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Listening to Bach's Vocal Works

Tone deafness and musical appreciation

Chris Kern wrote (July 29, 2005):
This is only tangentially related to Bach; forgive me if this is too off-topic for the list.

I have a friend who enjoys opera music, and I've been trying to get him interested in Bach's vocal music through the Passions. He is tone-deaf (I think -- he can't carry a tune), though, and he claims that he cannot enjoy "normal" music because of this, and that he gets bored. Opera is acceptable because it has a storyline, so he can stay interested because of that. However, he also listens to "opera highlights" CDs in his car devoid of storyline context.

I find this a little odd, and I suspect that he's just shortchanging himself and assuming he can't understand music without really trying. But is there a link between being unable to carry a tune and being unable to appreciate music? (It also seems to me that the Passions have a "storyline" comparable to many operas, but I guess that's another matter.)

I also wonder whether, if he ever agrees to watch a Passion, I should show him the Guttenberg St. Matthew or the Suzuki St. John.

John Reese wrote (July 30, 2005):
[To Chris Kern] True tone-deafness is very rare. It means that the person cannot distinguish between a high or low note at all. Most people who appear to be tone-deaf can actually be ear-trained to carry a tune or to appreciate all kinds of music.

Usually, not being able to carry a tune is more the result of not being able to match pitches, as opposed to not being aware of tonal differences. The result is usually a reasonable facsimile of the true melody, at parallel fifths, or some other gawd-awful interval.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (July 30, 2005):
Chris Kern wrote:
< I find this a little odd, and I suspect that he's just shortchanging himself and assuming he can't understand music without really trying. But is there a link between being unable to carry a tune and being unable to appreciate music? (It also seems to me that the Passions have a "storyline" comparable to many operas, but I guess that's another matter.) >
I find this very interesting. I cannot carry a tune or anything like that. I do respond to all kinds of genres of "Classical Music" and have most of my life since the age of 10. I respond to both story music (opera, passions, oratorios, etc.) and equally to symphonies and sonatas and always have. I personally in opera prefer whole operas to arias but I really get the feeling that your friend simply responds more to vocal music than to non-vocal music and is seeking a reason for it. We all have music preferences.

Dale Gedcke wrote (July 30, 2005):
[To Chris Kern]
RE: Your appended comments on tone deafness and music appreciation:

My own experience teaches that not being able to carry a tune is simply a lack of skill. And, that skill can be learned.

When I was young, I was able to read music from a hymnal, and harmonize with other singers. Fifty years later, I can no longer do that. I lost the skill.

I picked up the trumpet about 5 years ago, after being away from it for 50 years. One of the skills I had to re-learn was matching the pitch of the rest of the orchestra or band. It took a year or two to develop the skill of listening to the orchestra's pitch, and comparing it to my pitch on every note. Now it is becoming automatic to match the orchestra's pitch.

Every instrument whose pitch is controlled by the player has some notes that are naturally off pitch and must be pulled in. The human voice is probably the worst case, because every note must be adjusted to the right pitch. A slide trombone comes close to this worst case and so does a string instrument without frets.

Playing or singing on-pitch is a skill that can be learned, and one can certainly appreciate listening to music without possessing a polished pitch skill. In fact most people who cannot match the pitch themselves can readily detect when a group of performers are out of tune.

I suspect your friend has a preference for a particular type of music. That is not unusual.

 

What is "really important" in listening to Bach's church music

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 11, 2007):
<< The point is that anything that distracts by appearing obviously different and non-standard in pronunciation will distract the listeners from what is really important: focusing one's mind the text in order to contemplate it or let it become a meditation, a period of devation, all of which are enhanced by Bach's great music. >>
< Nope. You're wrong. >
(Even if the typo point was supposed to say "devotion" instead of "devation"....)

Such a debate about words vs music, which is "more important?" has been going on since at least as far back as the beginnings of the Baroque (around 1600 - all that _prima prattica_ vs _seconda prattica_ business), and even farther in madrigalian practices as to text-setting; and in the strictures against Palestrina's music etc etc and all that other stuff. Music history course 101 for first-year students.

There are also some whole operas about this very topic, by Salieri and Richard Strauss and others. Strauss's (Capriccio) wisely leaves it still open at the end of the last scene.

And it's not gonna be solved here in this forum by anybody pontificating that they have the one and only "really important" way to approach a composed piece of music. Whatever they personally find "distracting," or whatever other private fault is assigned to the work, might be an essential and "really important" feature to another listener who is just as well qualified to judge the musicianship or the composition. Or better. (And now we're veering into elementary aesthetics!)

I suggest that copies should be made, and taped to computer monitors, of the following wise words that Peter Bright offered:
< Disclaimer: This is my own view out of potentially 5 billion different views and I reserve the right to be outrageously incorrect without receiving anything other than a mild rebuke for having an uneducated belief system. >

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 12, 2007):
<< Disclaimer: This is my own view out of potentially 5 billion different views and I reserve the right to be outrageously incorrect without receiving anything other than a mild rebuke for having an uneducated belief system. >>
[To Bradley Lehman] Hold on just a second. If only life were so simple. 'Uneducated belief system' sounds suspiciously like mine. But I am not uneducated in the least. I simply have simple beliefs. One of them is that when theology becomes complex, it is in error.

I will accept mild rebukes, perhaps with a bit of pleasure? Oh, my soul!

Peter Bright wrote (January 12, 2007):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< Hold on just a second. If only life were so simple. 'Uneducated belief system' sounds suspiciously like mine. But I am not uneducated in the least. I simply have simple beliefs. One of them is that when theology becomes complex, it is in error. >
Fair point! Perhaps I should have worded it differently: '... for having a belief system that may differ from that held by others'. Now that's the one that should be firmly attached to some computer screens. I think nearly all our squabbles are caused by a style of writing in which statements are written as facts, but which should clearly be described as opinions (however firmly held). I think we have to acknowledge that we may never know precisely how Bach intended his music to be performed - but many early music academics (and amateurs too) are surely, overall, taking us closer to what he may have envisaged. This is not an exact science, but those open minded individuals that choose to spend a significant portion of their lives and/or careers in order to get closer to understanding musical composition, theory and practice from the 18th century should be applauded and supported rather than dismissed out of hand.

Disclaimer: This is my own view out of potentially 5 billion different views and I reserve the right to be outrageously incorrect without receiving anything other than a mild rebuke for having a belief system that may differ from that held by others.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 12, ):
Peter Bright wrote:
< Disclaimer: This is my own view out of potentially 5 billion different views and I reserve the right to be outrageously incorrect without receiving anything other than a mild rebuke for having a belief system that may differ from that held by others. >
Excellent.

< Now that's the one that should be firmly attached to some computer screens. >
Agreed, and I'm printing it out this morning to attach to mine.

I also have one on another corner of it, most famously used by Barry Goldwater: "illegitimi non carborundum" -- poor but funny Latin for "don't let the bastards grind you down." Right below that I have two of my own personal translations/glosses on the same, as a further reminder to myself, but those are unprintable.

< I think nearly all our squabbles are caused by a style of writing in which statements are written as facts, but which should clearly be described as opinions (however firmly held). >
Agreed (as my opinion) -- and that's another one to print out and post onto the corner of the screen!

The melting-pot intermixture of decent facts into unreasonable opinions/interpretations, here, as if it's all the same thing, carborundizes me daily (as a reader of the astounding whoppers that come across).

< I think we have to acknowledge that we may never know precisely how Bach intended his music to be performed - but many early music academics (and amateurs too) are surely, overall, taking us closer to what he may have envisaged. This is not an exact science, but those open minded individuals that choose to spend a significant portion of their lives and/or careers in order to get closer to understanding musical composition, theory and practice from the 18th century should be applauded and supported rather than dismissed out of hand. >
Bravo! Especially so, when our apparent transgression is only that our work doesn't happen to suit the expectations of (or that it disturbs the "devation"/devotion of) one person. Our work has to serve all kinds of listeners and principles of responsibility: not just one person's expectations, or one extraordinarily narrow and self-serving definition of "authenticity", let alone such a concept being mis-cast further as "Bach's intentions".

Getting back round to the subject line: what is "really important" in listening to Bach's church music? I'd say that it least has to include a realization of principle that is taught to three-year-olds: "Everybody likes some different things, and the whole world is not just about YOU and what YOU want, kiddo." Plus the other principle: "You don't KNOW that that food on your plate is yucky, even if you say so, because you HAVEN'T tasted it."

Russell Telfer wrote (January 12, 2007):
Peter Bright wrote:
<< Disclaimer: This is my own view out of potentially 5 billion different views and I reserve the right to be outrageously incorrect without receiving anything other than a mild rebuke for having a belief system that may differ from that held by others. >>
Brad Lehman wrote in reply:
< Excellent.
Now that's the one that should be firmly attached to some computer screens. >
I ...have ... another one ... most famously used by Barry Goldwater: "illegitimi non carborundum" -- poor but funny Latin for "don't let the bastards grind you down." >
<< I think nearly all our squabbles are caused by a style of writing in which statements are written as facts, but which should clearly be described as opinions (however firmly held). >>

With Brad's last para I agree wholeheartedly. It is staggering how little any one person knows about the whole world around him (or her). I try very hard to separate statements from opinions.

I'm probably speaking for many fellow BCML members when I say that I don't enter the controversy on the sources, and the interpretations of those sources, because I haven't much information to offer. I do however have some definite opinions about how disagreements should be handled.

Why should have anyone have a problem with -- " Don't let the bastards grind you down." ?

If I speak the truth, and know it is the truth, then no-one is going to cane my backside.

As Brad indicates, if you present your opinions as facts, you lay yourself open.

In an ideal world, unless our digestive system dictates otherwise, we would always separate what we know from what we think (or would LIKE to think).

Alain Bruguières wrote (January 13, 2007):
Russell Telfer 1685 wrote:
< In an ideal world, unless our digestive system dictates otherwise, we would always separate what we know from what we think (or would LIKE to think). >
No, I agree. (Copyright Mrs Myskowski.)
The key phrase here is 'In an ideal world' ;)

Question: how do I separate what I know from what I think I know?
(If you prefer, replace 'I' with 'you').

Allow me to refer to Shadok wisdom again.
'If there is no solution, it means that there is no problem'.

Obviously we have no solution on this list and we'll never have one.
Perforce we must conclude there's no problem.

When I read (or write) contributions on this list, I never have any doubts as to what belongs to the realm of factual truth or at least verifiable assertions, and what belongs to the realm of more or less loose speculation. I enjoy both, most of the time. What I don't enjoy at all is hearing A acrimoniously tell B in substance:
'your speculation is wilder than mine'.

Why not simply respect other people's point of view? This never prevents one from expressing one's own.
What else could we be trying to achieve?

Stephen Benson wrote (January 13, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< Why not simply respect other people's point of view? >
What you are saying is clear -- that we are all discriminating adults who should be able to figure out for ourselves what is going on -- and I agree. The problem here seems to be twofold, however:
(1) "Points of view" are expressed as fact rather than opinion; and
(2) What Harry has referred to as the "testosterone" syndrome.
Yes, we all can tell the difference between fact and opinion, but, no, some of us can't resist taking the bait.

Neil Halliday wrote (January 13, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
<"Why not simply respect other people's point of view? This never prevents one from expressing one's own. What else could we be trying to achieve?">
The problem is that one man's heaven is another man's hell, which seems to be a condition of life on this planet. Tolerance is necessary for the avoidance of violence. In the case of music, we have to be free to attend or walk out of a concert. Discussion will allow one to explain one's reasons for loving or hating a particular approach; but the potential for emotional, even hateful exchange is very real.

The best approach is to allow all the different techniques to exist side by side. I want a grand piano on the stage for a presentation of the SMP (BWV 244)*; but obviously I can see more `historically correct' arrangements also need to be explored for insights they may bring to the work, or to satisfy those who see historical correctness as an end in itself. (I'm not much moved by this last point).

*Listening to R.V. Williams SMP (BWV 244), I was thrilled by some massive Busoni-like cadential chords in the recitatives, although some of the other realisation was flowery and silly.

The mixture of fact and opinion in the above is easily distilled.

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 13, 2007):
Alain Bruguières wrote:
< No, I agree. (Copyright Mrs Myskowski.) >
Ach (alas), the phrase is too brief to copyright. But she laughed when I told her!

Ed Myskowski wrote (January 13, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< The best approach is to allow all the different techniques to exist side by side. I want a grand piano on the stage for a presentation of the SMP (BWV 244)*; but obviously I can see more `historically correct' arrangements also need to be explored for insights they may bring to the work, or to satisfy those who see historical correctness as an end in itself. (I'm not much moved by this last point). >
One of the better, concise, paragraphs we haseen of late.

< The mixture of fact and opinion in the above is easily distilled. >
Easy for you to say! No trouble at all to conflate them, if that is the objective, of either writer or reader.

Julian Mincham wrote (January 13, 2007):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< *Listening to R.V. Williams SMP (BWV 244), I was thrilled by some massive Busoni-like cadential chords in the recitatives, although some of the other realisation was flowery and silly. >
I have only heard bits of this recording. Is it still available anywhere?

 

Ways of listening

Julian Mincham wrote (October 25, 2007):
Without in any way disputing anyones' right to hear and enjoy music differently I would like to respond to a few of these points since my approach to these works is from a different perspective. True I want to enjoy them and be moved by them, the more so as i continue to hear and examine them.

But my study of them is not only fired by a desire to enjoy them on increasingly deeper levels (I would hope) but also from a perspective of certain (for me) key questions

* how did JSB approach the art of composition?
* from where did he get his huge range of ideas, which he needed so often? (a crucial question for me)
* What might he have expected his congregations to receive from his music? His students? God himself?
* How far was the text his primary source of inspiration? What other sources might there have been.

Stressing again that one can love the music without having any interest in these questions whatever, I will modestly make a few suggestions.


1 This music is extremely beautiful. Being destitute is extremely unpleasant. So, extremely beautiful music representing something that is extremely unpleasant? How would that work exactly?

'Artistic' unpleasantness , or boredom, or pain, is not the same as the 'real' emotions. Its a simulation which, like a horror movie can entertain us whilst scaring us, but not in the same way that a terrible scare in life may affect us. Grinding discords in the music can simulate such emotions and events because of the degree of tension they generate--but we may still find them 'beautiful'. This is one of the paradoxes of music.

2 The opening text speaks of `breaking bread' with the hungry To `break bread' with someone normally means to share a meal. Yes, the word `break' is there, but only as part of an established expression; it has no sense of literally breaking anything like a vase or a window. So – if I did care about the relation between words and music, which I've said I don't – I'd think it a bit silly of a composer if he wrote music meant to represent the word `break' in this expression.

3 Among the comments already made in this group are phrases such as "the tottering of the weak", "the feeble footsteps of the hungry", "distributing of bread to the hungry", "tottering, staggering steps of the poor", "the leading of the destitute", "the feeble steps of the poor people", "feeble footsteps of the hungry people". I can see how people find hints of some of these things in the music, but just to be clear: there is nothing at all in the text about poor people lining up or processing in any way, or about their having difficulty in standing or walking. Indeed if the music did depict poor people lining up on a street corner for soup, that would contradict the notion of `breaking bread' with the poor – not donating money to run soup-kitchens, not giving away leftovers, but inviting them into your home to share your own meal.

Taking both of the above points lets look at the movement slightly differently. The opening instrumental section is clearly in two parts--one contains the 'broken' figuration from the beginning which flows into the streams of semiquavers, the second idea. I find that Bach does this constantly, taking two images which are conceived with different characters, often presented one following the other but also intended to be played togther (in counterpoint). I contend that JSB almost certainly would have taken two images from the text that suggested certain types of ideas to him. There are, in fact dozens of ritornelli structured in this way--and usually you find an apposition of ideas expressed on the text. Look at 103/1--You shall weep--- the world will rejoice. In 39 it is the poor and the wealthy and their relationship to each other. In 47 it is the exalted and the humble--and look at the many similarities of structure between the opening choruses of these two works!

I don't think the precise nature of the images that Bach lit upon are always clear cut. I do think he found them and made them work for him as a busy, working to deadlines, pnctillious craftsman.

4 For the opening text about feeding the hungry and housing the homeless Bach writes music that can be related to (or at any rate can be performed as relating to) stumbling, imploring, hungry and homeless people. For the following text about clothing the naked, he begins a more vigorous fugue. This music can be related to . . . what? Well, in 2001, one member visualised Anna Magdalena Bach knitting clothes, but I doubt that anybody else has managed to hear that. If I did care about the relation between words and music - which I've said I don't – I might feel disappointed that, after dealing with the hungry and homeless, Bach's inspiration ran out, he couldn't think of any music to paint the words of the next part of the text about the naked, and so he just composed an ordinary fugue.

I would suggest that somehow Bach conceived as one part of the opening section relating to the poor and needy, the other to the better off who can achieve salvation through acts of charity. But precisely HOW he conceived of their relationships is a matter of conjecture. To try to establish the precise nature of those images and relate them, say to breaking of bits of bread (although at times bach was perfectly capable of painting obvious and mundane images such as this) is frequently pointless. But I suggest that the general interpretation stands.

5 The whole text of this chorus sets out a cost-benefit analysis. The first half is about doing works of charity, and the second half, with just as much emphasis, is about the benefits you yourself will then gain. Incur the costs of giving away food and clothes to the poor now, and your return on that investment will be that you go to Heaven for all eternity (I think that is what the text is saying). Is it likely that the listener who believes that this is indeed a correct cost-benefit analysis will enjoy the music more than one who thinks it is, well, not true at all because there isn't any Heaven? And what about somebody who loathes these sentiments, believing that you should do good deeds without considering any longterm payback for yourself?

What often can be found in the cantatas is one perspective stressed in one and a different one, based on the same theme, in another. A contextual study of the extant works written for the same day (there are ofter three or even four of them) can be very revealing on this point.

As I said, I'm only interested in the beauty of this music, and I've loved it for a very long time. I've just listened to the Gönnenwein performance again, and the sheer sound that I hear is so sublime that for me the question of whether the words of the text actually mean anything sensible is quite irrelevant.

That's fair enough. But for me an attempt to gain some insight into just how these great works were conceived and developed enhances my appreciation of them. But i think it may be a mistake to attempt to find very specific connections between textual images and musical ideas (although they often exist--but more so, I suggest in the earlier works) Like most great artists I think Bach became more subtle and enigmatic as he became a more experienced composer of the canon.

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 25, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< * how did JSB approach the art of composition? >
To this comment, I'd raise a question. Is there any historical writing that discusses the matter? But we do know that Bach was trained from an early age in the art of music and compo, and that his own curiosity led him to copy music belonging to his cousin--which, if I recall correctly was done in secret. So, first step--pen to paper and he began both through his training and his own study to understand the structure of existing music.

< * from where did he get his huge range of ideas, which he needed so often? (a crucial question for me) >
We also know that he studied with Buxtehude who was such a great German organ master, and whose myriad compositions survive and are still enjoyed today. Additionally, we know that Bach was a genius working with motifs, and he apparently enjoyed twisting and turning them, and breaking them up in every imaginable way. Before I took Baroque Music Theory I had no idea that anyone could take small musical ideas and apply them so creatively. But Bach, since he was such a genius would have looked beyond the common application of motives to see what else was possible...and we have the evidence that he did.

< * What might he have expected his congregations to receive from his music? His students? God himself? >
Since we know that Bach was also a student of languages and that he owned important Christian texts of his time, and because he knew that he had to convey important material, I can only think he would have striven for some clear method of presentation of ideas. A congregation is quite a conglomerate of individuals, and attention spans no doubt varied even in Bach's time, but this is strictly imaginative here, but I think he would have hoped to create something that would catch the ear first, so that the mind would then be alerted to the text. The reason I take this point of view is based on the fact that many times introductory instrumental material is then used following in interesting ways to present text.

Though we probably have no record of his interchanges with his students, he probably did as many good teachers do and pointed out things they should notice and remember. If indeed he did have some exceptional singers and instrumentalists building upon knowledge and awareness on a continuing basis would have possibly accomplished much. As a leader in a Christian setting he might have also hoped that some of the moral and spiritual ideas would have taken hold in his young charges. Most Christian choir directors I have known think in terms of that kind of responsibility.

As to God, how can anyone expect God's reaction? But we do know that Bach intended to give glory to God. Of course many texts like the one for this week reflect what happens to a person dedicated to God in terms of blessing, here for generosity to the needy. So if Bach did have an expectation of God, maybe it was in terms that coincided with the texts he set.

< * How far was the text his primary source of inspiration? What other sources might there have been. >
Bach had a job to do, but he also had the marvel of a big lively family, and students full of youthful energy, and many people in the community at varying levels with whom he would have rubbed shoulders. I have heard for decades from Christian people who often say they find God in others--that's how they know God. That spark of inspiration could have come meditatively, though he probably did not have too much time to just reflect, or it could have come in part from those who surrounded him. The marvel of the birth of an infant (something he certainly knew) while a responsibility is still for many a moment of spiritual awakening. Being Bach, and so terribly smart, he must have drawn on multiple sources. I can truly imagine Bach moving through his life with one tune or another in his head most of the time.

< *Stressing again that one can love the music without having any interest in these questions whatever, I will modestly make a few suggestions. >

< *I don't think the precise nature of the images that Bach lit upon are always clear cut. I do think he found them and made them work for him as a busy, working to deadlines, pnctillious craftsman. >
We do know that Baroque composers used filler material to join motifs, and I agree that all images are not clear-cut. I do think that when most composers write music to text, however, they try to find material that helps to express the emotion of the text in one way or another.

< * Like most great artists I think Bach became more subtle and enigmatic as he became a more experienced composer of the canon. >
This is an interesting comment...can you elaborate a little more?

Julian Mincham wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] Jean? My main point is that by deconstructing the texts and musical scores one can infer a great deal about Bach's working methods.

(NB? infer----not know for sure).? I think this approach is?constructive and illuminating?and i compare it with that of?Peter Williams who, in his recent book JSB A Life in Music deconstructs the Obiturary and infers a great deal about Bach, his life and development from what that document does or does not say.

Re the last comment which you asked me to elaborate on I have found that JSB seems much more likely to paint individual words or images in his earlier?cantatas ?than in?the later ones where?he seems to give more attention to the overall structure and effect than to the individual detail.?

Alain Bruguieres wrote (October 25, 2007):
As usual I agree with Julian.

Probably there are more definitions of 'art' that there are artists.

However it appears that the forms of art to which I am most sensitive share common characteristics, and so far Bach's worksis the one corpus which fully satisfies my criteria of appreciation.

For me, a work of art has hardly anything to do with saying something. If one has to say something, language is the best tool for that. Agreed, there's an art of arranging the words so as to convey one's meaning clearly, but I would call that craftmanship rather than art. Agreed, words can be arranged into a work of art, call that a poem if you like, but then the point is no longer to actually say something.

I think, rather, that a work of art is an arrangement of a number of elements to form a pattern which is an object of disinterested contemplation. In Bach's music the pattern is particularly rich, intricate, contrasted, a source of endless wonder. Bach relies on purely musical polarities (counterpoint/homophony , melody/harmony, major/minor, modal/tonal, free/constrained, fast/slow, ascending/descending, rectus/inversus, recit/aria, and so on...). In certain pieces, he uses only, or mostly, musical ingredients. Most of the time he also uses affects, in my opinion, not in order to express feelings, but rather so as to bring in other sorts of 'polarities'. In that he is not unique, as this is rather typical of the baroque era.

Now in the cantatas, Bach has at his disposal a very interesting source of inspiration : the texts. The texts convey ideas which offer polarities of their own, contrasts, affects galore. So many elements which can be incorporated in the global pattern. Naturally Bach isn't going to incorporate everything : he will select the elements which will
conduce to the best combinations with the other elements. But, in a sense, the meaning doesn't matter (as far as artistic appreciation is concerned - and I repeat that this holds for me, I'm sure many on the list think differently and I respect that entirely); or rather it matters only inasmuch as it participates in and enhances the beauty of the global pattern.

Gaining insight into the manner in which Bach conduces his experiments is for me very rewarding, for which I'm very grateful to this list. In particular knowing what the texts mean and becoming aware that beyond the individual movement, the whole cantata, and even the whole yearly cycle, obeys a certain pattern, helps appreciating the works.

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Julian Mincham] Thanks for the clarification Julian. What methods do you use to deconstruct a text that differ from form analysis or Roman numeral analysis?

Julian Mincham wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Jean Laaninen] I don't know where all the question marks came from in the message below---they weren't in theoriginal.

Jean My approach varies but in general I tend to read the text and try to understand it--often takes me several readings.

After hearing a work through i tend to look very closely at the ritorelli or instrumental passage at the beginning of a movement (where ithey exist) and try to sort out the ideas, shapes and motives, I think that these ritornelli usually encapsulate the musical material and the composers' thinking about the movement as a whole. My concentration is usually?very much upon?upon the detail and character of motives and how they might relate to the images, ideas, metaphors etc in the written text. Then I try to work out how Bach has developed these ideas.? However, along with a study of the motives I also try to take into account all the other musical aspects that Allain has just set out in his email that came in a few minutes ago--mode, key, phrase structure, cadences, melodic direction?etc etc etc !

I am also increasingly looking at the cantatas contextually??e.g. if it is a cantata for the 10th Sunday after Trinity I also look at all the others written for that day--usually there are 2/3 others.? I am finding this a particularly illuminating exercise.??

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Alain Bruguières] Good thoughts here, Alain. The contrasts are what catch my attention when I listen, too.

Thank.

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 25, 2007):
[To Julian Mincham] I don't know where they (? marks) came from either, but they were in the first message that arrived here. There are more of them in this latest message. That kind of error usually happens in MS Word when the template has not been set to normal, but I can't figure out why this is happening on Yahoo. We don't have access to setting templates in Yahoo Mail.

Anyway, thank you for the details. I will keep a copy of this to use the next time I look at a Bach score.

Santu de Silva wrote (October 26, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< Jean? My main point is that by deconstructing the texts and musical scores one can infer a great deal about Bach's working methods.
(NB? infer----not know for sure).? I think this approach is?constructive and illuminating?and i compare it with that of?Peter Williams who, in his recent book JSB A Life in Music deconstructs the Obiturary and infers a great deal about Bach, his life and development from what that document does or does not say. >
You use the word "deconstruct", which has become fashionable in recent times, and has the connotation that the deconstructor's objective is to disregard the stated intentions of the piece, and study it for hidden motives and subconscious agendas. A less antagonistic term would be simply "analyze".

To analyze something is to take it apart to find out how it works, e.g. dismantle it.
To deconstruct something is to destroy an edifice.

I have no problem with someone deconstructing the work of either Bach or Forkel or anyone (even if I personally would not go that far), but I wonder whether it is really deconstruction that is meant here?

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 26, 2007):
[To Santu de Silva] Since yesterday I have been thinking about the idea of 'deconstructing' something, and to my amusement the term also turned up in a university based novel that I am reading at the moment. In some respects deconstructing isn't really so different from form analysis or a Shenkerian analysis, but the idea that bothers me a little bit in terms of this popular concept of deconstruction is that when you take a work out of its original context and sort of sterilize it thereby, I don't know if you can obtain a whole authentic picture. I'm going to apply Julian's ideas to the next score I decided to view (I can't say when), but I suspect that when this is completed I won't think I have a complete picture unless I apply the Lutheran setting to the matter. That does not mean I disrespect others rights to take a different approach, but I believe context is central to interpretation of documents. It kind of makes me think of someone trying to explain the origins of a
famous historical war without saying what the fight was really about, if one simply analyzes maneuvers and behaviors, and doesn't set the full context.

Julian Mincham wrote (October 26, 2007):
[To Santu de Silva] I don't much mind what terminology individuals wish to use so long as the meaning is clear. However?I fail to see how the use of the word 'deconstruct' is in any way antogonistic.

I used it quite deliberately within the context of (and in response?to a direct question of Jean's?about my approach to the cantatas)?COMPARING?my approach with that to be found in ?Peter William's recent book on Bach. I was consciously making a comparison between?the two procedures?(although i admit it's probably only meaningful to those who have read the book).

The blurb on the cover of his book says 'Peter Williams approaches afresh the life and music of arguably the most studied of all composers, interpreting Bach's life BY DECONSTRUCTING [my capitals] his Obituary in the light of more recent information, and his music by evaluating his priorities and irrepressible creative drive'

That seemed to be?a?helpful analogy to help to illuminate my?own approach.

The word DECONSTRUCTION here?does NOT convey the same meaning as the term ANALYSIS although?the latter??may well be incorporated and subsumed within the? processes of the former.

I have not ever thought?that the term 'deconstruct'?means destroying something?---does anyone?

Bradley Lehman wrote (October 26, 2007):
[To Julian Mincham] I would just call it something like "doing careful research far beyond the obvious face-value of a given text".

I don't care if it's called "deconstructing" or something else; the point is to look closely into all available clues and context as well as the text itself, to figure out how that text got to be the way it is, and therefore to tease out what it might mean.

That's the type of approach taken by Williams in that newest book, and in his shorter book _The Life of Bach_ that preceded it. Also, by Rifkin in his big projects (compositional chronology of the St Matthew Passion; OVPP; B minor flute suite being originally for violin and in A minor....). And Laurence Dreyfus, and lots of other scholars.

I think there is a distinction compared with simply "analyzing" something. Analysis divorces an object from context as much as possible, to treat it in a vacuum. At least, that's what the New Grove article says analysis is. Analysis picks something apart using only the clues within the object itself, as to any governing rules on the way it works.

Deconstruction, or whatever we want to call it, brings in boatloads of additional contextual clues as well. It doesn't destroy the edifice. It at least attempts to reveal the edifice and its building process more clearly than a face-value appraisal of the edifice would do. The resulting edifice is used as evidence back into a process. We need to know what's normal or exceptional in the time/place around the object, to view the object (and its creator's ideas...) in the "proper" context....

Something stands out to me from Bruce Haynes's newest book that I'm in process of reading (just arrived last week). The illustration is: if an existing score says "forte" at some spot, this may serve at least in part as an inference that the musicians would have played it more "piano" in the absence of that marking. The "forte" is evidence of a performance-practice assumption opposite to what it says, countering a default expectation. Mere analysis wouldn't get that far; it would yield only the answer that those notes are supposed to be "forte" exactly as it says in the score. Deconstruction tells us that the other default expectation of "piano" may have existed in the style, and that the score is therefore doing something surprising. The score is not destroyed in this process, and we're still supposed to play those notes "forte"; we just understand better why we're playing them "forte", and (importantly) what we should perhaps be doing stylisticallin similar situations where it doesn't have any marking.

Haydn's a master of that. Listen to the first movement of symphony 102. There are lots of spots where we expect a nice gentle cadence to be settling in, finishing a phrase and a modulation, which it would do if there weren't a "forte" marking (and often also an elision) suddenly taking the music into a new direction, on the downbeat. A conductor who merely analyzes the music is probably going to do just what it appears to say, faithfully: play a sudden "forte" where it says. But a conductor who has drawn in more context might additionally put in either a crescendo or a decrescendo before the "forte" spot to bring out the surprising non-pianoness of it. The better the expectation of "piano" gets set up, the stronger the musical stroke is in frustrating those expectations. And this conductor might play some other cadences even more "piano" in the absence of marking.

Jean Laaninen wrote (October 26, 2007):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks for your comments Brad. They enhance my understanding of the method.

 

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