Für Kenner und Liebhaber – music from the inside
With this writing, my aim is to articulate my personal encounter with the music of Emanuel Bach – just what it is I find so compelling, and which I try to convey in BLOCK CAPITALS when I play it. If I can manage to put this into words, I might in turn be able to say something about what I do to realise it.
What I mean to convey will essentially be common to many musicians. I cannot know what – if anything – is particular to me, although I have some sense of my personality traits. I describe my impressions as a musician based on an ideal situation. When I am concentrating, know the music, and feel in charge of the situation. Of course, it’s not always like that. But the idea here is to articulate my artistic intentions, not list potential potholes.
Now, with all disclaimers made, where to start?
When I open a book and see a piece of music.
That’s when I take in a lot of detail in the score that tells me something about what the music is about. The true content – maybe. Or not even maybe: my picture of the true content, of which I must be completely convinced as I am about to pronounce it. It might be different the next time I play the piece – when my image might be different. But here and now, THIS is the version that counts.
Take it in, in a single breath. On the exhale, I start singing the music – with the clavichord. The breathing is actually physical, but perceived as linked to the start of the storytelling; –Inhale: What am I about to sing? Exhale: Right, it goes like this…
Rather than theorizing on the details, in the act of starting the piece I let the details combine into my picture of the whole. (In the way that an accidental, or an added sixth in a chord in basso continuo is associated more with the colour of the chord than with the principles of harmony. A voice may acquire a new direction from the modulation. I register these directions bodily; my left side strains down and over in a cramped fashion and so forth.)
In this way, the details come together as a homogenous entity, with a character, a meaning that is distinct and compelling. Full of complexity it may be, yet distinct and compelling.
The whole also has a reverse effect on the details. A dotted rhythm can be played in a great many ways – anything ranging from cheerful, through heroic, through laboured with resistance. Not until all these fragments fall into place and exert their mutual effect does the whole emerge in all its glory.
And of course, this is just the initial conviction I need to start the piece. Any piece of music, I should say.
One of the unique aspects of Emanuel Bach’s music is that it is so replete with detail. Replete with expression or meaning.
Then the song. From the chest. At least in many cases.
And one special thing about Emanuel Bach is how he keeps me wide awake. Not that I lose interest in music that follows a more or less predictable progression for four measures. But I can allow that kind of music to play itself more easily, I can go with it and let it happen.
Emanuel always has something unexpected in store. It might just be a shift – but not necessarily; all it takes is an accent or a variation to cast the material and hence its expression in a slightly different light. A bassnote that didn’t sound – ooops – I nearly stumbled there! Where did that hole in the floor come from? We’d better watch out here.
– He might start the piece by going directly round the bend and into the next room. Without any pleasantries. Here he stops abruptly, and you won’t get a word out of him. – He might start to say something – and then stop mid-sentence and go on about something completely different. – He gets caught up in something, and doesn’t see it through. Or falls in love with a tiny detail and just wants to gaze at it — for ages AND then he reverts to his first sentence, which originally at least, almost made sense. – He might laugh it all off because the seriousness got too heavy. Other times, the seriousness has to be rubbed in – RUUUUB – so we don’t know what’s up or down and just want to curl up.
And this – this is what I’m supposed to have something rational and vaguely coherent to say about?! Not that no-one ever attempted this before. There are analyses based on rhetoric/Klangrede (Busch 1989), on form (Hegdal 1989), on Pre-Classical/rhetorical expression and approaches to ‘individual expression’ (Kleiberg 1989). My impression is that people fascinated by the music of Emanuel Bach see him as unique – and have their own perspectives or paradigms for explaining what he does that is so extraordinary.
For my own part, I register that I am considering a great many variables in one go when I come to play the music. All combined, these variables make up the expression – or the content. Again, my perspective may be incomplete or one-dimensional seen from someone else’s point of view. But it is the whole I am seeking to describe.
When I come to shape a piece of music, I usually start out intuitively. And this gets me off to a good start. But this repertoire goes so far in unexpected directions that the intuitive approach no longer feels satisfactory. A number of pieces go off on such a tangent that I lose the thread, the logic, the plot, my bearings on what I’m supposed to be doing. I need something more than my intuition: usually, in this situation, I can tackle it with the customary analytical tools for music – I can look at the harmonies, for example. But Emanuel Bach takes so many variables in so many directions that I fail to find the answer, meaning the artistic necessity of sudden fragmentation or extended associative series – by the usual theoretical means. That being so, I still feel the necessity of his capriciousness, but I feel it with another part of myself than my musical side.
I have sought to find alternative paradigms for understanding the ‘odd’ or unfamiliar devices he so often applies: intuitively, I find them wholly logical. But I don’t know where this logic belongs in my mental apparatus. It is contingent on values other than the purely musical.
At an early stage in the project, I devised a setup entitled Decomposing Bach, in which I deconstructed the Kenner und Liebhaber Rondo in C Major (Wq 65/1) into bits and pieces in order to invite the listener to reconstruct it with the aid of visual cues on tonality and style – as a ‘DIY rondo’. This was in no way a solution to the problem, but rather an expression of how I perceived these pieces: with the frequent, sudden transitions from one to the other to the point that it was like a puzzle that could just as well be assembled quite differently – and readily in a new arrangement every time.
Later I did an experiment using pencil crayons to colour the expression of the different sentences in relation to each other – but I soon had to give up because I had far more colours in my head than in my pencil case. I wanted to illustrate how the expressive subtleties of the gestures and chord progressions related to each other.
I read the music as expression. As a series of semiotic gestures or statements (which in turn are composed of a combination of details) which together form a narrative – or rather, I experience the same as when I listen to a story. I am immersed in the same emotional progression, the same subtleties, finesses, modulations. And I don’t mean just a general parallel to narrative – which I find in a great deal of music: not just the sense of a progression, which results in insight or catharsis. Instead, I experience the music of Emanuel Bach AS the narrative process. The music is the story!
I perceive the smallest musical entities – the figures, slurs (green lines in the score to the right) like words, forming extended phrases – sentences (blue lines marking clauses, red line marking the whole sentence), which combine into a narrative. These observe the same hierarchical relationship with each other as in the syntax of language, and this determines how I realise the music: the words must be comprehensible and the sentences cohesive for the narrative to make sense.
The ‘plot’ of the story is sensed just a hair’s breadth away: I once sincerely believed, and am still on the verge of believing, that musical narrative can ACTUALLY be translated into words – as easy as anything. I have tried on several occasions. And the logic makes sense for a while, as long as I only translate statements one-to-one. The problem doesn’t arise until I have to find the common denominator – the continuity between the statements: literary and musical narratives do not proceed by the same logic. When ‘this happens, the result will be’ has to square up, the literary work falls apart or departs from the musical content.
I am not alone in reporting on another logic at play, in addition to the musical logic. Helm describes in his article“The “Hamlet” Fantasy and the Literary Element in Bach’s Music” how a group of Northern European poets, well known by Bach, were deeply fascinated by the relationship between words and music (Helm 1972, pp. 278-279). Gudrun Busch describes the evolution of Bach’s clavier idiom in parallel with his Lieder production, demonstrating that the musical language of Kenner und Liebhaber was concurrent with the development of his own Lieder idiom (Busch 1989).
In my quest for extra-musical paradigms, I have to weigh up these factors: how close can I get to this other logic? Without applying something constructed or artificial to the music – without adding anything simply because it would be so satisfying to resolve the equation; everything would be logical and comprehensible! But without it actually existing in the music. On the other hand – if I don’t make the attempt to find explanatory models, I will make no progress. Then the whole of this aspect of Emanuel Bach’s music would have to be tackled intuitively anyway.
The trick is to end the analogy as soon as it has been drawn out long enough, and go no further. Because it will in any case serve as no more than an analogy.
It worked rather well the time I had a personal issue on my mind. I decided that a particular movement was about an inner conflict, and one I had been grappling with for some time. Elements in the music corresponded with my internal arguments and states of mind. But at the time, the musical ‘story’ was not made up of words, but emotions and ideas. And it squared – perfectly. The music felt like a response to my dilemma because it structured my emotions. And the best thing about it was that it didn’t attempt to resolve it: the music became the narrative of the dilemma, acknowledging it as a conflict. And in that it became a narrative, it was easier to bear because I could regard it as a ‘story’. It was no longer a tangled mess within me that was harrowing and troublesome because I didn’t understand it.
This is presumably a criterion in all types of music – that one has a picture of what story it is telling?
– But no, that’s not the point here. Because it’s in the WAY it is told. That it is so evident that the music is narrating. Because it is constructed out of emotional statements, and the form thus becomes a stream of emotions and thoughts in conflict and discourse?
The fact that the form does not line up, does not always end well, is also what makes it appear more realistic than “perfectly formed” music. It is, after all, extremely rare in life that a difficult inner dilemma is ‘reconciled’ like the development section in a Mozart sonata…
I regard the Kenner und Liebhaber music as profoundly human. Sense AND sensibility. Both the one and the other: “I’m telling you this, with all I possess of me-ness — all the gifts and resources that are mine, both intellectual and emotional. Holding neither one nor the other back. They are not in conflict.
I must do all in my power to be human because it is demanding. I must do all in my power to make music because it entails exactly the same. And maybe I won’t quite make it, but I TRY! All that I can. And in this way, we all progress, which is what counts.”
I try. This is an important point in my understanding of this repertoire. The musical forms have all the traits of this ‘start and stop’ described above: I have not decided what I’m going to say before I say it. Meaning that my statements are not well-balanced, and cannot always be reconciled. The music does not present well-formed truths, and that may be what makes it all the more truthful. It does not convey answers and solutions; but that which does not add up; that which we are seeking; that which is open and vulnerable. Life is not perfect in form.
Rebecka Ahvenniemi writes of something she calls ”Composition in essay form” in her article of the same name. She writes ”It is necessarily vulnerable, and lacks an established, affirmative voice. It does not find reconciliation within an institutionalized musical syntax. It reflects affinities between form, technique and material, creating its own kind of language.” (Ahvenniemi 2015, p. 127.)
Although the article discusses music of our time (referring to the composers Salvatore Sciarrino and Morten Eide Pedersen) based on the thinking of writers the likes of Theodor Adorno, I find this description very representative of how I perceive facets of Emanuel Bach’s music. This inspired me to experiment with differences between the confident or quizzical, uncertain voices (‘affirmative vs. non-affirmative voices’), which are absolutely attainable on the clavichord.
What an experience! Here I might seek out the subtleties not afforded by the harpsichord, bless it. This repertoire, on that neurotic instrument! The gestures that are so prominent in the texture of the music – become dominant on the clavichord. And when the gestures become dominant, the music stops being about eighths and sixteenths, about any countables whatsoever: it becomes a series of musical thoughts bordering on the linguistic. Not necessarily formed like a fully fashioned message from A to Z, but as a series of transitions in a reflecting and sensing mind.
Moreover, the music is difficult to play. I feel my limitations as a musician all the time. The fact of it being difficult to realise, but the attempt to do so, chimes well with these qualities of the music.
The reasoning above says nothing, or at least nothing directly, about what I do with Emanuel Bach’s music. But it does say something about what I see in it – what I seek from it – and how I approach it.
To make this less abstract, I offer an example below. Here I outline a possible literary reinterpretation of Fantasia (Bach  1988, Wq. 59/6) – a kind of fictional dialogue I believe I can trace in the music. Two characters – one loud-mouthed and brusque with a loud, fairly emphatic tone; the other teasing and jocular in lighter, shorter notes. The loud-mouth is injured at one stage and complains.
But the literary reinterpretation does not work perfectly – there comes a point from which the music and the words can no longer be reconciled, because they follow a different form of logic.