Friday, November 28, 2014

Bloch on Bach

From Essays on the Philosophy of Music, translated by Peter Palmer (Cambridge University Press):
. . . . He cherishes his theme, in which he as no other composer compressed what was to come, tension and the sharpest outline of tension. He goes on lovingly considering the theme from all angles and prospects until it blossoms forth and until, in the great modulations of the fugue, it has become an unlocked shrine, an internally unending melody (`internally' meaning within the context of the theme), a melismatic universe in respect of the developed individuality of his theme. For precisely this reason, Bach's layout is not purely diatonic, however clear its flagrant nature. Obviously the harmonic clement in itself becomes irrelevant with Bach insofar as it is manifested in a fortuitous, pleasantly meaningful simulultaneity of the parts. But it is surely not irrelevant to the extent that the pertinent motions and their framework, which is to say the counterpoint, are now also the paramount factor and, as such, emphasized. To the extent that it represents a complete horizontal transparence, it is certainly the essence of Bach more than it is of Beethoven and Wagner. And yet, even in Bach, there is in the layout an active desire. There is the pervasive flow of a succession of themes rich in associations, a twofold thematicism already inherently rich in tension which finds itself far less strongly dependent on the constant polyphony's non-decisive part-writing than on the transitional, turning and corner points, but above all the rhythmically stressed anchor-points in the harmony. And as we can see, this is not straightforwardly homophonic but a different, deliberately chosen harmony, one that underlines, that emphasizes by virtue of its mass. The one reflects upon the other, even though Bach remains the master of the single voice, multiplying the old homophony by two or by five, the intrinsic master in the spinning to of lines and in this procedure's seemingly unlyrical, supra-lyrical domain. The blending, harmonic-rhythmic element still has an influence: it prevents a revelling in the mechanics and the formal aspect of counterpoint even where Bach's wide gaps between parts play an important role in preventing a vertical blending, i.e. the being and changing of whole columns of notes or hosts of chords, no matter whether rhythmically diminished or caught up by and released from he dominant. But it is only the song, the theme, that seeks to become extensive and unending within th fugue melody which is, as it were, internally unending. It is by virtue of this above all that the element of diatonic counterpoint is reduced to a mere means, to something reflexive, permitted only because the lyrically flourishing melismata acquire a sharper profile from the juxtaposition. For it is in the contrapuntal or, rather, dailiness system of balances that they can best represent their protected, unbroken simultaneity, that lyricism of theirs which no longer has any individual relevance but simply means soul, developed soul. And that lyricism, in spite of all the dramatic community choruses, is the core of Bach's Church music. Where this balance is self-supporting, it is easy to recognize, within the framework of Bachian counterpoint, the hidden, connected, multi-layered lyricism of he Passions, built into the niches of three-dimensional counterpointing. It is akin to the uneven surface of the bas-relief, where we can feel the presence of air, the arrangement of figures in the landscape and, in fact, the whole actual landscape that is set in the rise and fall of the uneven background.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the quotation. Earlier you'd noted that Bach would break some rules in service to the greater whole, and I agreed. Having performed Bach across my now long life, there is something special about his composing, in that individual lines make so much linear sense all the while making harmonic sense even when being dissonant against the rules of the period, such as a rising melodic minor against a falling harmonic minor. Taken separately they might seem wildly dissonant even today, but taken as a whole as well as individually they are the "correct" choice. What a master and example to us was he. Theory alone cannot explain the depth of his understanding, and rules cannot capture his sense. Thanks for Bloch's quote. By the way, Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh is a gorgeous work. Have you ever played in it?

Elaine Fine said...

I thought you would like this, Anonymous! I have not yet played Avodath Hakodesh, but I hope to one day. I am enjoying my second time through the WTC, and Bloch's thoughts on Bach help open my ears and my mind. (Tomorrow will be the prelude and fugue in C# minor.)