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Modern Composers & Bach

Why There Probably Is No Bach's Equal in the Modern Times

Vladimir Skavysh wrote (May 16, 2005):
Gabriel Jackson wrote:
< "However, modern composers and musicians lack the compositional understanding and experience of Bach,"
How do you know? >
I do not know whether there is among us a person who will overcome Bach in his achievements, which is why I apologized in advance in parenthesis (in the original message). However, this possibility seems improbable to me, because of the extensive social changes that have occurred during the former century. Let me enumerate some of them:

(1) The invention of electricity was a major turning point. Before it, people did not have many ways to consume free time, especially during the winter. People actually walked for hours to spend time (at least, this is what I retain from reading books from the period; cf. novels of Jane Austin, for example)! During the winter, of course, such activities as walking (when it is not only cold, but also dark most of the day) could play a lesser role. That is why it was very important to be able to play a musical instrument. However, with the advent of such inventions as the automobile, the television, and the computer, one gained an ample number of possibilities to entertain oneself.

(2) The ability to play an instrument was necessary because there were no ways to record music and few could afford to regularly attend live performances.

(3) New forms of music appeared: jazz, rock-and-roll, rap, and so on. Furthermore, these forms of music tend to be more appealing to younger people (the ones in whom a possible talent is yet to be discovered) - psychological reasons can be said to account for that (search for one's identity is among them).

Surely, there are numerous other relevant changes, but, overall, the above means that playing music - classical music - became less important. This, in turn, implies that a smaller "sample" of population was put on a path where their genius for music could
be revealed.

It is imperative to state at this point that the rapid increase of population counteracts the above effects. However, I contend that it is a fair assumption that the fundamental social changes dominate.

Nevertheless, statistics only accounts for general trends and not for individuals. Thus, let me reiterate: it is entirely possible that there does exist someone who could stand up to Bach - but this is unlikely.

Jim Offer wrote (May 16, 2005):
[To Vladimir Skavysh] Bach is difficult to surpass, not because of the difference between his era and ours (by the way, Jane Austen is closer to Beethoven's time than Bach's), but because he was such a rare genius. Other composers have been influential: Buxtehude, Vivaldi, Telemann, Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel, Liszt, Wagner, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, to name a few. But Bach's best works have, in addition to beauty and technical brilliance equal to or greater than those of other composers, a sincerity and purpose that is uncommon. His ability and sensibility were certainly influenced by his time and his patrons, and we're lucky that he was able to write cantatas and oratorios instead of operas, which can be great works of art, but which basically have the goal of providing a spectacle for people's entertainment, rather than a transcendent religious experience.

 

Bach and Charles Fussell

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 14, 2009):
The subject is more than a stretch, and I certainly dont expect the moderator to create such a category. Bear with me, and I will tell you in the fewest words I can manage, the rationale.

I exchanged a few words off-list today with Francis Browne: bottom line, his health is as good as possible (which is not all that great), he is cheerful, and he is working on many projects including ongong translations for BCW. I will just say it again, Francis contributions to BCW are on almost every page, it is a privelege for me to consider him a colleague. One writer suggested that my nods to Francis were obsequious (he actually did not use such a fine word), I continue to suggest that they are appropriate and well deserved. Nice to be your friend, Francis!

I was about to write the following anecdote to Francis off-list, when I realized that it is very much relevant to the topic of Bach the educator, the champion of his students, which he clearly was. Think about it, there are not a lor of surviving documents in Bachs hand, a significant fraction of them were recommendations for his students! I have encountered only a couple - a couple! - guys like that in my career. One of them was a Jesuit priest (hint to the <atheist accuser> crowd!).

Charles Fussell wrote a piece (commission, as I recall) for the Lydian String Quartet, in residence at Brandeis University, home school for Bach scholar Eric Chafe. Chafe was conspicuous by his absence, as is customary. After the concert, I had a chance to ask Charles how he got into music composition, what were the early years? He loved the question, and pointed out that he learned music in public school (USA, equal to state school, UK) in Charlotte NC. <You could do that in those days, not any more.>

Give them Hell, Francis! Better yet, Heaven.

 

Bach and Carter

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 22, 2009):
Beginning at 10;00 AM EST (1500 UT) today, just a few hours from now, and continuing through tomorrow, at www.whrb.org, the Elliot Carter Orgy(R), in recognition of his 100th birthday last month (Dec. 11, 2008). So, let me make an on-topic statement: I do not yet know of any specific relation between Bach and Carter, but I do note one work in particular which may be illustrative, Canonic Suite for Four Saxophones (1939). I will be listening, with report of positive results only, i.e., no connection, no further posts on this subject, unless in response to questions.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 22, 2009):
I heard enough Bach influence in the Canonic Suite for Four Saxophones to send this post wthout an OT in the subject. I will have to get the recording (Ars Musici label) for further listening. Nobody mentioned a Bach influence during the announcing, but hey, they are only college students. What can you expect? Bit of a joke, and a nod to TNT.

If you have the opportunity to tune into ths show at www.whrb.org, it is not to be missed. This music, which often sounds so obscure when heard as bits and pieces, accumulates a mass, and its own logic, when heard as a body of work (body of work? perhaps thats why they call it an Orgy(r)?)

Naturally, as you have come to expect by now, it also reminds me of a story. I could not make the performances with Carters visit home, to Harvard, BSO, and Tanglewood in 2008, but I heard much on the radio. I did make many of the 90th year events in 1998, including running into him chatting on the sidewalk outside Jordan Hall (New England Conervatory). I eavesdropped a bit, and heard him say <My only real regret is that my music is so hard to play. I wish it could be easier>. A cool project for a grad student: to see if the music he has written since, from 1998 through 2009, and still going strong in his 101st year (thats a Real Old Dude, Harry) is any easier to play. My guess? No.

Hope some of you BCML folks are joining in, but my experience is communal in any event, over the traditonal FM airwaves.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 23, 2009):
O my soul, O my soul, O my most egregious soul

Voice of God, music of Carter, who can distinguish?

Evan Cortens wrote (January 23, 2009):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
> I eavesdropped a bit, and heard him say <My only real regret is that my music is so hard to play. I wish it could be easier>. A cool project for a grad student: to see if the music he has written since, from 1998 through 2009, and still going strong in his 101st year (thats a Real Old Dude, Harry) is any easier to play. My guess? No. >
I recall watching Carter (along with James Levine and Daniel Barenboim) a few weeks (months?) ago on Charlie Rose. My memory may be failing me here, but I seem to recall a similar sort of comment made by him, something to the effect of his pieces having precisely as many notes as they need to have. This is not exactly the same sort of statement, but I believe the sentiment is similar: that while he may wish his pieces could be different, he believes they're perfect the way they are. (In other words, I concur with your guess: I doubt his pieces have become significantly easier [or more difficult] in the last twenty years.)

On a related note, I was lucky enough to be present of the premiere of Carrter's horn concerto (with Jamie Sommerville, soloist) with the BSO back in 2008; great stuff!

Thanks for the post!

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 23, 2009):
Evan Cortens wrote:
>On a related note, I was lucky enough to be present of the premiere of Carrter's horn concerto (with Jamie Sommerville, soloist) with the BSO back in 2008; great stuff!<
Thanks for sharing that! I get a lift from live reports of events I could not quite make, for whatever reason. Did you notice my comment re Jamie Sommerville, filling in with Cantata Singers on short notice, in Britten Serenade. Electric!!

John Pike wrote (January 23, 2009):
Evan Cortens wrote:
< My memory may be failing me here, but I seem to recall a similar sort of comment made by him, something to the effect of his pieces having precisely as many notes as they need to have. >
I can't help being reminded here of Mozart's encounter with the ?Archbishop who complained that Mozart's music had "too many notes". At least in the Schaeffer play, Mozart retorts that he doesn't understand...he uses as many notes as he needs; no more, no less. I have heard about analysis of the Requiem showing that, if anything, Mozart was extremely careful in how many notes he used; at one point, for example, he leaves a triad incomplete. When one tries to fill in the incomplete triad, the result is less effective.

Apologies that I can't be more specific.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 23, 2009):
Evan Cortens wrote:
>My memory may be failing me here, but I seem to recall a similar sort of comment made by him, something to the effect of his pieces having precisely as many notes as they need to have. This is not exactly the same sort of statement, but I believe the sentiment is similar: that while he may wish his pieces could be different, he believes they're perfect the way they are.<
Yeah, my memory may be failing, as well, and it was only a fragment of a conversation, overheard on the sidewalk. But I think the idea was that he wished his pieces were not so difficult to play, but that in fact he could not be concerned with the convenience of fiddlers and such while in the process of getting the notes.

As I nodded and walked away, I am sure Carter appreciated the recognition. Reminds me of Yehudi Wyner, who is a good social friend from Brandeis, and out and about. He is smitten with my spouse, truth be told! Anyway, at one of his premiers, I asked him if he would mind signing my program. He wrote:
<Do I mind signing? Are you crazy?>

Stephen Benson wrote (January 23, 2009):
John Pike wrote:
< I can't help being reminded here of Mozart's encounter with the ? Archbishop who complained that Mozart's music had "too many notes". >
If I remember correctly, it wasn't the Archbishop who said this, it was Emperor Joseph II in reference to the Abduction from the Seraglio.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 23, 2009):
The Elliot Carter Orgy(r) continues today from 10 AM to midnight EST (1500 to 0500 UT), fourteen hours at www.whrb.org. Some of the possible Bach influences I noticed yesterday were:
Canonic Suite for Four Saxophones (1939)
Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1952)
Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1959-61)
I would be interested in the opinions of the resident harsichord experts.

I expect to listen to the entire show today. Forewarned is four-armed; I will be unconstrained from posting to BCML during that time. I have noted that some posters whose time is limited by lifes details, like work and sleep, are envious and/or angry at the latitude myself (and many others) enjoy. I would remind them that envy and anger, along with pride, are among the seven deadly sins. Efforts to overcome them are recommended. I have done pretty well myself (not to brag, mind you), although I am still working on (that is, striving to overcome) lust and gluttony.

That reminds me of a story. A few years ago, when I was working for the Jesuit geologist, Father Jim, his writing partner was a most un-Jesuitical character named Nick (I liked to call him Old Nick, as in the Devil, and also the English Barley Wine product, with the Devil on the label). The three of us spent many enjoyable (and productive) days travelling together. I was driver and factotum - WOGS. Nicks motto, expressed almost daily, was: The only way to overcome temptation is to give in to it. I never heard Father Jim disagree.

Stephen Benson wrote (January 23, 2009):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< I have done pretty well myself (not to brag, mind you), although I am still working on (that is, striving to overcome) lust and gluttony. >
I guess I shouldn't be so crass as to note the contextual relationship of the gluttony reference to the Ellington anecdote, which, due to issues with punctuation reproduction from a cited article, came out a little garbled. Allow me to try again:

"Frequently, driven from the table in his hotel room by the jittery, henlike cluckings of Boyd, he [Ellington] wraps a half-finished chop in a florid handkerchief and tucks it in the pocket of his jacket, from which it protrudes, its nattiness not at all impaired by the fact that it conceals a greasy piece of meat. Not long ago this habit astonished an Icelandic music student who happened to be on a train that Duke had barely caught. The Icelander, after asking for Ellington's autograph, had said, 'Mr. Ellington, aren't there marked similarities between you and Bach?' Duke moved his right hand to the handkerchief frothing out of his jacket. 'Well, Bach and myself,' he said, unwrapping the handkerchief and revealing the chop, 'Bach and myself both' -- he took a bite from the chop -- 'write with individual performers in mind.' "

Hopefully, that will reproduce correctly. I will refrain from adopting Ed's unique solution, ingenious though it may be, to the punctuation issue.

And, now, if you would be so good as to pass the ale...

 

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Last update: ýJanuary 23, 2009 ý22:20:12