“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
–Somebody (we’re not really sure who)
Yesterday I indicated that I don’t much care for Baroque music, because of its inherent sanity. But as in all things, there are exceptions, and the major one for me is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music transcends nearly everything. Bach is one of the great transformational figures of all time, and there are very few figures in the history of Western music whose influence has been so wide-spread and so lasting.
Why is this? Well, the above quote provides a way in. Writing about music is slippery business, because it’s just plain hard to capture in one medium the essence of another. As Leonard Bernstein once wrote, in discussing a Chopin etude, “If Chopin could have said in words what he was trying to say with the music, why would he have used music at all?” When writing about music, we can only ever get what feels to the writer an approximation of the essence of the work, which is why good music writing is so hard to find and so valuable.
The quote above also pertains to Bach in that, in the course of drawing an absurd metaphor in order to make a point, it uses precisely the word that leaps to mind when I think of Bach’s music. That word is architecture.
Bach’s music is, to me, architectural. It is mathematical. Now, to some that might make it sound like the music is clinical and sterile in emotion, but nothing could be further from the truth. Bach’s music often suggests, more than any other composer’s, something cosmic, and his work springs from the deep connections between music and mathematics. It’s the primal sense of wonder that may well be the very first emotion we all experience, that sense of grandeur before a Universe that is vaster than we can conceptualize and yet we have innate abilities to conceptualize a great deal of it. That’s what Bach means to me.
Architecture. Every great Bach work is an edifice, in which you can sense each musical building block as it is laid into place. In every great Bach work, you can see how each phrase relates to another, how each chord is structured together. The melodies that emerge from the unerring logic of his musical architecture make sense in a way that few other composers’ do, and it’s that emergent quality of his melodies that is so remarkable about them. Bach draws the ear to a certain place just as a great architect, or painter, knows how to draw the eye to a certain place.
Here is one of Bach’s most famous works, and indeed, one of the most famous musical works in the entire history of the world: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I’m providing three versions here. First, you can hear the work as it may have originally been heard, as written for church organ. In the second, the Toccata is played as a MIDI recording (surprisingly good-sounding), but with an accompanying visualization that really clarifies the way Bach stitched this astonishing piece together. And finally, you can hear what many purists likely consider an abomination, but which I enjoy a great deal: Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of the Toccata for full orchestra, in the piece’s segment from the Disney film Fantasia (Watching Stokowski here, I always wonder if he was mugging or if that’s really how he conducted, because some of his motions are incomprehensible).
Tomorrow: a piece that chewed up the teenage me and spit me back out.
damn piece makes me cry every time, esp the organ.
I always assumed the conducting style was specifically for Fantasia.
Hey, another great (and thorough) post. I liked reading about what Bach means to you. Do you play this very loud at your place? What do the neighbours think?
Look forward to your next post.
Lovely essay, and I agree – JS Bach is hands-down, my favorite composer, and I think it is the cosmic-architecture aspect of his work that I respond to.
Have you read Madeline L'Engle's essay on "Cosmos and Chaos"? Some of what you've written here agrees with what she says about Bach and "cosmos."
I've been making my way through these a little slowly. You're right, the MIDI is surprisingly good-sounding. I loved watching it. It's exactly what I think of baroque music, and the reason I like that kind of music: the sort of mathematical logic it employs, but at the same time, it proceeds architecturally–a structural base with ornate outer decorations (or in this case, ornate musical flourishes over a solid structural base line). That MIDI would be something interesting to show to a math class, I think. Whenever I teach math classes and they ask me when they're ever going to use it, I always tell them that music is one of the ways they encounter math constantly and don't even know it.
Nothing makes a kid who hates math angry with you faster than saying "Music is math."
My father is a collegiate math professor (well, not for long…he's retiring this year!), and one of his main complaints for YEARS has been the dryly abstract way math is taught, so it's never really seen at all by students as something that can really be of use in the world. Math in music is just one example…in my day job, math comes up constantly, and not just arithmetic, either. One day I had to recall the construction for an equilateral triangle. Math IS the world, but we just teach it as "Here are your times tables, go memorize them. Now here's how to factor a quadratic equation."