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.