Tag Archives: Handel

JS Bach v The World (part III)

So randomly, the moment I click on WordPress to write another episode of complete drivel that no-one reads, Bach’s toccata in C minor randomly plays on my ‘Braintree Away’ Playlist.  Sounds rather odd?  Yes, but Tuesday just gone myself and my parents went on a coach to a small Essex town called Braintree to watch our beloved Dover Athletic play football.  We lost 1-0 and in the second half we were given a masterclass in how to waste time by the hosts.  So, I needed some music for the journey and compiled a list of about 90 tracks, a lot of Bach, but some Radiohead and Divine Comedy, too.  Yet don’t panic because today we beat a good Macclesfield side 2-1 and kept our spot of third in the league, two points behind the leaders Forest Green Rovers.

Anyhow, I ended the last part with a performance of what is probably the greatest piece of music ever conceived.  The solo violin chaconne in D minor is really beyond comprehension for any language to justify.  It is not of this world.   So was JS Bach some kind of alien planted here by something from the future or something vastly more intelligent than ourselves, but not quite able to compose music it would like?  No, I highly doubt Bach is an alien plant or even an alien, no evidence you see.  Drat, say all the UFO fantasists.  No, Bach just happened to be a lone sperm that made it to the egg first, and through some complicated genetic makeup and milieu managed to become the greatest musician that ever lived.  Now back to the chaconne in D minor.  Did he hear the main theme in his head first or did he just happen upon it while playing around with some other ideas on the clavier, say?  Well it obviously didn’t send him out of his mind like it would have done Brahms.

Today I became the owner of a biography of Bach and as I always seem to do, I looked at the last sentence and this is what it said:

“Truly, Bach links us with the universe.”  Klause Eidam The True Life of J.S.Bach.

That is such a beautifully simple yet elegant explanation of Bach and his music.  I always thought Beethoven was the greatest and spent a lot of my teenage years (before IMSLP) buying cheap copies of his piano sonatas from a local music shop with my meagre pocket/paper round money.  Well as long as I had enough to buy a sonata or two and get into football I was happy.   There was a hardback edition of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier sitting proudly on the shelf above the cheap sonatas still wrapped in plastic to keep the dust off it.  I think it was about £50 so I could only dream of being able to buy it.   Now I have all of the WTCs thanks to IMSLP but they are bloody difficult to play, but what masterpieces.  Still, I thought Beethoven was the grandmaster and greatest musician to have ever graced the planet.  Now he is in second place.  Bach is like a ceiling that only people like Beethoven or Mozart can dream of getting near or above.  Yet you cannot, no-one can.  Bach trumps his competitors time and time again.   I used to bawl my eyes out when I listened to the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, same with Beethoven’s third, seventh, and ninth symphonies.   Then a couple of years ago I found myself in tears walking across a supermarket car park while listening to to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in G major.  I have always wondered why music triggers this.  Is it the way a composer develops a theme so incredibly that something in your head cannot comprehend and tells the eyes to release the water?  As a way of trying to come to terms with what our underdeveloped brains can’t cope with.  An outlet say?

Without JS Bach music wouldn’t have progressed the way it did.  Handel may have stepped up the the plate but he didn’t have the umph to do what a Bach would do.  Vivaldi is a pleasure to listen to but too repetitive to be the bedrock of classical music, and the same with Scarlatti, Purcell came too early, and Telemann all the while the most prolific of composers was nowhere near good enough to provide the next generation with the correct techniques and harmonies.  So it was just lucky that JS Bach did exist really.

I haven’t written anything for a few days, but I did read that  JS Bach’s music sort of disappeared and wasn’t the flavour of the month until Mendelssohn rediscovered the great master in the 19th century.  Yet I read that Beethoven quotes the masterfulness of Bach and if you look carefully there are many similarities in there music.  Beethoven isn’t afraid to be bombastic and powerful and you can hear the link with Bach especially in the harmonies.  At the moment I am listening to Bach’s partitas for keyboard.  They are worthy pieces I would say nearly on par with the toccatas yet they don’t quite have the bite, but needless to say they are masterpieces and the intertwining are a joy to hear and play.  There is so much going on in these partitas and I expect the more I listen to them the higher they will go in my estimation.

Some pieces by Bach can take several listenings to really understand and appreciate what is going on.  I, you, we, must persevere.  I think it is to do with neural pathways in the brain.  When listening to a piece by Bach for the first time the brain cannot take it all in, especially if you are listening to his secular keyboard or solo instrument pieces.   So keep at it and eventually the brain will have a Bach pathway that may induce more serotonin or dopamine to flow just for his music.  That would be really interesting if that were true; surely it must be.  The brain is trying to contend with something written around 300 years ago.  That is a true test of time.  I wonder, at any point in his life, Bach pondered what would happen to his music beyond his lifetime.

This is a very interesting take on the master’s music

Well that’s part III done.  Thanks for getting this far all none of you!  Haha!  I think I will just keep this going.

JS Bach v The World (part II)

I want to start with this interpretation of BWV 922:

This is a very good Youtube recording by Brendel although I couldn’t find my favourite which I listen to on Spotify, which is performed by Joao Carlos Martins. The latter is much slower and over minute longer then the former. The beauty of the Martin’s version is he plays the opening at full throttle, supremely, then comes to a grinding halt almost when the first subject appears, and what a tear jerking job he makes of it, too. Bach has written this piece to give the impression that it is constantly descending when it is doing little in the way of that. Bach is tricking the listener (and the performer come to that) into feeling a perpetual but accepting sense of depression and despair.  The second subject is an elaborative more complex version of the first but still done the way only Bach could have done.  I feel no other composer can give this conjuristic effect in music.  I have laid awake at night pondering this prelude over and over, listening to its nuances and trickery and just,well, marvelling at it.   I now realise that nothing quite compares and life becomes as pointless as it is must be to a multi billionaire.

If I have heard the greatest that the greatest can offer and nothing really comes close then what is the point?  Beethoven’s third symphony ‘Eroica’ is the methadone to Bach’s toccata heroin.  But why is it that nothing comes close to JS Bach?  Everything feels so resignedly second best after a JS Bach composition.  So you just seek out Bach, after Bach, after Bach.  Even his incredibly talented sons CPE Bach, and WF Bach don’t really cut the mustard the way their father did.

I haven’t mentioned Handel yet, or other contemporaries of JS Bach.  Was Handel as good as Bach?  No, but close, but just no (even though Beethoven held him in high esteem which is a good reference to have!).  I like and admire some of Handel’s keyboard Suites and they can get close to JSB but then flop into a whimsical mess not being worth a mention.  Although one in particular, in F minor, is one I hold in high regard.  What about Domenico Scarlatti?  Yes and no.  There are some very moving and powerful sonatas amongst Scarlatti’s oeuvre, but like Handel some of the 555 written, an impressive amount, are rather flat and have little or no emotion attached to them.  But in mitigation to Scarlatti he did write them as a tutorial aid for his royal pupils.  I cannot really comment too much on Purcell as I haven never properly studied his music, of which the same could be said for Buxtehude.  There were many musicians during the period that Bach was active but strangely very little came out of Britain.  Britain and Ireland produced many scientists and authors but lacked in composers.  The only one worth mentioning was Thomas Arne who wrote Rule Britannia.  His other output is a bit of keyboard work but nothing to really get excited about. A little later in the 1700s a composer came from Ireland called John Field.  He was taught by Muzio Clementi when the family moved to London  and became a useful pianist attracting attention across Europe.   He wrote a series of Nocturnes that are bloody delicious.  His other output, piano sonatas, are okay-ish sort of similar to Clementi and not too hard to master.  The poor chap died in Russia while trying to flog pianos for Clementi, and there is little information beyond that.  So Britain had Arne, Clementi, Purcell, and Handel.  Although, Handel was German born and came to England in 1712 and eventually became a British Citizen, like Clementi did who was born in Rome.

So what has all that got to do with Bach?  Well I am trying to paint a picture of what music was like in the 50 or so years that JS Bach had to compose in.  How much influence did he have on future music?  Well that is the key question.  He has had neverending influence on every musical note that has been written since 1750.  He is omnipotent across the vast spectrum of music even if you no nothing of his collection as it was that collection that influenced Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms.  Brahms makes a fine qute about this piece of music:

He said this:

“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Brahms who was born into absolute poverty in Hamburg; Brahms who became a famous international pianist and composer, some say his first symphony was Beethoven’s tenth; Brahms who offered residence and money to the relatively poor composer Dvorak; and Brahms the atheist, Dvorak said ‘He believes in nothing!’.  This piece of music is extraordinarily important and if Brahms could still feel Bach’s verve over a hundred later imagine how powerful it would have been and the time of its inception.

I will discuss this further in Part III.  Thank you for getting this far.