Oct 22, 2009


I don’t know enough about classical music to declare much about it, but the power of all music intrigues me. So from my cultural outpost in the Midwest, I wonder: if Bach were composing today, would he be considered a wildly experimental guy—and at the same time a subtle, complicated genius? He feels remarkably modern to me.

I’ve heard that his method lies partly in the fact of his being confined to the harpsichord, before the booming pianoforte and its sustaining pedals were developed. Therefore, more notes are required, and variety arises from unexpected movements among the notes, rather than the big changes in volume and passion we know in Beethoven and the Romantics.

Whatever the case, I feel as if I’m hearing things from Bach that are as unpredictable as I would expect from Prokofiev or some avant-garde, starving composer who was writing just yesterday in Greenwich Village. But I like Bach better. I don’t enjoy him as much as some others—for example, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or the rollicking Johann Strauss. I suppose that means I prefer Romantic boom-boom; I need a bigger spoon to stir my soup.

My limitations concerning classical music (and the visual arts) remind me that a lot of people feel the same kind of unease about contemporary poetry. Usually lacking rhyme and regular meter, and with leaps of thought that might be more demanding than, say, nineteenth century poetry, contemporary verse causes many readers to feel adrift, baffled, bamboozled, alienated. (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, and Emily Dickinson are often considered more modern than nineteenth-century because of the complexities of their perceptions and language, but getting into that now might lead to an eternal digression).

But I think what I’m hearing in Bach, without being alienated by it, is an understated complexity of the unexpected. To my unschooled ear and soul, it's rarely or never emotionally stirring, but it makes my brain shift around in my skull. I cannot listen to Bach, or any classical music, as a soporific or as background—it’s too interesting; it keeps me awake. But the written word, spoken aloud? Puts me right to sleep.


Anonymous said...

You would make a sparkling dinner companion. I think this would take us through the month, at least.

I think one reason Bach appeals to the head rather than the heart is that so many of his pieces were written as exercises for his students. With Beethoven I hear demons, with Chopin I hear longing. With Bach I hear discussion.

Funny, first thing this morning I threw my shoe at the stereo because Bolero was on the radio. I love every single thing Ravel ever wrote except this incredibly stupid piece that always gets play.

Speaking of the harpsicord, you know the Sir Thomas Beecham quote? "Sounds like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof."

And yes, when my insomnia peaks, audio books are the only thing that work.

Banjo52 said...

And to think that Bolero is the only Ravel I can think of . . .
"The English Major Who Threw Her Shoe at Bolero." Novel title? Story collection?

Those sound like excellent takes on Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven. If somebody disagrees, it's probably some crank, jealous of your phrasing--which I really like.

But for nimble language, can it match the sex-laden humor of Sir Beecham? No, I haven't heard that. Thank you. Can I remember it till the next time conversation turns to harpsichords?

All this, combined with an earlier post of your own about music, suggests that your ARE schooled in it. Care to elaborate?

Anonymous said...

If you get a raindrop or two tonight, listen to this:
Heart-tugging yearning, longing.

And now, you know, you're doomed to hear my favorite Ravel's... TK, as they say, to come.

Oh, and I have a favorite Prokofiev. TK

gothpunkuncle said...

My attention span tends more toward the three minute pop tune, but I saw the following going down in a local art gallery last weekend. Talk about your "skeletons copulating" SHEESH! (Or just an H.G. Wells character in a public act of self-pleasure? ) Still, I intuit a structure or sophistication that you educated folk might affirm:


Banjo52 said...

TK?? But I shall indeed give it a listen. Are you withholding the Prokofiev info? See? I was right again--you really know your musical stuff.

As for Gpuncle's YouTube video, it's really more apt for Friday's (Oct. 23) post. That is one . . . unique . . . instrument, Gpuncle. As they say to poets, whom do you envision as your audience? :) How do you say idiosyncratic in Romania?

Anonymous said...

My dog started howling with that one. True story.

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