Bach Jumps Off the Page

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Why Bach? 
by Daniel Brown
Crosstown Books (New York, 2018)

Daniel Brown refers to this work as “an audio visual appreciation.” It marries musical analysis with the modern capability of textual links to audio examples that he used in his earlier work Bach, Beethoven, Bartok: Confluence in Music, concentrating this time on the glories of Bach. The audio function makes this an exciting way to experience the insights the author brings to Bach’s work, but it is his tone and the spirit of his presentation that makes it outstanding for the non-specialist.

Why Bach isn’t a book like the ones we’ve seen before that illustrate Bach’s technical workings by showing a score; those earlier attempts put a stress on a reader’s ability to read scores and hear the examples in her or his head. Musical texts can assume this ability in their student readers, but until recently the musical enthusiast without that skill was denied the close analysis which serves to reveal Bach’s staggering accomplishment. This eBook can be enjoyed, to a moderate extent, by even those who can’t read music. They can rely on listening to the specific musical examples, which are provided in profusion on every page of the book. The color coding between text and musical line, along with the moving marker which shows the place in the score as the example plays, makes it easy for even a non-reader to connect the point made in the text with the notes themselves.

It’s perfectly possible to listen to and love Bach’s music for a lifetime without understanding the challenges he set for himself and the technical means he used to go about meeting them. We’ve all been exposed to the jargon surrounding Bach’s musical business: counterpoint, polyphony, fugues, canons, stretto, cadences, etc. but may have found the actual study of what he did to be prohibitively opaque. What Daniel Brown has done here is to dispel those clouds of unknowing for anyone willing to follow his lead through a basic essay on Bach’s methods.

For a reader with some musical training, who can read at least a single line on a score, the Noteflight software used in this book opens up a world of appreciation for Bach’s genius. And the author has organized his essay in a sensible manner, beginning with a discussion of Bach’s melodies (for which the musical examples are the most easily digestible), then providing a basic and comprehensible outline of harmony before discussing Bach’s use of it, and finally tackling the knottiest, but most amazing displays of Bach’s imagination in his use of counterpoint. The section on improvisation was of special interest to me as one trained in jazz improvisation: I understand now how Bach proceeds from an idea which first presented itself to him in an improvisation to his notating a version which simulates the conditions of its origin – this is exactly as many jazz compositions from Armstrong to Ellington to Charlie Parker came into being. And as one who has been exposed to the terminology without formal training, at last I begin to understand what inversion and augmentation of themes actually sound like! Until now they were just terms in a text that I didn’t really want to wrestle with.

All these technical means at the disposal of the author, however, are still at the mercy of his actual manner, and it is here that Daniel Brown really shines and makes this book cherishable. For he loves his subject, and his tone is that of a lover who is happy to share what he loves with the reader. Rather than give a close reading of any individual work, he explains a technical term, then illustrates examples of its use in fully notated passages which highlight the pertinent notes. He always comments on the emotional effect of a technique, so the discussion is never merely technical, but draws on life for its comparisons: “This subject’s appeal stems largely from the joyful leap that begins it (complete with little run up, like the approach of a high-jumper to the bar), and that inspires the leap after leap, as though of an uncontainable (his italics) joy, that follow.” Nor does he shrink from casting a wide net in describing Bach’s contribution: “In the annals of great creative conjunctions – Newton’s yoking of apples and planets, Donne’s likening of separated lovers to the arms of a draughtsman’s compass, Picasso’s smuggling of African masks into European art – this fusion of uncanny interval and straightforward motive deserves an entry of honor.”

In addition, he has a broad familiarity with Bach’s work, which allows him to choose vivid examples from a great range of works. Discussion of melody uses examples from the English Suites, the chorale settings, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the organ fugues, and the Mass in B minor, to name a few. Examples of Bach’s skill at improvisation and its simulation were drawn from the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. The section on harmony uses examples from the French Suites, the WTC, the St. Matthew Passion, and in particular the chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunde,” which Paul Simon used for his song “American Tune.”

In the final section on counterpoint, Brown returns for his examples (in part) to the WTC and the B minor Mass, then continues through the D Major Orchestral Suite; as the techniques discussed increase in complexity, he cites the Art of Fugue and the Brandenburg Concertos, and the canons in the Goldberg Variations and the Orgelbüchlein. To conclude in a section he calls “At the Summit,” he goes into detail about the work he feels represents Bach’s greatest moment, the second Kyrie of Bach’s B minor Mass. His humor leavens the proceedings (he describes a seventh chord as having “a cocky little cadential flourish”,  and his imagination shines throughout (it is his instinct as a poet that leads him to describe a series of descending figures in the Kyrie as “a cascade in nature, a skein of waterfalls.”)

In short, he has the chops to present the techniques, and the heart to choose the sublime. He is the most companionable of guides to Bach’s work, which is a peak of expression not only in the western musical tradition but also in the achievements of the human species. Not by mistake was Bach chosen to represent humanity in the Voyager spacecraft on its journey into the galaxy.

The only improvement in this book would have been the use of recorded examples instead of synthesized ones – some of the instruments are better simulated than others, and the choral patch is very approximate. My guess is that the software didn’t include that option. No matter – this book is a gateway to an astounding world – one of greatest displays of imagination and feeling yet afforded us as humans. Work through Bach carefully here and you will be changed.