Review of a book about J.S.Bach.
December 6, 2012 4:11 AM   Subscribe

The only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex. This book review was written by Jeremy Denk, who has a blog where you can find more good writing about music.
posted by From Bklyn (13 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Just how does one square these approved quotations

"... the greatest compliment for Ms. Hewitt came from her father, who after listening to one of her recordings, said: ‘I didn’t hear you. I only heard Bach."


"For some reason, people love to tell the story of Wanda Landowska saying to Pablo Casals, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.”


"If you are listening to a recording, you are hearing someone’s truth about Bach’s truth, their idea of Bach’s truth. The wonderment is that you may hear truths you never suspected, possibilities you never dreamed—but still you are buying another person’s truth. "?

If Bach's music is "pure" and the best performers* are conduits of its 'truth', then any one of those recordings should do.

*"Beethoven specialists are known as great musicians, great interpreters, whereas Bach specialists tend to be viewed vatically, as mediums."
posted by Gyan at 4:27 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex.

J.S. Bach grew up in late 17th century Germany, a country devastated by a centuries-long series of wars (Wars of Religion, 30 Years' War, War of Spanish Succession). His contemporaries had had it with randomness.

And sex? Fer Chrissakes, the guy had twenty children!
posted by Skeptic at 4:42 AM on December 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

Gyan, I don't think he means to endorse your first two quotes. That's his view of the received wisdom the 'cliched credo'.

That said, I don't think "Bach, by contrast, self-effaces" is actually quite the cliched credo, either: that would be more that Bach is all over the music; that he's done all the work, he's specified everything, so that anything you add will just get in the way. More like self-assertion than self-effacement, even if self-assertion through assertion of the rules of counterpoint.

But your Goldberg may vary, etc.
posted by Segundus at 5:01 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

We had a Sextet in the Suite, I trilled her clef until she tremolo'ed then she give me a glissando with lots of vibrato. I was fingering her rounds when she commenced the Orratorio. My major seventh was so hard I was afraid it had Baroque.
posted by nathancaswell at 5:32 AM on December 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

That was Andy Salzman-worthy.
posted by Beardman at 7:07 AM on December 6, 2012

Steve Reich has some provocative quotes about how he sees himself in relationship to Bach:

Beethoven was a great, great composer, whom I admire enormously. But for me, music history basically begins with Gregorian chant then goes to the end of 1750 with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. Then it goes on without me paying much attention until Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok and so on. The entire classical and Romantic period is filled with geniuses that I don't listen to and from whom I've learned absolutely nothing. (cite)

The way Denk describes the almost mathematical precision of The Well-Tempered Clavier, it sounds similar to Reich's manifesto, Music as a Gradual Process.
posted by jonp72 at 7:44 AM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

But your Goldberg may vary, etc.

Points for delivery.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:48 AM on December 6, 2012

I initially read the FPP link as "The only two things missing from Beck's music are randomness and sex," and was very confused.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:16 AM on December 6, 2012

That was a tremendous review; thanks for posting this.
posted by old_growler at 11:09 AM on December 6, 2012

There really was no end to his capabilities: ..., being ignored in the D.C. metro...
posted by MtDewd at 2:31 PM on December 6, 2012

Ironically, I came to Bach's music backwards, through Godel, Escher, Bach, and discovered my deep and abiding love of fugues. I am a fuguphile, which sounds really dirty.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:44 PM on December 6, 2012

I went through Junior High and High School with Jeremy Denk. It's been fun to watch his career shift into higher gears over the past few years. We were in Orchestra together, and we were both the "star piano players" in the school, but I didn't pursue studying music once I got into college and had a teacher whose method seemed to be to drive any love of music or playing out of his students in order to make them more musical, or something.

Jeremy, on the other hand, has been doing a lot of cool things. He was definitely the stronger talent between the two of us, and I've been rooting for him for about 30 years now.
posted by hippybear at 6:15 PM on December 6, 2012

Bach usually isn't very random... but there are some odd progressions in the Goldberg Variations where I scratch my head and think "Hmn? Really?"

Bach usually isn't very sexy... but when the soprano voices swoop around in the Kyrie of the Mass in B Minor it sounds almost kinda... voluptuous?
posted by ovvl at 2:38 PM on December 9, 2012

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