Sweet sleep held me in her tender, lubricious arms. I lay in my bed, on my side, facing away from the window, away from light, away from the call of day. Suddenly, as always seems to happen, the alarm went off. It cruelly punctured the most vulnerable spot in my balloon of rest. It uttered not quite a beep and not quite a screech; perhaps, a screep. Screep, screep, screep!, it went, in that mockery of rhythm known as exactitude. And I reached over, groaning, to press the broad snooze button. But the screep screeped on. I pressed the button again, twice, thrice… all along its length and breadth … and yet the clock would not stop, it was scraping my somnolent soul clear of serenity. I wrenched an eye open—why is life so difficult sometimes?—and checked that the time was correct, that the button was correct, that I was Jeremy Denk, etc. etc., double and triple checking my calculations in this sordid game of life. But everything was in order, I saw no flaw. I reached around back to press the “CLOCK RESET” and nothing happened. I got out of bed, got down on my hands and knees, became desperate in submission, and simply unplugged the clock. That should stop it, I thought, and I crawled back into bed. But after a moment’s silence, it kept going! The battery must have taken over … And now my phone was beeping at me too, from across the room, and I saw no way of ending this torment ever ever ever …
Suddenly, there was a break in the action. I was lying on my side in the opposite direction. The room was perfectly peaceful except for the chirping of the two alarms. With the mere brush of a fingertip both were silenced. How horrible to awaken twice, but only once in reality … small consolation! Or, put another way: there is no worse dream than the dream of actuality.
I had one companion in my bed. Don’t get your hopes up; it was Christoph Wolff’s book, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. (It snored all night… or was that me?) I was in extreme proximity to it, my cheek atop its cover, rubbing its bristles on a famous portrait of the beneficent master. Fearful of drool, I raised my head from the book and Bach, thereby revealed, spoke to me from the dust jacket: “You shouldn’t have eaten that spicy squid last night, Jeremy. What the hell were you thinking?” I swear this is true.
While we’re on the subject of people who imagine that Bach consults with them directly, the other day I was over at A.C. Douglas’ famously irascible blog, Sounds & Fury. A.C. was recommending an article:
The following is excerpted from a superb article on Bach written for The Hudson Review by Harold Fromm, Visiting Scholar in English at the University of Arizona …
Hmm, OK, err, yes, delightful, I thought to myself, I shall go over and read said article, in ever greater pursuit of knowledge and insight. And so I did. What I would like to type now, to summarize my feelings on this whole matter of the Fromm article, would be one deeply profound letter not yet invented in any alphabet, just one black deadly character after Z (or, possibly, just before Q) which would refer to things so annoying as to be unspeakable, irritating beyond pronunciation, beyond sigh or grr, beyond hotel room service surcharges, beyond even the sound of unwrapping cough drops in the middle of slow movements …
For me, one of the most telling sentences was:
And, of course, playing Bach on today’s grand pianos is much more egregious.
I slurped sulkily upon an Odwalla juice while I considered my egregiousness. Perhaps Harold Fromm has not gotten the memo that “egregious” cannot be used right now as a term of disparagement, except ironically, or under the influence of cannabis (as in: “that chick was so egregious, dude.”) I don’t know why this is so, but it is so. Perhaps in 2050, in some future halcyon era, in some utopian clime, it will be possible again to say something is “egregious,” and have it taken seriously, but it is not possible now. I might be able to overlook this hapless, earnest use of “egregious” if it weren’t for the accompanying “of course.” This “of course,” presuming agreement on the part of all reasonable parties (for instance, Harold Fromm), is a linguistic patch taped to a sordid Ziploc bag of sophistry. It attempts to enforce agreement with its leaky, pungent premise.
Now, normally I have no objection to English Professors from Tucson telling professional pianists what they can and cannot play. But, if I were elected to office, one of the first bills I would put forth would prohibit Pontification About Bach, it would be an anti—PAB measure. (Pontification is to be distinguished, I hope, from insight, reflection, and probing analysis; it may be difficult to draw the line sometimes, but I have faith in humanity.) What makes Fromm’s article “pontification”? A sentence like this one:
Landowska’s Well-Tempered Clavier revealed more of the music more powerfully than anybody else, squeezing out every drop of its seemingly inexhaustible juices.
In vain I searched for the phrases “I feel” or “in my opinion” or any such which would distinguish such a huge judgement from a declared, journalistic fact. Harold Fromm does not like to admit the possibility of multiplicity of opinion. Here’s another delightful instance:
The later practice of introducing “expression” into Bach’s keyboard music can only be described as a bad joke that reduces power to preciosity.
(I will return to this question of quote-unquote expression later: one rant at a time!) Notice the use of the phrase “can only” … “Can only” is a traditional linguistic weapon of the recidivist Bach Pontificator, the tyrant of taste. Here’s yet another astounding instance of presumptuous opinion:
As for the clavichord, forget about it.
Oh, really, Mr. Fromm? I should simply erase all thought of the clavichord from my mind? But, wait, what about this…
As for the instrument itself, Forkel related that Bach “considered the clavichord as the best instrument for study” and “the most convenient for the expression of his most refined thoughts,” as he preferred the “variety in the gradations of tone … on this instrument, which is, indeed, poor in tone, but on a small scale extremely flexible.”
—Christoph Wolff, Bach: The Learned Musician, p. 174
Fascinating; it would seem that J.S. Bach—who is a fairly relevant person in this discussion—did not exactly take Fromm’s advice and forget about the clavichord! Fromm doesn’t want you to know this, of course. He tells us:
… [the clavichord] never really comes up in any of the three biographies, and its usefulness in music like Bach’s is marginal.
The “really” is the infuriating bit, where he hedges; “really” is where Fromm tries to pretend that he’s not lying to us. The clavichord does come up (as we have seen!), but it’s not convenient for him to mention it, or he has forgotten where it comes up: a particularly interesting memory lapse, since this mention of the clavichord seems to (ahem) UNDERMINE HIS WHOLE THESIS.
Harold (I feel now we are on a first name basis!) continues:
Bach’s posthumous estate lists several harpsichords of various types but no other keyboard instrument. For Bach, it was then and remains now (except for the organ) the keyboard instrument of choice.
Look carefully at this last sentence, which seems so eminently “reasonable.” Notice how the “then” becomes the “now,” by simple clausular addition. It slips down so easily that you may not even notice that it might be difficult for Bach to have a keyboard of instrument of choice “now” because, in fact, he’s dead.
Oh, Harold Fromm. There are already two types of egregiousness to your article which I have detailed:
1) presumptuousness of tone;
2) inaccuracy of content.
But I have so so many more!!! Another crucial rhetorical device of Fromm’s, and one which A.C. Douglas seems to have particularly enjoyed, is the setting up of Straw Men. It is apropos during this political season, I suppose, and yet still irritating. Fromm is talking about certain interpretative qualities of the harpsichord, and certain options for the performer (though he seems to get a bit confused whether he is talking about the performer’s or the composer’s options):
Bach’s Italian Concerto provides a perfect demonstration of all these qualities, with furious propulsion punctuated by dense chords in the outer movements and arioso lyricism in the middle (exploiting two keyboards), written into the music, no “expression” needed, just the player’s skill on the harpsichord. An “expressive” piano performance that turns it into one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words subverts its most distinctive and powerful properties.
Ah yes, I forgot about those roving armies of pianists who wish to turn the Italian Concerto into a Mendelssohn “Song without Words.” I was going to donate to their organization just last week, but I gave to the Communist Party instead. Hello? Harold? I think we all agree the Italian Concerto is very different from “Spinning Song;” even us idiot pianists get the difference, thank you very much. Could there be ways to play the Italian Concerto expressively and yet not aim for “Songs without Words”? Could there be a way to write an article on Bach and yet not pontificate?
But more central to the problem of this passage, I am sure the reader will realize, is Harold’s use of the word “expression.” I am sure Mr. Fromm is somewhat uneasy about his use of this word, too, since he always puts it in quotation marks, as if that will fix what is wrong with what he is saying. ANYONE who tells you there is “no expression needed” to play the Italian Concerto is an idiot. Just play the notes, they say! Here’s an experiment: plug the piece into Sibelius and have the computer play it back to you. Lovely. I’m sure it sounds absolutely delightful. The very musical translation of despair. This kind of statement, that everything is “written into the music,” reveals a desperate ignorance of the millions of small interpretative and expressive decisions that go into even the most basic realization of a musical score; it goes against the underlying contract of notated Western music.
Let’s be generous, and assume Mr. Fromm puts “expression” in quotes to designate a certain type of expressivity. So that there is no mistake, in defining this type of expressivity, he invokes the Songs without Words… “music for ladies” is the hidden implication here, and if you don’t think so I have a bridge to sell you … Later he refers to the “genteel Gallic” Casadesus family and the “melting, exquisite, precious, Chopinesque” pianist marring Mozart. Do ya get it yet? Not only are you egregiously playing on the wrong instrument, but the way you are doing it makes you a Frenchified girlyman.
Mr. Fromm speaks a few times of “linear expression” or “linear performance”:
Bach wrote his keyboard and organ music for instruments capable of linear performance only, uninflected by touch.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out what this phrase “linear performance” might mean. Does it mean you play looking forward in a straight line? I suppose lines are to be distinguished from curves, whorls, ovoids, and other shapes? He says “uninflected by touch,” but he CERTAINLY can’t mean that, since variations in articulation, in attack, in the nature of the connection from one note to the next—in other words, things inflected by touch—are among the absolute essential expressive devices on the harpsichord, without which the harpsichordist might as well give up, have several martinis, and go home. I guess he means dynamic contrast? The only way in which can agree with Mr. Fromm is to say that, whatever the keyboardist does, while playing Bach, to get the maximum result and pleasure, he or she should pay close attention to the lines that the notes seem to draw amongst themselves, the beautiful patterns they create, their diversions, their turnarounds, and their intersections… all Bach’s magnificent, humane geometry … full of whorls, lines, fractals, parabolas … geometry with no whiff of blackboard and always proving eternity.
Here I come (at last) to the meat of my matter. Mr. Fromm proposes that Bach wrote his keyboard music specifically “not to be inflected by touch.” Now, let’s even leave aside all the keyboard music that is a transcription of music for other instruments—which is quite a bit of music. Let’s give Fromm an undeserved break, and brush that off the table. Do we imagine that Bach sat down to write keyboard music and composed, specifically, music that should be absent of dynamic inflection? This would mean that the keyboard music is somehow weirdly separate, cordoned off from all the rest of the music of Bach. But it seems pretty clear to me, listening to the keyboard Partitas on the one hand, and Cantatas on the other (for instance), that a lot of the same genetic material is there. Countless specific motives are shared, a whole compositional personality is shared … So, are we to believe that a motive in a Cantata would be shaped dynamically by a violin, oboe, or voice, but when Bach wrote a very similar idea for the keyboard, he never even wished for the idiomatic shaping of another instrument?
This separation of the keyboard music doesn’t make any sense to me—intuitively or intellectually—and I’m not even counting the innumerable instances where Bach’s keyboard writing is deliberately and clearly meant to imitate and invoke a violin, orchestra, or chorus, or any number of other groupings which are capable of dynamic shaping up the yinyang! (Cases where Bach himself blurs the line between instruments … where he invokes a musical space beyond the single instrument …) Does Fromm mean to say that Bach, while playing a passage on the harpsichord, never even imagined a crescendo, or what we would now call a hairpin? Anyone who plays a keyboard instrument seriously knows how large a role is played by imagining the timbres and possibilities of other instruments, and yearning for them, even against physical impossibility … somehow imagining your way into the audible illusion. The vastness of Bach’s conception of keyboard music shows that his imagination in this respect was pretty much better than anyone’s in history.
The syllogism … 1) Bach wrote for the harpsichord, 2) the harpsichord is incapable of dynamic inflection, ergo 3) the music he wrote for the harpsichord should be free from dynamic inflection … is faulty, despite its appearance of rationality. (It may be that premise #1 is the most faulty…) It attempts to shortcircuit music’s multivalence; it attempts to replace the beautiful, complex, ambiguous relationship of instrument, composition, score, conception, and audible result—which are all woven together with imagination—with a simplistic logic. This is not to discount the pleasure and importance of knowing the harpsichord’s expressive possibilities, the relevance of its timbral language … But when we say that Bach wrote “for” an instrument, I think we mean more centrally that he wrote towards the possibilities of his instruments, and not to make dogmas out of their parameters.
I suppose I should apologize for my vehemence, for basically being a jerk towards Mr. Fromm, who is probably a very nice person, and an avid lover of Bach. But I won’t. I would use the following quote as my excuse:
Bach is said to have conducted himself in a generally “peaceful, quiet, and even-tempered way” in the face of all kinds of unpleasantness “as long as it concerned only his own person,” but the same source acknowledges that he “became a very different man if he felt threatened in his art, which he held sacred, and that he then became mightily enraged and in his zeal sought to find vent by the strongest expressions.”
-Wolff, p. 401-402
Since Fromm is making pronouncements on what I consider to be my bailiwick, I feel (though I am but a lowly blogger, and he an English professor) it is my duty to impinge upon his, and to aver to you that his article is not only annoying but badly written as well. This is unfortunate, since I read an earlier article of his on Camille Paglia which seems quite good (see, I put some effort into this hitjob!) … what is it about music, sometimes, that draws out the bad qualities in good writers? We musicians should not put up with this. We should be emancipated from pompous writing about our craft.
Quickly, I would like to detail the egregiousness of the writing in this piece. Its first six lengthy paragraphs could be summed up in about two sentences, i.e.:
1) Bach could be regarded as the father of Western music.
2) There is very little information about his life.
Much of what is in the article is culled, in one form or another, from various other volumes: it is a kind of sampling of little interesting tidbits from the biographies he has read, but these tidbits do not cohere, or relate to his underlying purpose of “Bach in the Twenty-first Century.” Egregiousness #503: lack of coherent point. Bach wrote parody cantatas, we learn; we learn some details of organ production and maintenance in Bach’s lifetime; we pause again to castigate “expressivity” in modern Bach performance; we learn there are problems with Bach chronology (oh really?); later, we learn the instrumentation of some cantatas and that they range in length from 10 to 50 minutes. We learn that Bach wrote a cantata a week for quite a while (something I learned in Music History 101). In all, an assortment of things, not all of them interesting, none of them earthshaking, all of them borrowed … Egregiousness #504: boring/obvious observations.
We learn that
Bach did not spring full grown from the head of Zeus
which is a relief, whew!, because I thought he did … later, a complete Bach edition on CD …
fractured any picture I might have had of the emergence of this transcendent music as solidified, discrete units, like packs of candy bars dropping from a vending machine.
… a simile which, for some reason, made me long to be stifled under an avalanche of Mars bars.
But, at last, amidst the chaos, Fromm says …
Now, as I arrive at a retrospective overview of Bach from the twenty-first century,
At which point I said to myself “Wha?” and stared at my refrigerator plaintively. What overview? I frantically scanned all the previous paragraphs for some sense of a broad arc, some sort of connection between the now and the then, some Bachian summation, but no, I couldn’t find it. Egregiousness #505: Summational Sentence Without Preexisting Summation. It reminded me of certain papers in High School English, where you say, “in conclusion,” just to lift the paper onto the home stretch, even though you know perfectly well you got nothin’.
And then, Fromm’s final paragraph baffled me into a desperate need for chemical stimulants. Somehow his point is tied up with Virginia Woolf’s quote “the chapel became a larder.” Now, I don’t want to be picky, but I think Woolf wrote more beautiful phrases … I understand the meaning is relevant, but somehow the phrase sits heavily upon my tongue, like an unwelcome chimichanga. Fromm’s revelation comes at a concert at the Oregon Bach Festival, where
One of the women, toned, lean, and (as we say nowadays) “in shape,” wore a tight long red sheath gown revealing while concealing her athletic frame.
Hubba, hubba! Fromm’s conclusions from this are startling:
The woman in the red sheath conveyed as never before that Bach the musician had finally come into his own. The revolution was over. Providing a nourishment more primal and profound than transient pieties, the chapel had become a larder.
It appears the point is that because a woman was dressed rather provocatively at a concert in Oregon, we seem to have finally separated Bach from his stuffy Lutheran crap, which is mere transient context, and we are now therefore well larded. I think I have it! Bach now makes sense to me, absolutely!
My, my, I get mean-spirited when I’m annoyed. What is saddest about this article is its fear of dealing with the musical notes directly. Its flurry of bygone conclusions and completed revolutions and assured pontifications may distract you from this fact. Fromm gets close to the music only on one occasion:
Most recently, Daniel J. Levitin in This Is Your Brain on Music has tried to shed light on the mystery, but the road is long, the night is dark, and all the cats are still pretty gray.
… and flees abjectly in the direction of vagueness.
I have my own image to counter Fromm’s “chapel/larder” business. My student came to my apartment last week and I was exhausted from one flight or another, and had been working all day, and was hepped up on a million coffees and really hardly in any state to listen to or enjoy anything. This student has had some trouble—by her own admission—associating with Beethoven, Mozart … some of the German so-called “serious” repertory … even though she seems to swim in Chopin pretty well. She sat and played through the C# minor prelude and fugue from Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier—on the terrible, villainous modern piano. She was transformed; I was amazed; her outlook seemed to take her through the whole prelude at once; the complicated sentence made sense, and she noticed beauties along the way … Then the fugue, too, was quite assured, at times touching … she was speaking the piece’s language, she seemed structurally aware in ways I had not seen before. She finished. I told her it sounded like she had really come to know the piece … and she paused and said “I LOVE this piece.” I could tell she really meant it, that the piece meant something terribly important to her … Indeed, a 20 year old, loving and absorbing into her soul an abstruse 5-voice fugue from the early 18th century … I thought to myself, how egregious!, while my heart leapt for joy.