JS Bach by Pascal Moehlmann
So, this is going to be a diversion from my usual subject matter, mostly. My original ambition was to be a composer. I studied for two years at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music and studied composition, but soon and somewhat reluctantly decided my real talent was in writing.
Anyway, the question that prompted this post arose during a conversation between Jordan Peterson and Samuel Andreyev. Jordan Peterson, if you haven’t already heard of him, is a Canadian Professor and Clinical Psychologist (currently famed for his critique of neo-Marxism in, as he labels it, academia’s radical left). He brings Joseph Campbell’s knowledge of mythological archetype to a psychologist’s perspective. He offers fascinating insights regarding the nature of being, rationality, intuition, religion, mysticism and, quite simply, how to be in the world. He recently published a book on just that subject called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I haven’t read it. But he’s a gifted lecturer and well worth listening to. Samuel Andreyev is a composer, poet and teacher entirely unknown to me prior to the interview.
What makes a composer great? What is it about Bach’s music, or any great composer’s music, that survives their lifetime?
Andreyev’s answer struck me as circular in it’s reasoning. At about the 47:40 mark:
Peterson: How do you decide what you should continue to listen to?
Andreyev: (….) Works that are no longer able to communicate something vitally important—that [only address] a present concern—trend to fall out of favor. History is merciless. (….) Think of the tens of thousands of composers that were active during the baroque period. How many have we retained? There’s maybe a dozen figures that are still regularly performed and discussed and generally known to the public. There’s an absolutely ruthless selection process that goes on(….) And of course one of the fundamental difficulties of addressing contemporary or modern forms of art is that that process of selection hasn’t taken place yet(….) There is an overwhelming likelihood that what you’re going to hear might not be of the highest standard. If you figure that there are a hundred thousand composers active in the world today, how many of them are geniuses?—how many of them are producing work of the highest order? It’s going to be a vanishingly small percentage.”
So, what exactly is “vitally important” isn’t addressed by Andreyev. He calls it “something”, but he establishes the notion that it is communicating something. Peterson will pick up on this assertion, characteristically thinking of it in mythological terms . But first he makes one of his memorable quips (which is why he’s so enjoyable to listen to).
Peterson: As an avant-garde listener you’re more likely to be killed, so to speak, as the avant-garde in the battle.”
You can take this two ways: Either contemporary art’s greatness will be so far ahead of your own vision that you will be archetypally “killed” (somewhat like peeking into the Arc of the Covenant) or, alternately, that it’s mediocrity will accomplish the same. I’m not sure which death is preferable.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: What does it mean that Bach still has something to say? It’s the same as Shakespeare I suppose, but it’s isn’t obvious what it is that remains to be said, I don’t get that, it’s got to be something like: The culture has not fully incorporated all of the perceptual genius that that person had to offer. Bach hasn’t been transformed into cliché or implicit into assumption assumption, or something like that. But I think that one of things artists do, visual or auditory, is that they teach people to see or hear.
This is where Peterson picks up on Andreyev’s assertion that great works of art are communicating something that transcends present concerns—that they have something “to say”, as if there were some hidden and mystical “message” to be found in their “art”. Unfortunately, I think this sort of framing is a dead-end mainly because, as happens with Peterson, you next begin asking yourself just what Shakespeare or Bach were communicating?—or, as Peterson puts it: offering. But I think that’s the wrong question. The music of genius and mediocrity are both communicating the same things, it’s just that genius is better at it. It’s not that Bach was communicating something that his mediocre rivals couldn’t comprehend, it’s just that he translated his comprehension into music in a way that, for instance, Scheibe and Mattheson (contemporary composers critical of Bach), never could.
Peterson goes on to ask:
Peterson: Do composers teach us to hear? And once we’ve learned everything they have to say, do we not need their lesson anymore?”
At this point I think Peterson goes somewhat off the rails, equating great composers with, I suppose, great college lecturers (equating their musical compositions to lessons). But why not? Mathematicians are endlessly flattering themselves with their proclamations that Bach was really a great mathematician just like them! Why shouldn’t a gifted Canadian University professor compare himself to Bach? (Is it coincidence that Peterson chose the opening to Bach’s Goldberg variations as the theme for his podcasts?) The answer is that there isn’t some hidden message in Bach’s music. There’s no “lesson”.
But anyway, more to the point:
Peterson: It still doesn’t answer the question of why those people in particular [survive]…
Andreyev: The great composers are the ones that fundamentally: They own their material more thoroughly and in a more, deeply personal way than other composers. In other words, there’s a minimum of neutral material in their music—material that already exists; that is almost like found material in a sense; and that you don’t have to work very hard to fashion into something resembling a coherent piece. A great composer invents forms. they invent a language. They invent a universe. They take enormous risks.”
Now I think that gets closer to what’s really going on. He goes on to say:
Any composer you can think of that is considered today to be among the greats has at some point been horribly denigrated and humiliated and spoken badly of by the public of their time. That’s just a permanent feature of music history.
Well yes, but that comes with a considerable caveat. Mediocre composers were also “horribly denigrated and humiliated”. Just think of Salieri. While the events in the play Amadeus are fictional, the conspiracy theory that Salieri murdered Mozart was absolutely not. Even on his deathbed, Salieri felt forced to deny that he’d murdered Mozart out of jealousy. No “great” composer was ever denigrated or humiliated like that—and on his deathbed. I think those less conversant with music history prefer the notion that geniuses prevail against all odds, but much of what you read about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others being ignored in their day simply isn’t true. Bach was famous and recognized as a great composer in his own day. Consider Johann Mattheson’s own comment regarding “the famous” Bach: “I have seen things by the famous organist of Weimar, Herr Joh. Sebastian Bach, both for the church and for the hand that are certainly such as must make one esteem the man highly.” If not recognized by all, and not like we do, so what? There are still audiophiles who prefer Telemann to Bach. But Bach was in fact so well-regarded that he was invited to Potsdam by no less than Frederic the Great where no sooner had he stepped out of the carriage than he was made to perform (so eager was Frederick, and the attendant musicians, to hear the great composer). Many years later, long after Bach had died, Mozart visited Leipzig and played at Bach’s organ. An old man, who still remembered Bach, was said to have stated that it was like old Bach had returned. Not only did this old man recognize Bach’s genius, but he recognized Mozart’s as well.
Peterson goes on:
Peterson: It’s what you’d expect too though because someone who is, let’s say, going in the right direction but who is way ahead of everyone else(….) It’s very difficult for them to communicate what they’re doing and it’s very difficult for them to distinguish themselves from the naked emperor.
Again, yes and no. This somewhat buys into the myth of genius, which Andreyev also seems to endorse. Yes, Bach’s music was called turgid by critics, and yes, Mozart’s music was sometimes criticized as too complex, but don’t forget that both composers also had their fierce, and I do mean fierce, defenders and advocates. The city of Prague begged Mozart to leave Vienna. Haydn begged Mozart to come to London where London’s musical patrons were fully prepared to pay Mozart’s way. Were Mozart and Bach artistically way ahead of everyone else? Yes. Was it very difficult for them to communicate what they were doing? I’m not so sure. If the ability to communicate what they were doing was the barrier to success, then many a lesser composer with a gift for doing just that, as with Bach’s son Johann Christian, wouldn’t have died in poverty.
So all this interests me because defining genius, or greatness in art, has always fascinated me. Defining what makes poetry great is why I blog. So why am I talking about music? Here’s why: Because I have a background in music, have loved music (and Bach in particular) since I was two years old, and because I also love poetry and language. I gradually came to a recognition that music and language are deeply interrelated in a way that, I don’t think, has really been recognized or explored yet—or understood. Andreyev touches on it when he says: “A great composer invents forms. they invent a language.”
Robert Frost liked to say that his poetry was about capturing “the sound of sense”. He liked to say that if one stood outside a door and heard a man and woman argue that, even if you couldn’t make out the words, you might get the gist of the argument solely by the sound (the cadences) of their speech. This is vitally important. What Frost was saying was that speech isn’t just about words. It’s about the cadence and intonations that underly those words; and though every language has its own intonations and cadences, I’m willing to assert, sans evidence, that there are also universal cadences and intonations that underly all our languages; that even were we to hear a couple arguing in Chinese or Swahili, there would be that “sound of sense” that we would innately understand. That ability is ancient and human. It’s evolutionary. It’s that capability, I’d argue, that is part and parcel of a human being’s ability to learn language.
A baby isn’t born understanding the meaning of words. What a baby is born with, I’d argue, is the ability to perceive the sound of sense. First comes the sound of sense, then, as the baby develops, the meaning of words are understood in relation to the sound of sense underlying them. Mothers instinctively grasp this when they communicate to baby’s using “nonsense words”. The words may be nonsensical but the “musical” sound of sense underlying these nonsense words is instinctively grasped by the child. Rob the human child of the ability to perceive the sound of sense and, I’d argue, you greatly impede, if not make impossible, her ability to discern the meaning of words. One might object: What about a child born deaf? I’d respond that because a child is deaf doesn’t mean he or she isn’t still wired to perceive the sound of sense. Deafness is only an impediment. That said, a deaf person’s speech will always and noticeably lack that underling sound of sense. A deaf person, for example, will have great difficulty learning how to reproduce the inflections of sarcasm. But there are other psychological impediments that impede not just the ability to communicate the sound of the sense, but to perceive it—Autism for example.
But what does this have to do with music? I’d argue that music is the abstraction of language’s sound of sense. Music abstracts not just the sound of words (the ability to differentiate between the different sounds of words) but the falling and rising intonations that characterize the “soundscape” of language—the meaning of its sounds, cadences, inflections). Consider that the same word can have an entirely different implication, even meaning, depending on the sound of sense that underlies it—sarcasm, inquiry, relief, curiosity, anger, happiness, etc… These emotions aren’t communicated by the words but by the cadences that underly them. Humans are quite good at expressing all these meanings without words. The cadences of speech give words context: reinforce, undercut, or alter their meanings in unexpected ways.
Music, I’d argue, is quite literally our residual, childlike, perception of language before we comprehended words.
So then, to answer Peterson’s question: What makes Bach or Mozart’s music great?
I’ll stick with Mozart (though I think the same assertions could be made of the Beatles for example). It’s often said of Mozart that even when he was writing instrumental music, he remained an operatic composer. (The vast majority of Bach’s music, not coincidentally, was vocal, as was Schubert’s.) What’s meant by that is that there’s always the feeling, in Mozart’s music, of the declamatory—the notion that the music imitates the patterns of speech or of someone singing. All this, I think, is just another way of saying that the sound of sense characterizes even Mozart’s instrumental music. In order to be a great vocal composer, the composer must innately graft not just the word’s meanings to the music, but also the sound of sense that underlies the words.
This is what separates the great composer from the mediocre composer. Where the mediocre composer, with greater or less success, grafts the music’s grammar to the meaning of the words, the great composer is able to translate not just the meaning of the words into music, but musically translates the sound of sense underlying those words. We know it when it happens. We instinctively recognize it without being able to put words to it because it’s a recognition of language that precedes words. It’s what brings us back to composers of genius again and again. They light up that pre-verbal neural pathway in a way that mediocre composers don’t. Listen to Mozart’s instrumental music (and I have listened to his music many times over and have read his music in score) and you begin to hear the sound of sense in every musical phrase (what others like to call his operatic musical phrasing). Mozart (like other great composers) possessed a genius for translating the sound of sense into music. (The Beatles do this too, by the way.) Musical phrases feel declamatory, as though they’re questioning, arguing, curious, assertive, reluctant. It’s because Mozart was able to translate the evolutionary scaffolding of language into the abstraction of music. Bach, using the musical language of the Baroque, did the same thing. He once said, in fact, that a piece of music should sound as if the instruments were in conversation. Few pieces of music typify this assertion more so than the Brandenburg concertos. Bach’s musical phrases are like declamatory assertions (assertions possessed by the feeling of sense and emotional content) traded, expanded, debated and explored within the confines of the music’s form.
How is it that a musical phrase can evoke the sound of sense?—sorrow, anxiousness, anger, excitement? Through a combination of melodic and harmonic inventiveness that inevitably defines a composer’s genius—and personal musical “language”. Certain modulations, certain chordal progressions, produce an almost universal and concomitant set of emotional responses. For instance, a minor chord universally produces a different set of emotions than a major chord, and that emotional response, I’d argue, is universal in its commonality. The great composer, among other gifts, possesses a far greater sensitivity to what different harmonies, cadences, and modulations can produce in the listener, and possesses the melodic and harmonic genius to achieve that understanding. The more mediocre or difficult a piece of music is, the more it will be divorced from that declamatory scaffolding, that abstraction, of language’s sound of sense. Though we can learn the language of extremely dissonant music, for example, it will be difficult precisely because it is so distant from the intuitive sound-phrasing that underlies all human language.
In short: The periodicity of a musical phrase, in its likeness to the periodicity of the linguistic phrase, combined with a genius for the harmony underlying the phrase, abstracting and imitating the sounds of sense that universally underly all languages, is what characterizes musical genius and what answers Peterson’s question. If this ability to recognize the abstraction of language’s sound of sense weren’t universal, then we might expect Bach and/or Mozart’s music to be meaningless to speakers of Japanese or Chinese.
You might object that if I’m right, then why aren’t we all listening to Bach and Mozart? The answer is partly straightforward—musical taste. But having said that, I’d argue that within each musical tradition—classical, jazz, country, rock—audiences will, overtime, gravitate toward those composers and musicians most able to abstract language’s sound of sense within their own musical vernacular. Music is, in a way, a linguistic art.
And how does any of this apply to poetry? Perhaps only obliquely. Where composers are working with the sound of sense that underlies language, poets are manipulating the language itself. Poets and composers are both, in a sense, linguists, though their exploitation of language proceeds from a very different place. Music, I think, appeals to an ancient developmental place before words (and which human beings still experience as children) which is why it’s universal. Poetry (Traditional Poetry using meter and rhyme) proceeds from the sound of the language itself. Some might call it the music of the language, but I would be careful not to conflate what poet’s and composers are doing.
Greatness in poetry depends on a different sort of genius, one that transcends content. Great poetry, I’d say, is transcendent in its language, its memorableness, and lastly, its content. When Peterson asserts that Shakespeare, like Bach, “still has something to say”, one can interpret that literally or figuratively. If interpreted literally, I would have to disagree with Peterson’s premise. What Shakespeare had to say really wasn’t all that different from what his contemporaries were saying. Shakespeare, in fact, liked to copy, almost word for word in some cases, his source material. What made the result a work of genius was not the content—not what he had to say (which had already been said by Plutarch or North)—but in how he said it (in his sublime poetic alterations). That’s a much tougher nut to crack, but well worth the effort—Shakespeare’s transformation of the proverbial and commonplace into the sublime solely through the arts of language is astonishing. It’s an art that his contemporaries, and our own, remain largely incapable and ignorant of. But Keats understood it; and so did T.S. Eliot, among others.
Saturday February 10th 2018 | up in Vermont
Addenda | February 11th:
My, I’m-not-making-this-stuff-up addenda.
Just had an interesting email exchange with Samuel Andreyev. Encouraged me to fetch some links that, I think, lend credence to my hypothesis—not yet a theory I guess. A really fascinating and recent study, The Inherent Gender of Names, finds for instance that there’s a universal predilection, across languages and cultures, for differentiating between male and female names by sound. The link above is to a Scientific American Article discussing the study.
So, one could postulate, based on that, that there are musical themes, instrumentations, or chord progression that might feel more masculine or feminine. Did you know that in 70 percent of languages, questions are asked with a rising intonation? The question is why. Is there some neurological basis? Evolutionary? Is it simply linguistic? The preceding link tries to answer that. You can find further information on this question and further studies at Wikipedia.