Bach: Beauty and the Brain

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Alex Storer


Music 128d

“Bach: Beauty and the Brain”

J.S. Bach is well known as a master of fugue, a great keyboard player and a wonderful teacher. He has been constructed as a great genius, based on the complex theoretical nature of his music, and as such is rarely considered to be an emotive composer by the layperson. Greater inspection, however, reveals that Bach's compositions, while intricate and well planned out, are not even remotely void of emotion.

To discover the rationale behind this closed minded and cursory review of Bach's music, one need look no further than Berkeley's own music library. The books on Bach refer almost exclusively to his preludes and fugues, many of which contain a piece-by-piece analysis of the Well-Tempered Clavier. These texts focus almost exclusively on the technical aspects of these pieces, with very few mentions of the emotional content of the work. The complexity of the counterpoint and the immaculate architecture of Bach’s works in general merit this in-depth analysis, but it is assuredly an incomplete picture. Consider J.A. Fuller-Maitland's treatment of BWV 873, the fourth prelude and fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier II, in The '48': "[e]xposition and counter-exposition carry us to bar 24, where there is a new exposition of the inverted subject, and a counter subject built on a quaver followed by a semiquaver."1 Bach's fugues in general receive this ultimately rigid and cold treatment, leading the reader to believe that the fugues themselves are distantly intellectual.

Indeed, these fugues can be listened to without an emotional component, focusing entirely on the thematic interplay and contrapuntal complexity. Listening with score in hand, trying to mark the entry of each theme and how it is altered, keeping up to six voices in mind and still progressing at the speed of the music is very difficult to do, and any emotional response is cut away when the piece is dissected as such, at least on the first round of listenings. The fact that these compositions have been so intricately constructed begs for them to be analyzed, and it is unlikely that Bach himself had highly charged emotional sentiment imbued in works such as the Well-Tempered Clavier. After all, they were for the most part used for teaching and as a shining technical achievement rather than evoking all 24 distinct human emotions or something to that effect. These works lack names, and do not have any sort of connections to characters or stories, making it more difficult for them to portray feelings than, say, romantic composers such as Berlioz.

One of the central reasons why Bach is viewed as intellectual is his association with these fugues, and the skill with which he wrote them. Fugue is considered by many to be one of the most difficult forms to write, from a technical standpoint. The theme must be able to sound beautiful when used in a stretto, when inverted and played over itself, as well as being played with a second (or third, or fourth…) theme. To sculpt themes with this property is a taxing intellectual process, and Bach must have been an intellectual juggernaut to do it so breathtakingly well. Even outside of explicit fugues, Bach was a contrapuntal master. In the Goldberg Variations, he relies on the most taxing type of counterpoint, canon, in which each theme is repeated in full. Few composers are able to reach this level, and Bach is highly respected for these intellectual accomplishments.

Fugue in itself is a very rigid structure, which many could construe as emotionless. After all, one must conform to an absolute structure of subjects, answers, exposition, and so forth, and there are few ways to bend this to portray certain emotions. Indeed, if one refrains from truly listening to the Well-Tempered Clavier, the pieces sound remarkably similar and contain very little emotional value. The fact that Bach's fugues are among his defining works helps create this image of the cold, intellectual Bach. Looking beyond fugue, however, it becomes much more difficult to deny the presence of emotional content in Bach's music, and even within Bach's fugues, there is plenty of vibrant feeling if one stops to listen.

Consider BWV 880, from the WTC II, whose theme is simple and playful. Even the addition of the other voices, modulation, and complicated nature of fugue in general do not detract from the light-hearted nature of this particular work. Here, Fuller-Maitland notes that "the general gaiety of the fugue almost defies analysis."2 Conceivably, one could analyze this fugue without being taken by its amicable nature, but it would be very difficult. Of course, not all of Bach's fugues portray the same emotion, as is evidenced in BWV 883, in F-sharp minor, a sad and beautiful fugue. The presence of three themes interacting with each other enhances the graceful solemnity of the work rather than detracting from it. Herein lies the true splendor of Bach's fugues, through his complex composition he can express beauty and emotion even more aptly.

Moving aside from Bach's fugues, we see even more clear depictions of emotion. His cantatas, for example, clearly depict a wide variety of emotions. Most are based on the bible, which few would describe as intellectual and detached, and his cantatas reflect this. Additionally, they provide a reading into the complex human condition, expressing not only single emotions, but conflicting feelings. In BWV 23, for example, Bach uses a pair of wistful oboes to portray eternity behind a mournful duet, praying for mercy. Later in the cantata, the chorus rises to praise the glory of God, in a powerful and moving affirmation that is still tempered with sadness. The complexity of the emotions that Bach infuses into each of his cantatas truly puts to rest any doubts that one may have about the humanity of his work.

Even if one could argue that Bach’s works themselves were devoid of emotion, one must also recognize that the music itself does not exist until it is performed. Bach himself placed very few markings on his works, including very few slurs, and almost no notes on the correct way it should be played. Of course, some of this can be attributed to the shared knowledge at the time. For example, a Gigue would be played in the French manner, with trills aplenty, because it was simply understood that it was played that way. Others have argued, however, that Bach himself understood that each performance must be subtly altered to the present mood, and that emotion can be imbued into his pieces through the style of playing. Consider, for example, the various treatments of Variation 29 from the Goldberg Variations by modern pianists. Each one interprets Bach however he or she sees fit, to paint whatever picture they feel is appropriate. András Schiff, for example, plays the piece in a way to describe “Bach the intellectual”, rather than giving it the “meaty, muscular panache” that Murray Perahia imbues3. Clearly, this is just one interpretation, but it’s not difficult to see how each performer can make the piece more or less emotional. Bach was equally dynamic, and describing him as solely “intellectual” or “unemotional” is severely closed-minded.

By this point, it would be very difficult to describe Bach as exclusively unemotional, but there is still the question of whether or not his music is overly intellectual. Bach’s goals as a composer were to do his job, and to do it better than anybody else. Certainly, to do that one must employ techniques which require years of study to fully understand, but does this detract from the music of Bach on the whole? Judging from the positive response to his music at the time (as judged by the ease with which he acquired his great positions) and the long legacy of composers and performers who adore Bach, I think most would agree that this intellectual nature simply adds another layer of enjoyment. In the St. Matthew Passion, for example, sitting in the crowd one could be swept away by the scope and grandeur of the piece without stopping to consider the elegance of the counterpoint. Or, just as easily, we can study the work in a classroom setting as an exemplary piece of orchestration and the balance between aria and recitative. By being able to appreciate Bach in these distinct manners, it rounds out his work and presents the full portrait of a great composer.

1p. 11, Fuller-Maitland, The ‘48’, book II

2 p. 22, Fuller-Maitland, The ‘48’, book II

3 Erik Tarloff, “Variations on the Goldberg Variations

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