Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wagner and Bach

I've always had mixed feelings about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I mean, I have adored pieces like his Brandenburg Concertos and Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring since I can remember. And every Metalhead is at least aware of his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. But I found his other works too often stiff and sterile, and have publicly (read: foolishly) criticized them for seeming to lack passion and significant expressivity.

Just recently I came into my first contact with Bach's Chaconne in D minor, as played by the phenomenal Itzhak Perlman, and had my outlook on Bach's expressivity revamped. At first I guessed that my wonder had to do with Perlman's performance (a flamboyant interpreter). But, having previewed other performer's interpretations, I now hear what most people have known for centuries: Bach's works for solo instruments are beyond brilliant (dohhh!). They are, (along with the pieces mentioned above) the 8th wonders of the world, and their expressive nature is evident. But I digress.

I ran across an article here: detailing a debate concerning vocal pieces by Bach and Richard Wagner. I'm printing my comment here, as I don't usually bother with those yahoo group gropes. Here is my comment (keep in mind, this concerns mostly the vocal opi of the composers):

"Some of the posts here concerning Bach and Wagner are, well...amusing. Attempting to compare the two in terms of quality vocal composition is ultimately futile; for one thing, each had different objectives. Bach's cantatas and oratorios were geared toward emphasizing the human voice, a goal that had existed for a long time before him, and one that would predominate the works of Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. On the other hand, Wagner's vocal composing aimed toward making the human voice equal to the orchestra.

A bit of general musical history: before Beethoven's Eroica, musical works were for the most part based upon structures that had been throughly defined before them. Bach, Handel, Mozart, and even early Beethoven mostly relied upon the Italianate musical language that others before them had originated. They were often rhythmically on cruise control, and thus quite familiar to the performers. The extraordinary thing about Bach, and this is true also of composers like Mozart, they were taking what could be seen as a limiting set of definitions, and perfecting them with spectacular melodic sense (Mozart) and unparralleled counterpoint (Bach), not to mention awe-inspiring craftmanship (both).

Come late-era Beethoven, a revolution in expressiveness was begun, beginning in Beethoven's chamber music, and ultimately culminating in the intensely idiosyncratic operas of Richard Wagner. Few composers before or since have equalled this almost transubstantiational morphing of ego into music. The vast majority were too afraid to try, or instead went the more extreme route, as composers in the 20th Century were wont.

But, I'm getting a little Tiger Beat here. Perhaps how much one admires Bach over Wagner, or vice versa, can be measured by how much overbearing compositional expression one can take...or be subservient to."