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Words to Music
For the Love of Bach

Words could never quite describe Him

Back in 1992, when Anthony Burgess was still producing a book every other month, he published “On Mozart,” a book in which he attempted to answer such questions at what befell Mozart when he rose to heaven, what Beethoven thought of himself (“my personal resentment is that I’m not Handel”) and how, if one were to try, Mozart’s 40 th Symphony might read as a novel. To say that Burgess pulls off all three is to give him his due credit, but that’s not to say that he ends up making sense so much as making mimicry. I have vague memories of the 40 th Symphony in words—lots of repeated words, attempts at making the printed page read as polyphonically as the symphony, humorous riffs designed to make the music less than the stale and stately thing its more stale aficionados can make of it. Here’s how Burgess opens the first movement: “The squarecut pattern on the carpet. Squarecut the carpet’s pattern. Pattern the squarecut carpet. Stretching from open door to windows. Soon, if not burned, ripped, merely purloined, as was all too likely, other feet would other feet would tread.” As I said: gibberish. When I was finished with the book I was glad Mozart was still there to be listened to, unaided—neither by critics nor by writers like Burgess, whom I nevertheless love and admire. I was also disheartened: if even Burgess can’t make words derived from music sing, who the hell can?

To describe music in words is like using water to explain fire to a child or learning ornithology in hopes of understanding German. It’s not that it can’t be done, necessarily. But as the French would say, c’est pas evident (it’s not obvious). Music isn’t just a language in the sense that German is a language that can, word for word, be translated into other languages (more or less anyway: I know at least one Ann Arbor-based German reader who’ll take issue with this) because languages share rules, signs, semiosis. Music is referred to as a language only by default. It can’t be nailed down in the language of languages except by approximation, by reducing the music to words—an act of translation that, even more than translating one language into another, degrades the original to the point of gibberish, depending on whoever is doing the translating. The effect can be deadly.

I am right now listening to a prelude from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the G major from Book II (the Sviatoslav Richter version): A simple dance of flits and starts that evokes a whirl of leafy colors caught in an autumn dust-devil, that stops to take its breath and starts up again, a deceptively basic theme that could easily double-up for a nursery rhyme repeated in what, three, four, five different variations, each one embellished by gusts and slips of major-minor altercations (the playful kind) and as usual with Bach, the whole ending in what now sounds the clichés of clichés but is the nature of all things Bach: perfect harmony. So what have I said? Nothing more than my own imagined rendition of a prelude that, in someone else’s ears, could just as well be the evocation of a distant horse race in a Black Forest gully or the gurgle of a brook or a gutter in downtown Leipzig for that matter, or no evocation at all since that would give the music a shape it isn’t asking for: we imagine, embellish and sometimes bullshit according to our capacities.

Beyond using such words as “joyful” or the more trite “uplifting” and “rewarding,,” reflecting the piece’s true emotions, its texture, its meaning—forget it: It just doesn’t translate, although it’d pretty sad if the best of our music critics and true listeners stopped trying. “In the sense that God can only be defined as God, so the music of Mozart can only be defined as music,” Burgess has Felix Mendelssohn say in “On Mozart,” in an imagined dialogue with Wagner, Prokofiev and others. The same can be said of Bach. That, I think, is why music critics are overwhelmingly focused on performers and interpretation rather than on the meaning and matter of the music itself. (As one Well Tempered reviewer put it of the G major: “Not a sterling sequence for Feinberg. I find him too fast in both pieces. His Prelude is no better than the ones from Gould and Richter; all three sound more concerned with speed than conveying joy. In the Fugue, Feinberg is all over the place in that he continuously shifts tempo and volume; some of it is jarring and none of it flows well. I much prefer Tureck in the Prelude and Schiff for the Fugue.” Fine, but what have we really gained other than a listener telling us the musical equivalent of what his favorite color is?)

All this to say that a couple of days back I came across a wonderful piece by Barrymore Laurence Scherer in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “He Takes Bach Personally.” Scherer writes about music for the Journal. In this piece he previewed Daniel Barenboim’s two-day performance, last Saturday and Sunday at Carnegie Hall, of the complete Well Tempered Clavier (Book I on Saturday, Book II on Sunday), an event I’d have, if not killed at least maimed to attend. (So it goes for us exiles in Florida’s flatlands.) It’s Scherer’s writing about Bach that impressed me enough to feel as if, for once, I was reading as close to the musical notes as I’d ever read: Here was someone who could explain why Bach and the Well Tempered Clavier in particular are what they are:

Bach manipulates dramatic tension with his use of chromatic harmony, taking the ear to unexpectedly distant places and returning to the home key for a welcome resolution. Thus, for Mr. Barenboim, Bach's tapestry "reveals the connection between the harmonic, melodic and rhythmical construction -- the essence of Western music of Bach's time and afterward. For example, the chromatic harmony of the C-sharp minor prelude in Book I seems to anticipate Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde,' while in the last pages of the B-minor fugue in Book I you can find Bach anticipating most of the elements of Schoenberg." Despite their seemingly close-knit organization, these preludes and fugues were not composed as an integral set. Bach assembled them over a long span of time, compiling the first book in 1722 and the second in 1744. As with all his clavier (keyboard) music, Bach wrote with an educational purpose -- to show professional and amateur players not just how to use their fingers, but how to use their minds. His aim was, as he himself put it, to teach "lovers of the keyboard" to have "good ideas, to develop them well, and to obtain for themselves a vivid foretaste of composition." […] Bach's music is often more emotionally moving than that of such contemporaries as the delightful Georg Philipp Telemann because of the strength of his harmony -- how his chords progress from one to another. The rate, or harmonic rhythm, of these chord changes is also linked to the tempos of each prelude and fugue -- and on record, and in concert, the notable flexibility with which Mr. Barenboim observes tempos can instill these harmonic progressions with the expressive immediacy of actual speech. [See the full piece here]

The material about Barenboim is OK, but it’s the music—not even Bach, but the magnificence of his work—that Scherer conveys so warmly. To me, listening to such words as either Book I or Book Ii of the Well Tempered Clavier, especially straight through, it’s like listening to Bach’s oratorios or some of his cantatas: voids disappear, the earthly is redeemed, the eternal is made intimate.

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