Three More Things I Learn from Bach

Bach480[First published 27 September 2016 in the Broad Street Review. Edited and reprinted here by permission.]

A while back I considered three things I learned from Bach. I’ve wanted to add to them ever since, partly because there are more, and partly because I just saw a Brandenburg concerto concert—five of the six were performed—and it felt good to hear the best music in the world again.

Yes, I’m calling Bach the best in the world, and if you don’t agree, well, you could do worse. What about Beethoven, you ask? Or Mozart or Monteverdi or Machaut? Or how dare I lift up classical Western tonality when there’s Tibetan throat singing or West African griot chanting or Japanese gagaku or Bulgarian women’s choirs or Kind of Blue?, and I get it, I really do, but still I will point to Bach, the sum of everything before him and the fulcrum of everything after.

Out of all of Bach I’ll point to those six Brandenburgs, and of them, to the fifth, to its first movement, and two-thirds of the way through, to the harpsichord solo. It lasts three minutes, and it’s the best music in the world. What I learn—what I would like to learn—are three things.

1. Compose something that isn’t there

It’s called a triple concerto, meaning there’s an orchestra with three soloists: flute, violin, harpsichord. Which sounds unexceptional, until you learn that nobody had ever thought of making the harpsichord a soloist before, not like this. Before Bach there were no keyboard concertos. He invented them. He wrote concertos for single and multiple harpsichords later, and other composers went on to do the same for piano, but Brandenburg No. 5 is the very first piece of its kind in the world.

2. Compose as if the audience isn’t there

Can you imagine what the audience in Bach’s time thought when they heard this? Well, probably nobody did. We know Bach gave these six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, and that’s about all we know. He probably wrote them a few years earlier, but no one knows for sure if he ever played them. The Margrave probably never heard them. The clean, unmarked manuscripts were discovered in a pile of music 99 years after Bach died.

Remember that Bach wasn’t in some garret, whining that he didn’t have an audience because he was a misunderstood genius. He was successful; he cared about listeners; he wanted to lift them up. He just, it seems, didn’t need them. He wrote these astounding pieces, gave them away, and went on from there.

3. There is no there, there

We’ve seen that it’s a triple concerto; it’s also a concerto grosso, meaning it pits a smaller group (the soloists) against a larger group (the orchestra). Brandenburg Five is both of these. It is also none of these.

Yes, the flute, violin, and harpsichord have solos throughout, and they act as a group throughout, but in this first movement it’s often hard to figure out where one group ends and the other one begins. For one thing, the violinist often plays with the “orchestra,” here, a string orchestra. Even more baffling, the strings have only one violin part instead of the usual two, so, many times we’re not sure if the soloist is a soloist or is in the first violin section. And since the orchestra in the original score has only four string parts, it simply looks and sounds like the entire group on stage is one orchestra.

And then there’s that harpsichord. It not only solos but plays along with the string orchestra most of the time just like any Baroque continuo player. It’s soloist and accompanist. If you’re confused, don’t worry, so are the scholars.

But when the harpsichord starts its real solo, after a number of teasing flourishes, the confusion multiplies. Bach chucks proportion out the window. (Here is an older performance with modern and multiple instruments, but Karl Richter’s harpsichord playing is relentless and almost brutishly powerful.)

The solo begins as noodling as the other instruments just kind of give up. It continues as it had been, as if it doesn’t realize it’s the only thing playing. Then, little by little, it stretches out. From parlor-room propriety it wriggles into the hardest harpsichord music written up to that time.

You’re already feeling unsettled, when out of the wings darts a dervishing torrent of notes in a wild leap. Now you’re feeling something you’ve never felt in a concert before, a little scared. Then you know why: Thrusting around a bend, the music runs off the road. Notes, which in polite Baroque company should be kept at far ends of the room, slam together in giddying, frightening abandon. Harmonies careen and envelop and explode in a rolling boil. You are locked in a slow-motion car wreck but instead of tightening your neck and pushing back you’re leaning forward, and instead of screeching brakes you hear the gas pedal floored and as you leave the road and vault the embankment and crash through the fence, you’re in a dream, a dream of a fall off a cliff, your arms wide, and you are flying, or the world is flying away, and you are in no exact place, there is no there, here there is just here, everything is here, and you spin in a space with your eyes opened wide, and the tears welling up come from depths that are filled with a wonder and an awe and a joy you never knew were there, like a kiss, like a sudden and unexpected kiss, and now no longer scared you cannot believe anything could be this beautiful, this wildly, embracingly, shudderingly beautiful, but you do believe it, now, because now you know, now you are hearing what the best is.

And then the orchestra enters, you had forgotten about the orchestra. And then it is over.

Maybe something else is the best, but I’ll tell you, you could do worse.

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