Back to Bach: The Conscience of History
By Stephen Hinton
Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.
Of the myriad topics that have claimed the attention of music historians, Bach reception is not only among the most persistent but also the most multifarious. The subject matter clearly warrants the kind of encyclopedic treatment it received in the recently published four-volume history, Bach und die Nachwelt (“Bach and Posterity”). Just as Bach’s impact during the past two centuries is hard to overstate, the images of the composer that have shaped musical culture since the mid-18th century have fluctuated considerably. Aspects include such diverse phenomena as the classical-period appropriations of Bach’s music by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven; the Romantic rediscoveries by Mendelssohn and his near contemporaries; the Bach-Busoni arrangements for the modern pianoforte; and so much else besides.
Perhaps no one was more in thrall to Bach than Max Reger. The numbers almost speak for themselves: the three separate versions of the chorale prelude “O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sünde gross” from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (BWV 622)—for string orchestra, for violin and organ, and for solo piano—come from a uniquely long list of arrangements that Reger made of Bach’s music, some 93 in all, in addition to the 73 Bach editions that he prepared. A key tributary to later currents of reception, Reger can be likened to Busoni insofar as he purposely blurred the boundaries between transcription, arrangement, and free composition. His commitment to Bach, if anything, was even greater than Busoni’s. Bach, he said, was “the beginning and end of all music… an inexhaustible medicine, not only for all those composers and musicians who suffer from ‘misunderstood Wagner,’ but for all those ‘contemporaries,’ who suffer from spinal maladies of any kind.” Bach not only profoundly influenced Reger’s compositional style; he was an indispensable part of Reger’s very identity as an artist.
The diversity within the unity of the seemingly inexhaustible historical topic of Bach reception only grew during the 20th century. Consider, for example, the recording industry in the 1960s, which gave us such disparate interpretations as Bach’s Greatest Hits (in this case, vocal interpretations of keyboard works, mostly from the Well-Tempered Clavier, sung by the Paris-based Swingle Singers), Switched on Bach (rendered by Walter Carlos on Moog synthesizer), alongside numerous recordings of Bach’s music that followed the imperatives of the historical performance practice movement and used “original instruments.”
Scarcely less striking are the competing images that emerged in connection with the “Back to Bach” polemics of the 1920s, following in the wake of Reger’s example. Arnold Schoenberg threw down the gauntlet in characteristically self-aggrandizing fashion with his Three Choral Satires, Op. 28 (1925), in which he poked fun at “Modernsky” (a scarcely concealed reference to Igor Stravinsky), describing him metaphorically as “wearing a ponytail.” It “looks like a wig,” the text of the second movements continues, “like genuine artificial hair (just as the little Modernsky imagines himself), just like Papa Bach!” Schoenberg presumably had in mind the recent, so-called neoclassical works, such as Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet. The Russian composer’s adoption of 18th-century idioms, he seems to be suggesting, is an entirely superficial matter, like changing one’s hairstyle, whereas his own debt to the great German composer is, by implication, more profound. The “classical perfection, strict in every inflection” invoked by the text in the programmatically titled third movement of the Satires, “The New Classicism,” finds its musical equivalent in a double fugue, written with the radically new method of “composition with twelve tones related only to one another.”
That Schoenberg undertook his orchestration of the Choral Prelude (BWV 631) in 1922, a year in which he was experimenting with his first twelve-tone compositions, is certainly no coincidence. Bach’s example had acquired a significance for his development in several critical respects. In his 1911 Theory of Harmony, for example, Schoenberg had described the highly expressive harmonies of Bach’s chorale settings as historical precedents for his own “emancipated dissonances.” As far as his own compositions were concerned, however, his interest lay less in composing music that audibly resembled Baroque style, still less in recreating the sound world of that period, than in demonstrating affinities in terms of compositional technique. Yet the nature of the debt would change considerably during the transition from the expressionist atonal period prior to the First World War to his own brand of twelve-tone neoclassicism during the 1920s.
Summarizing in 1931 what he had learned from Bach, Schoenberg identified the following three aspects: “1. Contrapuntal thinking, i.e. the art of inventing musical figures that can be used to accompany themselves. 2. The art of producing everything from one thing and of relating figures by transformation. 3. Disregard for the ‘strong’ beat of the measure.” He was doubtless singling out features of Bach’s music that best fit his own practice at the time, just as his idiosyncratic approach to orchestrating Bach’s organ music highlighted the kind of relations he considered constitutive for his own compositions.
The purpose of the transcriptions was not merely to render the textures of Bach’s music in the brighter, more variegated colors of the modern symphony orchestra, something utterly at odds with latter-day notions of “authenticity.” It was also didactic, a means to exposing the organic unity of the music’s motivic structures through analytical instrumentation. Hence the frequent characterization of Schoenberg as a “conservative revolutionary”: through his creative appropriations of Bach’s music in both theory and practice, he acknowledged his revered predecessor at the same time as he claimed pride of place as the true heir to mainstream musical tradition. Describing his motivation for arranging the Choral Prelude for orchestra, he wrote in 1923: “I do not attach importance to being a kind of musical ‘peasantist’ so much as to being a natural continuator of correctly understood, good, old tradition!”
In the Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31—completed in 1928, the same year in which Schoenberg produced his orchestration of Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in E-flat Major, “St. Anne” (BWV 552)—the connection to Bach is both general and specific. The constitutive tension in Bach’s music between the vertical and horizontal dimensions—that is, between harmony and counterpoint—is a dialectic that Schoenberg’s music embraces anew through the dodecaphonic method of composition, allowing for motivic constellations of tones inherent in the twelve-tone row to appear in both dimensions. The specific connection to Bach arises at those points in the piece where Schoenberg chose to isolate the non-row tones B-flat – A – C – B-natural (spelled B-A-C-H in German notation). The “Hommage à Bach,” as he described the quotation in a letter to the music critic Olin Downes, is particularly audible where the four tones are played by the trombone toward the end of the first section and in the second of the work’s nine variations.
If Bach functioned as the musical conscience of the early 20th century, as manifested in Reger’s and Schoenberg’s compositions and transcriptions, interpretations of his significance were hardly uniform. Attempts to co-opt “Papa Bach” for the cause of modern culture were as widespread as they were various. For a member of the younger generation such as Paul Hindemith, although Bach epitomized the sphere of “decent music” (as opposed to “kitsch”), Hindemith also felt compelled to suggest in 1921 that “if Bach were alive today, perhaps he would have invented the shimmy or at least introduced it into decent music,” just as Hindemith himself was doing at the time. By 1950, however, when Hindemith gave a speech on the “obligations” of Bach’s heritage, in which he decried the composer’s having been “turned…into a pillar of brown Germany and, only recently, with the help of the Chinese minister of culture, into a pioneer of red internationalism,” Bach now served as a symbol of “all that is noble” by virtue of his having created works of art “completely independent of his environment.”
Nowhere are these disparate sides of Bach reception more readily apparent than with The Art of Fugue as transmitted by Wolfgang Graeser, a wunderkind polymath who took his own life in 1928 at the age of 21. Based on painstaking study of the original manuscripts, the teenage Graeser produced the best-known reconstruction of Bach’s contrapuntal masterpiece, a fragmentary late work, whose lack of performing directions has contributed to its reputation as a monument of pure musical construction, removed from time and place. Yet by also scoring the work for full orchestra, including trumpets and trombones, Graeser hoped he might inspire fervent patriotism, as he explained in an essay in the Bach-Jahrbuch of 1924. “The German Volk, in a time of serfdom, of inner and outer poverty,” he wrote, “must remember the spirits of its great, world-historic genius.”
Mr. Hinton is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. He has published widely on many aspects of modern German music history. His book Weill’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform is being published in 2012.
By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.
Modernism in the arts during the 20th century can be said to have had two distinct (albeit related) and contradictory impulses: first, rejection, resistance, and rebellion on the part of the younger generation, born after 1860, directed at a perceived arrogance and smugness regarding the state of culture and the arts in Europe during the late 19th century—a sense of triumphant superiority buttressed by the startling progress of industry, science, and technology, and the development of cities and a prosperous urban middle class; and second, at the same time, a pervasive pessimism about the standards of contemporary culture, the absence of normative principles, the detachment of ethics from aesthetics, and a sense of decline and subservience to commerce and fashion. This required a change in the foundations and forms of art and the restoration of perceived true and genuine standards of ethics and aesthetics characteristic of a classical past, ones that advanced the good and the beautiful.
Friedrich Nietzsche and August Strindberg became identified as expressive of the first impulse. Matthew Arnold was among the first to articulate the second impulse, only to be followed by many lesser imitators who decried the philistinism of modern times.
In music, the rejectionist modernist challenge to the musical practices of the 19th century can be located in Debussy, Mahler, and the early Schoenberg, and in the Stravinsky of the 1913 The Rite of Spring. The heyday of the modernist rebellion was at the turn of the 19th century, before 1914. In the chaos and disillusionment that followed World War I, in the face of apparent political and moral bankruptcy, this rejectionist strain in aesthetic modernism, particularly in painting and literature, flourished. It is visible most clearly in the eccentric and radical character of Dada and Surrealism. Yet at the same time, already before 1914 there was a call to “return to Mozart.” This restorative impulse in modernism gained momentum after 1918 and had its strongest impact in an ascetic formalism that was particularly dominant in music and architecture.
Music and architecture have been long considered kindred art forms, particularly during the 19th century. Friedrich Schelling famously dubbed architecture “petrified” or “frozen” music. However, in no era would this be more evident, in practice as well as theory, than in the 20th century. No doubt, the connection between the visual and the musical was made more plausible by the post-Wagnerian enthusiasm for the integration of all of the arts, as well as the practical encounter between visual symbolism in design and sonority in music in the construction of halls for music—a burgeoning business between 1870 and 1914. Architecture’s link to music rested in part on the fascination with connections among sight, color, and sound—pioneered by composers Scriabin, Ciurlionis, and Schoenberg, and advocated by the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), one of the founders of the Bauhaus. With respect to architecture, it was held that there was a perceived special common debt, shared by music, to formal structures that shape the subjective experience of space and time, including proportion and perspective. Both architecture and music, in their formal realizations, deal directly with indispensable structural elements, variation and repetition.
The connection between 20th-century modernist movements in the visual arts—particularly (but not exclusively) architecture and design—and music was most impressive in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus—both a school and movement—flourished in Weimar, Germany from 1919 to 1933, when it was shut down by the new Nazi regime. Started first in Weimar and then transferred to Dessau (until 1932), the Bauhaus was led, for most of its life, by architects: first Walter Gropius (1883–1969; Alma Mahler’s second husband) and then Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The artists associated with the Bauhaus included Paul Klee (1879–1940), an avid musician with a passion for Bach; Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943), who shared an interest in music and theatre; Kandinsky, once a close friend of Schoenberg’s who even tried his hand at composition and considered music a model for non-objective painting; and last but not least Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956).
As Barbara Haskell, the curator of this fall’s brilliant and long-overdue retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum (with which this concert is linked) has noted, Feininger was sent by his father to Germany from New York to study music. Feininger’s parents were both musicians. His father, a violinist and teacher, also composed music that came to the attention of Franz Liszt. The musical traditions of the Feininger family were continued even though Lyonel abandoned music as a career. Lyonel’s son Lawrence became one of the leading musicologists of the post-World War II era. Just as Schoenberg painted and took lessons (fatefully) from Richard Gerstl (1883–1908), the brilliant Austrian expressionist painter who took his life when his affair with Schoenberg’s wife ended, Feininger throughout his adult life continued to dabble in music. Schoenberg had one major period when he produced most of his paintings, the decade before 1914. Feininger had a comparable short span when he composed. It took place during his years at the Bauhaus.
For many visual artists and architects in the 1920s (including Klee), the composer who best exemplified the musical—music’s formal logic, its autonomy, its abstract nature, its pure aesthetic economy, its resistance to kitsch and sentimentality, its stature as representative of some normative criteria of beauty and the “classical”—was J.S. Bach. Bach’s command of counterpoint and polyphony—witnessed by his many astonishing forays in the fugue—rendered him not only the greatest composer of all time, but an historic aesthetic model for an “objective” modernism. The international style of architecture abjured the dishonesty of facades, decoration, and ornament. It called for a disciplined honesty about the materials of construction and a visible and transparent synthesis of form and function. Klee and Feininger emulated Bach in their paintings. Feininger’s obsession with Bach led him to try his hand at writing fugues.
Schoenberg’s development, during the early 1920s, of a new method of composition with twelve tones, specific to each piece but standard to all works, was designed to replace tonal relationships between individual pitches. This would therefore emancipate music from its dependence on learned inherited traditional links between music and expression and emotion. This was a radical effort to restore a classical purity to the art of music Schoenberg believed flourished in the age of Mozart and Haydn, the classical era.
This explicit anti-romantic strategy paralleled modern architecture’s effort to distance itself from 19th-century historicism in design. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Bauhaus. Bauhaus furniture designs emulated the sleek elegance and simplicity of the early 19th-century Biedermeier era just as Schoenberg, with new materials, sought to spark a renewal of the pre-Romantic 18th-century ideals of musical thinking and composition.
The widespread neo-classical restorative impulse of the 1920s fueled and sustained a resurgence of public interest in Bach. There was no more poignant an example of this 20th-century Bach revival than Wolfgang Graeser’s remarkable edition of Bach’s last and uncompleted work, The Art of Fugue, which Graeser also orchestrated. His orchestration was performed in Bach’s own Thomaskirche at the 1928 Bach festival in Leipzig. That performance left an indelible impression on Alban Berg, who wrote enthusiastically to his wife about the event. Graeser, a brilliant and multi-talented Swiss artist and scholar in his early 20s, committed suicide shortly thereafter. His orchestration was largely forgotten, except for the loyalty shown it by the great conductor Hermann Scherchen.
For his edition, Graeser chose to add a Bach organ chorale prelude, following the example set by Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. The chorale prelude was finished by the blind J. S. Bach shortly before his death, and was the last completed work by the composer. Graeser included it in his performing edition so that The Art of Fugue, left unfinished, would not trail off.
As Stephen Hinton points out, Bach revivals have not been rare. The most notable ones were exactly a century apart. The earlier one, in which Mendelssohn played a pivotal role, occurred in the 1820s in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The later one, the Bach revival that frames this program, took place in the aftermath of World War I. In point of fact, Bach was never really forgotten. Bach’s music may have disappeared for periods of time from public performance, but composers after Bach, from Bach’s sons and Mozart to Webern and Boulez, studied his works. Composers have consistently been in awe of Bach’s command of the materials of music, and the purity of form in his compositions.
Indeed, Bach’s profundity and emotional power—whether audible in original form or in modernized orchestrations—derive from the rigorous discipline and intensity of the musical logic he employed. Music, in Bach’s hands, became a sacred art, the highest expression of the divinity in human nature—the imaginative capacity to create a true aesthetic realm emancipated from the compromises of everyday existence. No wonder that in moments when human nature reveals its darkest side, its uncanny attraction to violence, cruelty, and death, all camouflaged by the use of rhetoric and language and the use of reason and argument to justify war and destruction, artists have turned to Bach for inspiration.
Lyonel Feininger, Fugues
By Richard Wilson
Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.
I have chosen three of Feininger’s twelve fugues to arrange for full orchestra: one numbered IV, written in Weimar in 1921; one numbered III and subtitled “Gigue,” written in Weimar soon after; and “Fugue in D,” the third version from Dessau of a fugue begun in Weimar in 1922. In orchestrating these works I faced certain questions: which instruments should play what line and at what level of loudness or softness; should their notes be smoothly connected or short and pungent; should instruments work as groups or individually; should changes of color come dramatically or in a subtle manner? Volume, color, relationship of line, and proportion are considerations as important in music as in painting—as Feininger well knew. I have tried to let his notes lead me to the right orchestral guise without being concerned either with musical fashions prevailing in the Germany of the1920s or with his pictorial or graphic manner. It is remarkable that this artist apparently began his composing career at age 50, wrote over a period of six years a dozen intricate works in a single genre, and then stopped.
Mr. Wilson is the Composer-in-Residence of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Mary Conover Mellon Chair in Music at Vassar College. Winner of an Academy Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has composed over 100 works.
By Barbara Haskell
Written for the concert Bauhaus Bach, performed on Oct 21, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.
Lyonel Feininger—world-renowned painter, printmaker, and caricaturist—was born in New York City on July 17, 1871 to German-American parents, both concertizing musicians. By age nine, he was studying violin with his father; by 12, he was performing in public. His childhood immersion in music produced a complicated response: on one hand, a lifelong fealty to music and the German musical tradition; on the other, resistance to music’s overbearing presence in the household and the pressure on him to become a musician. The latter may have led him to turn to fine art soon after he arrived in Germany at age 16, where he had been sent to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. Despite his career switch, he continued to play music all his life, calling it the “language of my innermost soul which stirs me like no other form of expression.”
Feininger’s childhood musical heroes were Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Introduced in 1888 to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly the Well-Tempered Clavier, he became a disciple. At the Bauhaus, Weimar, where Feininger was appointed Master in 1919, his involvement with Bach intensified, especially after he became acquainted with The Art of Fugue through the Weimar composer Hans Bronner, with whom he often played Bach compositions. For Feininger’s 50th birthday, Bronner presented him with an organ fugue he had written. The gift inspired Feininger to spend the next 13 days composing a fugue of his own. Over the next six years, he created 11 more fugues, mostly for organ. Feininger’s fugues were performed several times between 1924 and 1926, but they were difficult to play, and most performances disappointed him. In 1927 he abandoned musical composition, probably because of the time it took away from his painting. By then, however, the structure of polyphonic counterpoint had become the basis of his fine art. “Bach’s essence has found expression in my paintings,” he wrote. “The architectonic side of Bach whereby a germinal idea is developed into a huge polyphonic form.” To the end of his life, he credited Bach with having been his “master in painting.”
Ms. Haskell is an American art historian. She is a curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she curated the recent exhibition Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World.
Opening Night VIP Package includes VIP stage door entrance, prime seating accommodations, and a post-concert reception with Leon Botstein.
- J.S. Bach (orchestration by Max Reger)—O Mensch, Bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross
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- J.S. Bach (orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg)—Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist
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- Lyonel Feininger (orchestration by Richard Wilson)—Three Fugues
- Arnold Schoenberg—Variations for Orchestra
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- J.S. Bach (orchestration by Schoenberg)—Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Major, “St. Anne”
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- J.S. Bach (orchestration by Wolfgang Graeser)—The Art of the Fugue