Archive for December, 2011


Bach’s Magnificat is Bach’s

It’s the time of year for Magnificats. But first, let me clarify that somewhat cryptic title:

Most serious musicians will know Bach’s large orchestral and choral Magnificat, BWV 243. Fewer know the solo organ piece, BWV 733, usually called “Fuga sopra il Magnificat.” It is based on the tune to which Lutherans of Bach’s day would have sung the Magnificat text. But it is not actually a fugue. Probably “fuga” is a copyist’s error, misreading the sloppily written abbreviation “fant”, for “fantasia”.

Anyway, to continue with my habit of complaining about musical professionals who have no business being professional, the theory has been proposed by musicologists that 733 is not, in fact, by Bach, but by Johann Ludwig Krebs. A lot of people have bought into this, and you can find YouTube uploads of this piece (none of which are particularly good, so I’m not including a link) touting the new “scholarship”.

All I can say is: WTF?! The harmonic and contrapuntal language in the piece is so obviously Bach’s! I have never heard a piece and wondered if it was by Bach. There is no mistaking Bach. And there’s no mistaking when it’s not Bach. No other composer has ever written anything that could successfully masquerade as Bach. If you’re a professional musician, you should be able to hear the difference between, say, Bach and Handel, or Bach and J. L. Krebs.

The piece has a clear and well-advised harmonic plan. Each harmonic area is approached and unfolded in Bach’s usual irreproachable manner. And there is the appearance, toward the end, of organic and well-justified “toni contrarii” (or chromaticism, for you non-early-music buffs), which are such a hallmark of Bach’s style.

The musicologists cite the somewhat archaic stile antico language of the piece as evidence that Bach, who would never have written something so drab, is not the author. But the piece is not drab. And Bach wrote in the Palestrina-esque stile antico all the time! There’s the Gratias agimus tibi from the B-minor mass, the first third of the E-flat major fugue (St. Anne), etc.

Krebs was no slouch, but 733 is not his.


Getting critical about theory

Too many musicians these days regard music theory – the in depth study of music’s nuts and bolts, such as that practiced by Heinrich Schenker – as only a very occasionally useful discipline, and think that most of the time it stifles musical intuitions or innate sensibilities (this links to a post in which Jeremy Denk wonders if “endless consideration” throttles music).  Those who try to explain great works of art in terms of music theory are often accused of reductionism.

As a result, too much attention is given to perfunctory and superficial “analyses” that provide little real insight. Too many would-be analyzers and analysis readers alike fail to dig deep. Rather, they dig broadly, where the soil is light and loose. The ability to regurgitate a battery of wide-ranging, but superficial and tangential “factlets” is mistaken for insight. The analytical dimension is missing.

Things like this pass for analysis in the current arts climate. This baffles me. Ross hasn’t said anything explicitly musical except to note that the passage is in E-flat major.

But the problem isn’t only that we have to put up with these long-winded collections of jargon. The bigger problem is that real theoretical and analytical thought suffers because it is supplanted and demonized by the “other way of knowing” exemplified in the above link. Ross’ analytical faculties obviously haven’t been fully developed. Musical understanding eludes thinkers of Ross’ ilk.

To wit: in this post Ross undoubtedly supposes he is going to “lay some theory” on us. Unfortunately he only demonstrates his theoretical shortcomings. Or, at the very least, he demonstrates that he hasn’t read much Schenker, or hasn’t read it for comprehension.

Schenker could not have been more adamant about the idea that not all vertical simultaneities are chords; that is, not all members of a stack of tones relate to each other. Some relate only to tones that come before or after, in the horizontal dimension. This is why one can often find (in music from a vast list of composers spanning the gamut of ability) simultaneities that contain several dissonant pitches. Rossini hardly demonstrates any remarkable gift in constructing one of these.

Here is the so-called chord Ross highlights as evidence of Rossini’s prescience:

Right off the bat we can ignore the “C” pedal tone. The harmonies that unfold above it have nothing to do with it. We can also ignore (and this, I think, is Ross’ big mistake) the “E” in the soprano. It is merely an accented upper neighbor to the “D” contained in the simple diminished 7th that comprises the remainder of the “astonishing chord.” And sure enough, the “E” is resolved, in mundane fashion, to the expected “D” in the ensuing two beats. There is no chord here composed of the tones “C”,  “A-flat”, “B”, “F”, and “E”.

I’m actually rather saddened when I see this kind of thing. The more we tolerate it, the more we pretend it imparts anything of significance, the less we will see of the real deal. Armchair fantasizing is easy. Powerfully explanatory perception is not. If we allow people to consume/produce incorrect music theory, we can’t be sure that someone, somewhere, will keep the flame of genuine theory burning. Once a critical mass of theory nincompoops is reached, we may be powerless to avert a “Musikdämmerung.”