Now I am going to write something that will probably disgust people who are extremely well educated in Classical Music (or Western Art Music to give it its technical term), they may have grade 8 on theory and instrument, maybe even a degree in the subject. I am educated to grade 6 piano grade 4 theory, GCSE music A*, A level music D (I was the only student in the history of the school to ever take A level music and had one to one tuition for two years), and I did a music module with the Open University which I passed with a grade 2. Mainly I am self taught, I learn about the composer’s lives and their music at my own pace. So I am probably very wrong on what I want to say here.
Science and medicine have advanced exponentially with every passing century. From leeches and bloodletting in Tudor times to Full Face Transplants and other amazing things that surgeons and doctors can do. Also, look at the amazing drugs that the medical world has at it’s disposal. So you would never say that medicine in 1820 was better then medicine in 2015. Now as I write this I am listening to JS Bach’s Toccata for keyboard in E minor. It is a piece of music, (especially the fugue) that transcends the existence of life. It is so abstract and detached from the grind of everyday living. How did Bach do it? Did he just follow a simple formula that worked really well on every piece he composed.
So here is my conjecture. The greatness, the prowess; the depth of emotion and feeling in Bach’s music is the pinnacle of musical compositions which peeked in the last decade of his life. So say 1740-50 was when music peeked and has never achieved such heights again. JS Bach, I have decided, after playing his music almost non-stop for three months, is the greatest composer who ever lived. I feel as if I want to cry when I write these words. I realise that this is purely subjective, but Bach has everything and used all that was available to him at the time. The last decade of his life produced an amazing outpouring of music that clearly goes up and beyond what any human could conceivably do. He wrote book 2 of his Well-Tempered Clavier in 1742, and later the Art of the Fugue which remains unfinished, and the beautiful Goldberg Variations. The aria or theme of the latter piece were used in Silence of the Lambs listened to by Hannibal Lecter while in his cage. So it has an eerie quality that has never been matched.
As music produced a flood of classical composers after JS Bach’s death only two really threatened Bach’s superiority: Beethoven and Mozart (although I would argue for Muzio Clementi as well who played a big role as an influence in Beethoven’s music, not so much Mozart’s although Wolfgang did pinch a theme of Clementi’s and used it in his overture to The Magic Flute. Clementi made sure people knew he had written and published this theme ten years earlier!). Beethoven, in my opinion was far greater than Mozart. Although if Wolfgang had maybe lived another ten years or so we may have seen him go in the direction that Beethoven did. This can be shown by listening to Mozart’s last three symphonies which are a sign that he could have changed the course of music forever. But music peaked in the 1740s and could never be bettered. I am starting to think that that is an objective fact and I will try my hardest to define and argue for this notion.
JS Bach was almost mathematical in his compositions. His fugues so perfectly set. Like starting with little equations and then the entire piece goes through all the stages of solving them, maybe a bit like solving a quadratic equation. And you will always find minor key works by JS Bach and others, end with a major chord. This is a delightful technique which was copied by Alkan, the french pianist and composer, in his symphony for piano. Although it is done the other way round and as it seems like the movement will end on C major a dark and quiet chord in C minor finishes the piece. Yet a quadratic equations can have more then 2 answers. One positive, one negative maybe. Bach solves them each time and each fugue sounds complete and satisfying. That is why a Bach piece always sounds complete and not too long or too short. There is nothing unnecessary in a JS Bach piece.
You couldn’t have timed that any better. I just decided I would ramble a bit more about Bach on this blog when, randomly, on my Spotify playlist ‘Braintree away’ (I am going on four hour roundtrip journey by coach tomorrow, 13/10/15, to watch my local football team Dover Athletic play Braintree Town), his Toccata in F sharp minor BWV 910 starts to play. I know it was just a coincidence but I was about to flick on Bach’s keyboard toccatas played by Gould for inspiration. His interpretation is supreme I must say and I am slowly regarding the toccatas for keyboard as my favourite JS Bach compositions. Better than the partitas, the English and French suites, better than the Well Tempered Clavier books I and II? I hear you say. Erm, yes, I reply. While all those mentioned are indeed incredible masterpieces that no man on his own should have ever been allowed to compose, the toccatas go that little step further, taking the listener into the dizzying world of abstract emotion and beyond the realms of this small terrestrial planet. Indeed if they could be compared with music from beyond this Solar System, or Galaxy, they would rank right up there, although who am I too say. I have had my inner ears washed with Bach for the last three months and cannot find fault, or indeed imperfection. I have yet to tire of any part of his music.
My listening patterns cycle. I leave certain, well most, composers dormant for weeks, months, some even years. I find if I do this then the next time I come across them, always randomly, then it will feel like the magical time I first heard them. Take Berlioz for example. When I was first introduced to the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold in Italy, during GCSE music lessons I was mightily impressed yet after a few weeks I grew weary and let them drop from my playlists. It has been years since I last played Berlioz, maybe he is due a turn when I randomly stumble across him again. Or take Brahms. I love his four symphonies. When I first heard the opening to the 1st symphony, again at school, I was blown out of my trousers, it was that good. Trouble is that was the best part of the first movement and never returns. The 4th in E minor is my favourite Brahms symphony and should get an airing soon, just like his two powerful piano concertos will, too. Tchaikovsky is sitting fallow as well, but will sound cheerily impressive when I click him back into action before the year is out. Even Beethoven I have to rest as I do actually tire of the old warhorse apart from the Eroica Symphony, that is impossible, for me at least, to get bored off. And what about Mozart? Er, well I have taken a massive sabbatical from the little Salzburg’s finest son. I find his music too production line-ish, if there is such a description. He composed some fine peices of music and most of those are in the keys of D or C minor. His requiem is incredible, his late piano concertos and symphonies also but apart from the odd piano sonata or fantasie his appeal, I am afraid, is limited for me.
I am going to adjust my years of when music peaked and that is now from 1700-1750. I push back the years to when the, as already mentioned, toccatas where composed. A little bit of investigative work, beyond Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have a page about. Yet I soon found out they were written between 1708 and 1710. This is from the Piano Society webpage.
Well, such is my excitement for Johann Seb that I seem to have contradicted myself. I am writing this piece over several days and should have read over what I have written. Anyway, I regard the toccatas as extremely important pieces. And taking into consideration they were composed by a 23-25 year old is not bad going considering the depth of emotion they contain. This is perhaps where it get a little subjective because at present I class the toccatas as more important works then the WTC say. The WTC is probably one of the finest body of works within a radius of several million parsecs from the centre of the earth! Yet, it is beautifully mechanical, and each fugue is like a quadratic equation with the notes gradually solving it. Not like the toccatas. I don’t know whether it is the whimsy humming of Gould that adds an extra layer to the recording or the harmonics that Bach conjures out of the aether that are somehow perfect. They say Mozart was perfect. Mozart’s music was simpler then JS Bach’s yet paradoxically difficult on purpose to protect itself from any kind of default! I can conjecture that JS Bach was just a proxy through which the music flowed. He was merely a conduit. From whom you ask? I have know idea and I don’t want to become a conspiracy theorist, been there done that. You see I could say that an alien race picked out a rather nondescript German organist teacher and funnelled incredible music through him. No. that is nonsense and lowers the value of the human race that we can’t produce great things on our own. Yet something flowed through Bach. You don’t produce a masterpiece every time you touch a clavier or a quill, ink, and manuscript paper unless something is driving you on.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know that much about Bach’s life, but I have recently purchased a biography about him so I can garner more information. I do know he had many children and at least three went onto be accomplished musicians and composers in their own right. CPE Bach produced some amazing compositions that bridged the gap between baroque and classical music. The nice thing about this particular Bach is that his piano sonatas are relatively easy to master if you are grade 6 or higher on the piano. Still, while he composed heaps of lovely transitional music, none of it ever comes close to what his dad produced.
So music can never get better that what is was up to 1750? With Beethoven we came incredibly close. His 9th symphony transcends humanity to some void we can only fill with the power of art and literature. Science and technology sits quietly, patiently in the corner waiting for its next Einstein or Richard Feynman to be born and able to solve mathematical riddles before her 5th birthday! So yes, Beethoven was a man possessed his last dozen or piano sonatas show this. the amazing Appassionata Sonata and the final 32nd one in C minor. But I just come back with JS Bach’s toccatas and they trump everything time and time again! I used to think that I could solve music mathematically even to the point of studying maths though the Open University. I was sure there must be a mathematical answer how the cogs and wheels work inside a sonata or symphony, or a toccata! JS Bach was the only one to provide evidence that this could be possible. So if you can rip a piece down to its bare bones and see what is actually going on. It is like how I used to wonder how a car engine actually worked. I was fascinated by the actual beautiful simplicity of it when I finally worked out how it worked. Same with music, either Bach just composed it becuase he could or he did it all mathematically. I will explore these avenues when I write part two of this sorry tale. Thanks for getting this far!