certain turn of a musical phrase, a certain succession of harmonies carries the same message - whether received through the heavenly equilibrium of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the power and humanity of Ludwig van Beethoven, the ravishing sounds of Frédéric Chopin, the intoxicating surge of Richard Wagner, or the suppressed anguish of Béla Bartók. At the fundamental level, a certain turn of a musical phrase, a certain succession of harmonies will communicate the same message in 1827 to linen merchants in Leipzig, Germany, in 1927 to a budding composer in Argentina, or in 2000 to Chinese students reopening their minds to the world.

The models for those turns of a musical phrase, those successions of harmony will be found in the musical output of Bach, which still baffles with its sheer quantity. That so much music could be written out in a hand so beautiful in and of itself to behold, with hardly a correction applied, reveals supreme order inside the extraordinary mind at work.

But all that pales before the substance. The substance is how the music is able to speak to us all. Much has been said and written about how good composers come up with a memorable melody, then harmonize it perfectly. And it is harmonies that carry the emotional content. Thus, much music - and not only classical music - is, and has been, harmonized melody.

Bach created the reverse: melodized harmony. In other words, every step, every turn in a melodic line implies a harmony, and thus carries the same emotional content as harmonies. Proof: we continue to respond. Proof: for two centuries, composers produced gold upon that same premise, making up music's lag of millennia, and then some. Only when, led by Arnold Schönberg, composers abandoned Bach's invention (discovery?) did the gates close once again.

I keep wondering about discovery versus invention because it is as if these self-evident truths about music had existed in nature, waiting for someone to harness them. We shall never know. Be that as it may, Bach applied them to every conceivable type of composition, creating on the way a particular character for every major and minor key in the "Well-Tempered Clavier," a history of mankind in the "St. Matthew Passion," and the highest product of the human intellect: the Bach Fugue.

He did not invent the fugue, that most rule-governed device in music which requires the weaving of simultaneous melodic strands unfolding so they coincide in legitimate harmonies without losing their independence, all conforming to stringent structural patterns. Nothing is more prone to becoming a mind game. Nothing proved Bach's unique genius more conclusively than the sheer musical beauty he achieved in his fugues, so that intellectual appreciation of their inimitable mastery remains an optional extra.

Inimitable - the key word. Nothing tells the story more eloquently than the continuous study of his works in which the greatest masters of music engaged throughout their lives. Nothing tells the story more eloquently than the remarkable aspiration we encounter at the end of the lives of great composers to be worthy of Johann Sebastian Bach's company as they prepare to join him. The time for composing fugues ended even before Bach's death. Yet, be it Mozart, or Beethoven, Johannes Brahms - or even Giuseppe Verdi of Italian opera, they all make the gigantic and anachronistic effort of a grand fugue or two, or three at the end of the road.

Bach did not seek change; he did not place a premium on "new." He worked ceaselessly at understanding a kind of natural law about music, and perfected its expression and communication to others. As long as others - specifically composers who came after him - subordinated their gifts to those same laws, sublime art continued to result for the enrichment of all. As soon as the laws came to be ignored, the music fell silent.

This country was founded by men who worked ceaselessly at understanding a kind of natural law about human society. If we continue to ignore it, their legacy will go the same way.