You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bach’s Music, Back Then and Right Now

Reinventing Bach
By Paul Elie
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 498 pp., $30)

THE ONLY TWO things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex. And yet in our era—so consumed with both—Bach has not lost his appeal. Bach’s ongoing star quality and his endless DNA-like capacity for mutation and adaptation are the subject of Paul Elie’s passionate and grand book. It is a work with a cast of thousands, circling its protagonist. I got the feeling as I read along that Bach was coursing through history like a fugal superhero. There really was no end to his capabilities: repairing organs, dispensing epiphanies, keeping pace with technological transformation, driving Glenn Gould insane, healing wounds of war, being ignored in the D.C. metro, helping Steve Jobs to release the iPad. Citizens of Gotham, look to your stereos!

At this point nobody needs to be told that Bach is good. The votes are in. But mass approval is a force to be reckoned with, and the intensity of humanity’s worship of Bach has unforeseen consequences. I propose to reverse-engineer the usual praise. Rather than using our words to measure his goodness, we can use his music as a standard to measure our ideas of the good, to assess our prejudices about virtue.

An iconic place to start is the almost-too-famous opening of the forty-eight preludes and fugues known as the Well-Tempered Clavier. (Beethoven called this collection the Bible.) The first prelude is the foundation—let there be light!—and what you see on the page is a set of arpeggios, nothing more. For the premise of a grand project there is no grandiosity; there are only three austerities. There is no melody; each measure has the same rhythm; each measure has the same contour. In this monotonous stream of arpeggios, there is no distraction, no “surface noise,” and so we hear clearly when two notes come dissonantly close and are resolved, and we take notice when a voice leaps up, climbs, or descends in a long line: all these motions, the raw materials of musical meaning, are revealed like stage machinery that suddenly comes out from behind the scenes. The craft of voice-leading itself becomes the focus of attention, and proves more riveting than the usual show.  

Like thorough, unbiased reporting that challenges your way of thinking? Subscribe to The New Republic for $3.99/month.

One could go on and on with instances in which Bach, through one stratagem or another, draws our ear straight to the movement of the pitches. This element of Bach’s music—the compositional gesture directing us to “just the notes,” as if music were not just notes anyway—gets transferred into the world of Bach interpretation, into the mystique of his devotees. Here is a typical example, from a profile of the fine pianist Angela Hewitt, a Bach specialist, in The New York Times: “... the greatest compliment for Ms. Hewitt came from her father, who after listening to one of her recordings, said: ‘I didn’t hear you. I only heard Bach.’” It is a bit strange for an artist to vanish in her own profile—but this is the clichéd credo of Bach performance. You hear it all the time in Bach lessons and master classes: the student is told not to add anything of himself, to avoid the personal, to stick with the universal, to dissolve into the composer. The personal is an impurity and Bach is distilled water. Purity arrives very early in Elie’s book, on page nine: Bach is “the great exception, a site of purity in our sullied lives.” And later Elie writes a poetic passage about vanishing: “The organist is done away with. So is the church building. So are the limits of space and time, of stamina and attention. The music of Bach is all that is left....”

This is Bach as David Copperfield, making everything disappear. It is powerful and very prevalent, this desire for nothing but Bach pure, this trope of the falling away of all the specific trappings, leaving the universal essence behind. In this respect, we may compare Bach with the other father figure of “classical music”: Beethoven is great, but he is not pure. Beethoven reached toward a tortured purity in the late years, and attained a noble perfection in the middle ones (the “Archduke” Trio); but he himself never vanishes. His music seems hewn out of his will, an assertion of the individual and the artist as hero. Bach, by contrast, self-effaces. He is no hero; it is we who have made an unwilling hero out of him.

ONE GREAT advantage Bach has over Beethoven is counterpoint. Late in life Beethoven obsessed over Bach, working at counterpoint and fugue feverishly—as if to purify himself, to escape from the heroic sonata forms that he had brought to their apex. In a “song without words” by Mendelssohn or a nocturne by Chopin, you usually have the opposite of counterpoint: a melody over repeated chords or a texture of arpeggios—that is, filler, something to make the chords last some time while the melody melodizes. There is a hierarchical distinction between foreground and background, between the prominent main voice and the backup band. But in “true counterpoint” no voice is the lapdog of a melody; each voice lives independently. For us humble listeners, whose lives are filled with filler, this seems like an unattainable miracle: everything counts.

Bach’s insistence on the integrity of every voice (against history, against fashion) is a second form of purity, to set beside his humility. But he is not done being pure, not by a long shot: more than any other composer, Bach represents the triumph of pure logic. He is synonymous with the fugue—the music of proposition, propagation, permutation. And the fugue was hardly the most math-like of his genres. Elie describes the discovery of the “puzzle canons,” based on the “Goldberg” bass, which musicologists scrambled to solve: music as Sudoku. One of Bach’s sons related the story that his father would hear a musical idea and would instantaneously know all the operations that could be carried out on it. Think about it—a musical idea is not a catchy tune, it is something operable; calculations can be performed on it. Like a musical-mathematical savant, Bach would then wait for these things to occur: for the idea to be played backward (retrograde), or upside down (inversion), or twice as slow (augmentation), whatever; and he was gleeful when arcane combinatorial expectations were met. It is a powerful element of the Bach aura: no matter how much you tell yourself that it’s just music, you cannot resist hearing the play of numbers, the cosmic calculus.

As a rule we don’t want music to act like Spock. We want it to let go, to make us feel, to express inward states. But Bach is a multi-tasker: his logic is unassailable but is not tedious. His proofs soar. He captures the deepest feeling while remaining perfectly logical, thereby demonstrating that those imperatives are not at all opposed. On the strength of this tremendous logic, Nicolas Slonimsky labeled Bach the “supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music,” which seems like hyperbole but isn’t. Bach is much more than a logician—he is Moses, minus Charlton Heston, handing down commandments. Bach’s laws similarly tend to come in convenient even-numbered packages: the thirty-two parts of the Goldbergs, the forty-eight preludes and fugues, the six cello suites, the six keyboard partitas. They lay down prescriptions about harmony, about the treatment of dissonance, about design and voice-leading—musical morals that most people would never understand but can perceive through Bach’s vision.

Bach’s examples did not intimidate the whole nineteenth century, the way Beethoven’s did, but they were never questioned. We tend to glorify composers who break or stretch the laws: Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Debussy. Bach is the exception, a composer whom we love for his rules. And having created them, he sets up shop in them, and takes inspiration from their self-evident goodness. The commandments generate freedom. Owing to this lawfulness, Bach’s choices come to feel permanent, and immune from passing style and taste; they give the illusion of being facts. All other composers seem to be writing novels, but Bach writes non-fiction.


BACH HAS QUITE a hoard of virtues. The rectitude is almost annoying: selflessness married to reason married to imagination married to lawfulness married to craft. Bach is a mirror to everything we would like to be; he is almost too good to be true, to be believed. But we believe in Bach on the evidence of the notes themselves. Having invoked fact, law, and logic, I think the larger and more precise term, the umbrella term, to sum up Bach’s mystique is truth. There is a lot of talk of truth and truthiness these days—the death of truth, a post-truth era, and a proliferation of fact checkers debasing the currency in which they pretend to trade. But in Bach’s case we are talking about a certain kind of truth, a necessary truth, even a divine truth, something unarguable. Bach allows us to deny our suspicion that music may be a tissue of lies, a sensory decadence. You cannot wander far into Bach discussion without the invocation of the divine, even in connection with his secular works: cue Beethoven’s “Well-Tempered Bible,” Lipatti’s remark that Bach was “one of the ‘chosen instruments of God himself,’” and Goethe’s observation that it is “as if the eternal harmony were communing with itself, as might have happened in God’s bosom shortly before the creation of the world.” Combine the feeling of divinity with the experience of Bach’s logic and system and you have an intoxicating combination, as if the Bible made perfect sense.

Closely following upon the invocation of God is the invocation of virtue: Bach is music’s claim to morality. Perhaps this last step is the most dangerous. It is a lot for music to bear, this conflation with truth, not to mention virtue. Arguments about Bach become proxy arguments about purity and authenticity. For some reason, people love to tell the story of Wanda Landowska saying to Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” A memorable boast (and insult), but underneath it you can feel Bach’s truth getting carved up, subjected to territorial disputes. The certitude of Bach’s command of tones seems, like a virus, to infect some artists who play him.

Consider Glenn Gould’s admiring reaction, when he heard Rosalyn Tureck:

It was playing of such uprightness, to put it into the moral sphere. There was such a sense of repose that had nothing to do with languor, but rather with moral rectitude in the liturgical sense.

This seems to me a bit of a word salad—what is the liturgical sense of rectitude?—but the gist is clear: Bach is to be played uprightly, ethically, correctly. And then read Rosalyn Tureck in turn: “Bach is more than music. It reveals to us, who will listen and perceive, the world to which the highest ideals of man aspire.” Even casting aside the slightly possessive and cultish “us,” think about it: Tureck is not making interpretative choices about the relations of musical tones, she is making choices about the highest ideals of man. Returning to Angela Hewitt’s Times profile, she says at one point that in Bach “there’s no room for fuss or superfluous gestures” and at another that her gowns “reflect my playing: not too frilly.” It’s not hard to read these code words: languor v. rectitude, frilly, fuss, and so on. Out of Bach’s universal appeal, by some compensatory law, there arise insidious tendencies to moralism, severity, even Puritanical judgment. 


ELIE’S BOOK is a weave of stories, emulating the play of voices in Bach’s music, and he is not shy about the moral strand: he makes connections between a devotion to Bach and a devotion to causes. The first story we encounter is Albert Schweitzer, aged and at a quandary, recording the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in London in 1935:

Thirty years earlier he had renounced a life in music for one in medicine, training to run a clinic for poor people at the village of Lambaréné in the French Congo.... He had wanted to do “something small in the spirit of Jesus”—to make his life an argument for a way of being.... But his act of renunciation had turned into something else: a double life.... Might it not have been better to do something small the way Bach had done, hunkering down behind the organ in Leipzig ...?

Right away Elie hits us with music as a moral choice. He reminds us of Schweitzer’s reputation, and of its decline. Once dubbed “the greatest man in the world” by Life, he “now appears a problematic, compromised figure: his project paternalistic, his methods condescending....” But, Elie suggests, the recording will endure, if all his good deeds will not: ten minutes of great playing outweigh a lifetime of virtue. Eventually Schweitzer’s story comes into contact with that of a successor, Pablo Casals:

His experience of war would shape the efforts of his later life into an extramusical role: the artist of conscience, who gives voice to human ideals in the face of diabolical powers.... [He] was now known for statements, not concerts.... [He] was the very image of moral independence—of the freedom of the individual to judge right from wrong and act accordingly.

I kept wishing that Elie would dig more deeply into the oddness of the odd couple he has brought together: the divinity of Bach and all his moral associations, and the super-secular microphone, an amoral, utterly neutral agent if ever there was one. Just as the art of recording begins to mature, and the story begins to get a bit decadent, leaving Africa (Schweitzer) and war-torn Europe (Casals) for film studios in Hollywood and Santa Barbara (Stokowski), we come across the most peculiar and famous of our heroes, an anti-divinity in his own right. I am referring, of course, to Glenn Gould. He arrives armed and dangerous, a crusader, in the wake of hearing Tureck:

I was fighting a battle in which I was never going to get a surrender flag from my teacher on the way Bach should go, but her records were the first evidence that one did not fight alone.

From this point on, a huge portion of the book is about Gould, which is, alas, inevitable. Figures such as Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim are relegated to cameos. Gould’s story is certainly powerful, and he deserves to be the hero of this tale: he re-invented Bach more radically than anyone else, with a tremendous impact on the world’s understanding of one of the world’s most over-understood composers. But it is really shocking to look back at all the Bachian virtues that we have enumerated, and then contemplate the Gould phenomenon. Against humility, logic, and reason, against Bach’s continuity, his bounded comforting cosmos, we have the fanatically crisp articulation, the humming, the pills, the social ineptitude, the extreme tempi, the ridiculous chair, the retreat into the studio, the media savvy, the anti-lyricism, the recordings made out of spite, the hands soaked in boiling water—this is the madman who became the face of Bach, the paragon of universal Bach. How could this happen? (As I get outraged about Glenn Gould, I realize that I, too, am falling into the moralistic trap.)

The easy answer to my question, of course, is Gould’s electrifying genius. But there is a second factor in Gould’s rise to domination in the interpretation of Bach: a backlash against an image. After Schweitzer, Casals, Landowska, and all their ethical seriousness, all their purity and their conscience, the thing that Bach lacked in the public imagination was the bizarre and the perverse. Gould filled the hole. Sometimes he found perversity in the music and teased it out, but mostly he just slathered it on; piece after piece, he made brilliant but deeply unintuitive, “unnatural” choices, and made them work through sheer force of will, refusing to vanish. He de-coupled logic and virtue.

So we want Bach’s music to be universal, transpersonal, a conduit to the divine, but we also want bizarre insane celebrities to play it. Perhaps we have decided as a civilization that truth is more maniacal, more partial, than it used to be? Elie claims that Gould, in recording the Goldberg Variations, “transcended himself: his isolation and awkwardness, his phobias and idiosyncrasies.” I would argue the opposite: that Gould immortalized his phobias, by grafting them onto Bach. This is not all bad. Gould’s phobias and manias immediately erase the distance of centuries; they dissolve the varnish that has piled up, and make Bach one with the anxieties of the present.

Elie’s book, almost by accident, makes you compare the save-the-world mentality of Schweitzer and Casals with the avoid-the-world mentality of Gould; and gradually the artists seem less like saints than musicians with press releases. As you read about all these icons of Bach performance, you are reminded of Bach’s propensity toward high priests and priestesses. Beethoven specialists are known as great musicians, great interpreters, whereas Bach specialists tend to be viewed vatically, as mediums. I found myself connecting Casals’s moaning and Gould’s humming—for a composer who is supposed to be pure, we sure enjoy a lot of extraneous noise!—the musical equivalent of speaking in tongues, channeling, a kind of cultish signal, a sonic signature of being on the right occult frequency to communicate with the master.

THIS IS a big book, and as someone who struggles with the difficulty of writing about music, this reader felt a lot of empathy for the writer: how do you write about Bach for hundreds of pages without musical examples? You run across a fair number of passages such as this:

With those first long strokes of the bow, a line is being drawn, a series of ultimatums issued.... He might be singing a dirge on the battleground as the smoke clears; the music stays in place as he surveys the damage—the collapsed towers, the skeletal buildings ...

and this:

[In] this Bach suite he slips in quietly, almost accidentally, pulling the first note out of nowhere with the bow, so that the note, a low G, goes from soft to loud from the beginning of the stroke to the end. It is a sexual entry, a lover’s deft approach. All of a sudden we are in ...

Yes, he is describing a particular performance, not Bach’s music itself, but still these passages feel like erotica written by someone whose fetishes are different from mine. I found myself in a zone too far away, reading someone’s ideas about someone else’s ideas about Bach’s ideas, and so I sat at the piano to play, with the dubious motive of purifying myself. I started in on the opening movement of the F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, BWV 1018, because it has an extraordinary snuck-in entrance, like the one Elie describes, and it is a perfect example of Bach’s way with truth, logic, and musical metaphor.

The piece begins with a keyboard solo. The violin is nowhere to be found, silent for a good while: this silence is a mystery to be solved. We are in a slow triple time, and the main idea of the piece is exactly three beats long. Each time that we hear the melody, another bar has gone by, another unit of time, another moment of our lives. The keyboard plays the main idea once in the top voice, then travels lower into the middle voice—it is measuring out two units of time, pacing them out. At the same time, however, the harmony is static; we are treading water. (Music is especially hospitable to nuances and paradoxes of motion and stillness.) Then comes the crucial change-up: three bars where the harmony is allowed to move. This happens because—everything in Bach happens because!—the melodic idea continues its journey downward, and ends up in the lowest voice. It’s as if something from the sky moves underground, and shifts the foundation under your feet. Bach is all about the beauties of consequences.

Now that the melody has moved down to the bass, there is room for something new in the upper voices. But Bach doesn’t have to invent something: why would he? He fills it with the most obvious thing at hand: he extracts the first two notes of the existing melody, elongates them, enchains them. He fashions a gorgeous long melody line out of them so that they interact dissonantly—even a bit painfully, you might say—with the faster melody in the bass. Bach demonstrates a thing interacting painfully with itself. 

It’s as simple as A and B: two bars of consonant stasis, then three bars of dissonant flux, in which the possibilities of the idea presented in stasis are now seen in motion. This is the kind of basic contrast, a glimpse of two kinds of musical possibility, two temporal states, that Bach is able to wring our hearts with. In fact, at the end of the three moving bars the keyboard reaches the most pained and disturbing of the dissonances. And here comes the magical elided solution to the mystery of the silence of the violin: Bach leaves this last dissonance unresolved, and just at that ambiguous moment—at the end of an unsettling motion that has not quite found a resting place—the violin at last enters, playing an unmoving held note, C. Though not a resolution, this note appears in the guise of one. It doesn’t resolve the unresolved thing; it substitutes a different solution out of nowhere.

Surreptitious, lacking in fanfare, deliberately hidden, the violin holds onto this single note for two measures, like an unblinking gaze. The sustained note has no relation to time, while the keyboard, on which every note decays, keeps marking time, seemingly unaffected. After two bars of this haunting dialectic, the violin leaves the held note to play one unremarkable measure of melody, then immediately, just as unexpectedly as it entered, returns to its earlier silence. This is Bach’s perverse, reverse masterstroke. The stage was beautifully set for nearly nothing. We are left listening to the keyboard again; time resumes. It was an ephemeral moment of eternity.

I hope it is clear from the preceding analysis how each boringly described parameter—two bars of this, then three bars of that, dissonance, enchaining—summons tremendous resonances: a resolution that comes from an utterly unexpected direction; a tension between different senses of time; the power of expectation; the linking of beauty and dissonance, of beauty and pain. The instruments themselves are imbued with symbolic identities, on two sides of a thought-divide. All these things are activated immediately, in a way that Mozart and Haydn can hardly dream of. Eight bars into the “Jupiter” Symphony, for example, Mozart has barely been able to sketch out a premise, whereas some eight bars into this humble violin and keyboard sonata Bach has already created a complex philosophical web. This difference is owed in part to the conventions of the classical style, of course, but also it has something to do with Bach’s specialness. Bach’s purity lies in this promiscuous symbolic reach, grabbing onto a million philosophical ladders at once.


ESSAYS IN TRUTH: in pieces such as BWV 1018, arching forms, in which the last perfect logical permutation clicks into place heartrendingly (one last contribution of the violin, a new counterpoint to the keyboard’s dissonant sequence), Bach draws a distinction between truth as compressed into aphorism (the truism, the talking point, the slogan) and truth as a practice. The sort of musical truths that Bach sketches out—unrepeatable, as no other composer ever came close to replicating these foundational experiments—are the opposite of the inspirational pronouncement. Unfolded over time, in an uncanny mix of narrative and repose, they are not intended to dazzle. They are intended to be lived in; they are well-made like a blade or a bell that rings true.

The conversion of this sort of Bachian verity into a slogan, a flag, or a school is unavoidable but unfortunate. Bach has been used as a weapon with which to attack the “Romantic,” whatever that word means: the pedal is an evil, rubato is indulgent, the piano is a monstrous anachronism, and so on. We use him as a litmus test, a way to define genuine or truthful expression. Elie’s epic makes some reference to a big battle of Bach performance practice enacted over the course of the twentieth century: a move from slow to fast. I have absorbed both ends of this partisan spectrum, from the wonderful gray-haired Blanche Moyse at Marlboro being helped up to the podium to conduct impressively slow cantatas, with the young singers gasping for air, to frenetic accounts of the Brandenburgs from young German bands that made me think of whizzing coffee grinders. Truth used to be something ponderous, stately, considered; now truth is play, lightness, abandon. Truth, too, is subject to fashion—which is not the same thing as Bach’s vision of truth over time.

I have to confess, this travel back and forth, from truth to slogan to doubt to reconsidered truth, is more interesting to me than Bach’s travel across technologies, and the profusion of Bach recordings. Elie places a lot of faith in recordings, and writes wonderfully about their power and their atmosphere. He suggests at one point that those who resist these new technological manifestations are attached to the past, or more precisely, to the pastness of the past. I disagree. Recordings are certainly here to stay; they are a resource, a vast library of musical thought. If I have qualms about them, it is not because I am a Luddite, but because I am attached to a ridiculously superior technology: the musical score, with all its openness, its perpetual present, its implied possibility.

A score has nothing to do with paper, or e-ink; it can appear on an iPad or on parchment. A score is at once a book and a book waiting to be written. Perhaps a golden age of music was born with the score and died with the recording. If you are listening to a recording, you are hearing someone’s truth about Bach’s truth, their idea of Bach’s truth. The wonderment is that you may hear truths you never suspected, possibilities you never dreamed—but still you are buying another person’s truth. So I say, in all seriousness, if you don’t play an instrument, take one up; take lessons; make the time. After a while, set some Bach on the music stand and play it yourself. Look at the notes on the page, envision the relationships between them. Don’t just press play. Don’t be afraid; we all live too much in fear and awe of the perfectly edited recordings around us. No matter how halting, how un-transcendent, your technique is, I promise that it may be the best Bach you will ever hear.

Jeremy Denk is a classical pianist and a music writer. His latest album is Ligeti/Beethoven (Nonesuch). This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Pure and the Impure.”