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World View of Bach

by Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

The interest in the music of Bach throughout the world today is not an accidental phenomenon. On the contrary it is so fundamental to the underlying concepts of the most advanced thinking of the 20th century that it is inevitable that this interest should emerge and flourish as a natural consequence and representative of our era. Within the milieu, atmosphere and context of the United Nations and its international and national concerns I shall not discuss the myriad aspects of Bach's musical techniques. Whether or not you in your official capacities or personal interests are concerned with the beauty of Bach's music or the genius of his musical structures, is not the issue to be considered today, great as these facets of his genius are. There is another which to my mind is at least equal in importance and in respect to world history and contemporary world conditions is more important that the artistic ramifications which concern the musician the musicological scholar and the performer. The issue which is of fundamental importance is 1) Bach's own basic concept and 2) Bach's place in world history — both as a major figure within world history and as the object of world attitudes toward the man and his music and 3) his basic concepts, and 4) the seminal content of these concepts and the quality and power of their influence upon the thinking of the centuries which followed him. Outside of their personal inclinations, it may be that members of the United Nations and its staff couldn't care less whether Bach ever lived or produced music or not. However as the colossus which Bach is, representing how people think in the past. In the troubled present and the very uncertain future, I believe I may say with some foundation that here you are indeed involved in the influence which his concepts continue to exercise.

Firstly let us consider the worldly aspect, that is, the evaluation and treatment of him as an artist by his contemporaries through to the present time. It is well known that he had a greater reputation in the music world during his life as a performer than as a composer. However the inner circle of musicians and intellectuals did recognize him as an outstanding composer, one of the best of his age. He did not receive, however, many external rewards of success. He lived a life that in a sociological context can best be described as petty bourgeois. Professionally he was a musical servant to several courts and to the church councils where he was engaged as capellmeister and organist. After his death he was forgotten by the main stream of musical activity, both in the creative and performance worlds, for already during his life he was considered old fashioned. His own son, the famous Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, spoke of him as the ‘old peruke’ and his position as a composer in the contemporary avant-garde world of his time was that of a totally outdated musician. They were not to realize that this very context of his fundamental thinking and his sense of form and structure — his so-called outdated weltanschauung — was to be the beacon and connecting link to the thought and creativity of a world 200 years past his lifetime — that is, our world. The conceptual road on which all disciplines travel in each era was for Bach a new road that did not suit him. The new style of conceptualization began, technically speaking, at the beginning of the 17th century with the birth of opera, the emphasis on harmonic rather than polyphonic structures and the colossal universal European mistake of thinking that in composing music in this way musicians were reproducing the style and techniques of the Greek rhapsodists. Thus opera, an entirely new concept of musical form and structure, arose out of the total error of man's thinking. From that error, the harmonic idiom evolved. Bach was born in 1685 well after the beginnings of opera, its harmonic forms and its particular styles of expressiveness. He died in 1750 when these had been well established in many non-operatic forms as well. But Bach was immersed from his beginnings, in my opinion, in medieval attitudes. He is more often linked with the Reformation due in large part, no doubt, to his Lutheranism. For many reasons which are impossible to explain in a short talk, the medieval world was the source of Bach's vision — he retained a medieval style in his daily life in that in his working situations throughout his life he was attached to a court or to a church. His last position kept him at the St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig for 22 [Ed: actually 27, 1723–1750] years. He never lived as an independent composer although he wrote great quantities of music for his own pleasure and professional interest. He was essentially provincial; he travelled little. Some years ago I did a tour devoted entirely to research in all the towns in which Bach had lived and worked, ending in Eisenach where he was born. [Ed: Dr. Tureck's description of her tour is available here.] My return trip from Eisenach to East Berlin which runs the whole gamut of Bach's activities and travel, except for a couple of cities which are only peripheral interest as far as his presence there is concerned, took me four hours by car. This was the geographical universe of Bach.

Bach's way of life was confined to the two types of positions — the court, comparatively small court circles, — and the Church. The area of our interest must be focussed on the opinion that Bach was regarded as an old fogey by the advanced composers of his time. He was composing in forms and structures with which the progressive composers of his day in England, in Germany, in France, in Italy, in the Netherlands were no longer concerned. After his death he was neglected by virtually every area of the music world. Only a tiny remnant of interest was maintained by a composer here and there and these few felt profound respect and even reverence for the genius of Johann Sebastian. Most of his works were unpublished the copper plates of several works that had been published in his lifetime were destroyed by his own sons: his manuscripts were lost or mislaid. Among the few who recognized Bach's genius were no less than Mozart and Beethoven but they in themselves did not re-direct the world's attention to his music.

In the early years of the second decade of the 19th century the head of the Singakademie in Berlin, the well-known Carl Friedrich Zelter — a capable and pedantic schoolmaster type — used to entertain privately on Sunday evenings with music at his home. Here Bach cantatas were often sung. Among his quests and colleagues was a German Jew, Felix Mendelssohn and it was he who rescued Johann Sebastian Bach from oblivion. The story is well-known of the famous public performance of the St. Matthew Passion that shook the foundations of all people concerned with music and musical concepts. This performance took place in Berlin, March 12, 1829. Meanwhile a couple of Englishmen were oiling the rusty machinery of Bach's contribution to the world by editing some of Bach's collections. This was the famous pair of Samuel Wesley and Carl Friedrich Horn. Wesley also was associated with the well-known organist of St. George's Chapel, Benjamin Jacob, in sponsoring Bach concerts. Their work constituted a valuable but more gradual procedure than the bombshell which Mendelssohn dropped upon the world with the performance of the St. Matthew Passion. As result, Johann Sebastian Bach was resurrected immediately without question. The resurrection brought forth continuously developing efforts to bring his music back to the living world and it amounted virtually to a new religion. This work provided the strongest foundations for the development of a new research discipline — musicology. Scholars began the search throughout Europe for manuscripts and they succeeded in producing a near ‘complete’ edition which from its initial efforts required 50 years to accomplish — 1850 to 1900. Manuscripts were reported to be found as wrappings around rose bushes and for meat in butcher shops. With the [completion] of the Bach Gesellschaft Edition in 1900 when many of its original subscribers were already dead, the foundation for Bach scholarship and performance was well established. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bach scholarship has grown and developed to very sophisticated levels in many directions. The study of antique instruments has developed and their manufacturing techniques and finished products have been improved continuously. It should be mentioned that the harpsichords of the early and even middle 20th century were on the whole a far cry from the original models and therefore not representative of the harpsichords of the 17th and 18th centuries. This o situation has at last improved though it has taken 60 to 70 years for it to come about. Even today one hears harpsichords and harpsichordist styles which are not at all in line with the concepts and techniques of earlier times. Concern with authenticity has grown throughout the 20th century, both by performers and scholars. In our time, despite the development of scholarship and identification and interest in authentic performance, there is still an enormous gap between the scholar and the performing musician. It is part of my work to bring the two disciplines together; in fact it is one of the major efforts of my entire life. I find myself working much too hard for this greatly to be desired goal which would seem to be self-evident but which is slow to integrate. It is as though the antennae of one species is very slow in reaching out to another. The communication is still only mildly effective. The foregoing constitutes a very swift scanning of the worldly attitudes toward Johann Sebastian from the early 18th century to our present era.

What are Bach's basic concepts, to which he adhered throughout his life with a few small excursions into the more fashionable world of music composition? Perhaps the most profound confirmation of his life-long values, his sense of form and structure is expressed in the last great work of his life — The Art of Fugue, a purely abstract composition divorced from instrumental sound and wholly devoted to the fugal concept of form. What then is the underlying thought of Bach which connects him with our century of upheaval, of breakthrough in concepts of government, social relations, medical science, astrophysics, mathematics, musical sense of form and structure, electronic music and electronic instruments, etc. All manifestations of contemporary thought travel within the wide road which characterizes the breakthrough in the beginning of the 20th century, into new modes of living, human relationships and national and international relationships. The origin of this new road can be traced to the fundamental change in every branch of thought about the middle of the 18th century. In fact, 1750, the date of Bach's death, is a very good one for identifying this change. There is no doubt that the great movement into new modes of thought and forms was brought about as result of the enlightenment and age of rationalism. Above all it was the scientific attitude that began to penetrate every discipline. To leap from the 18th into the 19th century scientific attitudes developed as we all know into concern with the physical world and its properties. At the beginning of the new century — the 20th — still another conceptual era was ushered in among creative minds in the arts and the sciences. Prince Kropotkin as early as 1902 in his work on the cooperation of the species — Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution (1902) — was one of the earliest to move the tide of men's formal thought from division and competition to cooperation. Kropotkin and many others after him have shown that the individuals of a species are dependent on each other for their life, for the development of the species, and for their collective well-being, and that these can be achieved solely through cooperation. It has also been shown recently that not only does each species depend for their health and functional development on cooperation within the species but that all species depend on each other for their life. This is a very different view from that which emerged from Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin surely had no intention to project upon the world a view that humanity and all species live best by elimination of other groups for the sake of one's own well-being. Yet the notion of competition and the survival of the fittest, for instance, projects a maximal selfishness and an enclosed society or group which excludes all those who do not meet a particularized standard of fitness, excluding them to the point of death. Varying degrees in mildness and severity of this viewpoint affected every aspect of political, sociological, personal, artistic and scientific attitudes and activities. But this approach has been totally abandoned by the 20th century scientist and most 20th century thinkers for it has been demonstrated repeatedly in our culture within totally different disciplines. Most impressively, the medical and biological sciences have discovered that bacteria which had been viewed as non-benevolent to a species or to any living cells are in fact dependent on each other for their own life. In relation to the principle of cooperation rather than competition and unification rather than separateness, I wish to quote from a microbiologist, Dr. Lewis Thomas, a former dean of Yale Medical School. The quote comes from a recent book of his entitled The Life of a Cell. Dr. Thomas says: “The new phenomenon of cell fusion ... is the most unbiologic of all phenomena violating the most fundamental myth of the last century for it denies the importance of specificity, integrity and separateness in living things. Any cell — man, animal, fish, fowl or insect — given the chance and under the right conditions brought into contact with any other cell, however foreign, will fuse with it.” This is the new thinking of the 20th century. The inexorable rule appears to be that without each other — every other — we virtually cannot exist. And the process by which every form and species develops is the capacity not to compete but rather to interrelate with uniquely differing individual materials which need not be changed in themselves. They need only to be capable of successful fusion under differing circumstances. Dr. Lewis goes farther when he says that “disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis” (that is, for symbiosis of the myriad cells which occupy our bodies) “an overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biologic misinterpretation of borders.” He says: “human chauvinism has created our attitude of thinkinq that we are separated and superior to the rest of life, but the work of science has dispersed that illusion.” He says: “we are shared, rented, occupied. Man could not be man without microcondria, centrioles, basal bodies” which are the specific names for the organales which live within our cells. These organales occupy every living cell on earth and through them we are irrevocably made of the same stuff as all creatures who inhabit the earth. In order for a civilization to be healthy and to operate on some minimally successful level, its principles must be based on cooperation, willingness to fuse and capable of successful fusion. Here we have the fundamental principles which rule the contemporary sense of creativity whether it be in science or in.

This concept is, as I see it, in my analysis of form in principle and in specific structures, expressed in the concept of fugue. Fugue form is totally structured in the principle of cooperative relationships and unification of diversified entitles. The fugue a very highly structured form but on the other hand it cannot be composed to a set pattern. Fugue form is in essence a process: it is not a mould into which one pours the correct motives. The rules for fugal composition apply essentially to the introduction of the motives and materials of the fugue. Following the exposition of the materials there is complete freedom right through to the end as to how one deals with this material. However the motives which are very formally and simply introduced in the exposition are treated not in evolutionary sense — that is treating the materials organically by changing their make-up — quite the contrary. The very concept of fugue, in my view, exists in the fact that the original theme or Subject, as we usually refer to the chief motive in the fugue form — the original subject or subjects or countersubjects, that is secondary motives, which are introduced in the exposition are never changed; they never evolve; they remain the same. Thus throughout the fugue you hear the materials [which were] introduced in the exposition repeatedly. You may ask, therefore, what is the interest of the fugue? Is it simply repetition? Perhaps that is why I have been so bored by fugues. Well, for those of you who have been bored by this form, I suggest that you don't blame Bach: blame the performer. I could give a lecture on that also but we will not go into that aspect today. The fascination and the validity of this form are contained in the fact that the individual integrity of the materials are continuously maintained, yet always relate to each other in new situations. Although each subject and countersubject differs from each other, they blend in a fusion of continually changing relationships. The traversal of new relationships and situations in a successfully organized fusion creates the whole form of fugue interrelationship at every moment in the entire composition, no matter how complex or dense the materials may be, is the process of fugue form. There are virtually endless ways of interrelation and these ways form the fascination of fugue form. The variety of ways and their successful interrelationships exhibit the genius or lack of talent of a composer. They create the entire composition. Thus fugue form and the concept of fugue is in its very existence the process by which different entities interrelate with each other and create a totality of unit and harmony. Is this not the goal of all conscious life? We see via biology today that it is the process and goal of unconscious life. Having discovered in our time the irrefutable reality of the fusion of disparate entities which until now we have regarded as not only separate but incapable of unification, we now find that the principal concept of all life is based on total fusion and total dependence of all cells, all creatures and all human endeavors upon each other. This concept is the original principle and source of fugue and it is within this conceptual world that Bach lived his entire life. Here then one of the major connections that bring us to Bach today. Here also we have the basic principle and hope of the United Nations. In the interest of the realization of this ideal goal, the fugue stands as a beacon of perfection lighting and harmonizing the way to the dream of all mankind.