Sep. 19, 2015

Bach d minor, Part III

(continued from Part II)

Since the multi-sectional construction and other features of this music point to it being an early work written under the influence of the north German masters of the time who provided the young Sebastian Bach with models to imitate, it seems almost certain that he created this bold work in Arnstadt at the age of 19 or 20 (c. 1704-1705).  Being occupied with his regular duties there only 3 days a week, he had plenty of time to practice on the Wender organ (see Touch, Part III) during this period and to grow as a composer.  He also had the habit during organ inspections to check first to see if the bellows supplied enough air.  The broken chords in the Toccata tests this splendidly by gradually drawing from the organ as much air as a player can demand of it with hands and feet.  The gradual adding of tone on tone engenders a crescendo possible only through the means available to the organ.  For example, at the end of the first arpeggio 7 times as many pipes are sounding than on the initial tone, and at the end of the 2nd arpeggio it's 9 times as many!  This seems to be Bach's own discovery because anything similar will be sought in vain in the organ literature prior to this masterwork.  Thus the argument that this young organist wrote or improvised this music primarily to put the instrument at hand through its paces is a very strong one, even though where and when this may have taken place cannot be determined.

This work is written as a multi-sectional Praeludium in the prevailing north German "stylus phantasticus" of the time, meaning that free, improvisory sections alternated with fugal imitative sections; typically, such a piece had as many as 7 separate sections:  Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free -- Strict (3/2) -- Free -- Strict (6/8) -- Free.  Sometimes one or more of these section was omitted, leading to pieces with only 6 or maybe as few as 3 sections altogether (single Strict section framed on each side by 2 Free sections).  This is how Bach worked the form for his "great" Toccata and Fugue in d minor, by condensing the music down to 3 parts, viz., Free -- Strict (4/4) -- Free [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXII].  It's also believed that the title was added by later copyists.  If Bach ever gave it a title at all he would have called it either a "Praeludium and Fugue" or, more probably, just "Praeludium."

If this work ever existed on paper it's very likely that the Fugue was written first, since the elements of the Toccata spring from material in the Fugue.  If you've ever written a free work (prelude, toccata, introduction, fantasia, choral, etc.) paired with a related fugue, you've discovered that it's easier to develop the free work from the fugue rather than the other way around.  It's also possible that this work may have never existed on paper but only as an improvisation which a copyist (family member or student) with a good ear and memory heard him perform and later committed to paper for him, giving it a title and with Bach possibly guiding the editing.  The title "Toccata con Fuga" which the oldest copy of this work bears was not original with Bach.

The kind of breathtaking artistry is nowhere to be found in the work of his contemporaries, and, while the Fugue is seamlessly integrated with the Toccata, the entire work is improvisatory in nature.  This is not surprising, for Bach was a superb improvisor.  For as many people as can be lined up, there will be a different way of playing it.  Everyone sees it, hears it, thinks of it, differently.  It has structure within parameters, but there is free forum within it, and, along with this free forum comes a vast interpretative canvas.  There are no "perfect" interpretations of this music.  The very best ones have flaws (and they are not mistakes, just what the organist feels).  At first glance it might appear that there are several thousand ways, at least, to play this work, but that would fall far short of the mark.  The number of ways the free opening can be played, figuring only 2 different possibilities for each of its 30 measures, calculates to well over a billion (see Calculating Stop Combinations, Part II).  This is part of the sense of the music.  This free forum provides a playground which beckons every performer to take their own personal walk through it.  If that walk happens to morph into an unpredictable rampage the listener tagging along will have trouble keeping up, and herein lies the danger.  Probably no other piece of organ music has been subjected to such extremes in interpretation and, as a consequence, so systematically mishandled.

Because not everything in this music has to be played in strict rhythm too many performers think of it as a musical free for all, an excuse to make it as undisciplined and bizarre as rhythmically possible, to attract attention, or maybe even to scare people as so many Hollywood movie producers have tried to employ it ... as background music for every kind of vampire led, zombie Apocalypse scene from which they think they can work into a motion picture to turn a profit for the studio.  This is a ridiculous association they never fail to make between this work and a few scenes from a retarded Dracula film.  It's both childish and revealing of a perfect blindness, a lack of grasping anything meaningful of Bach's musical universe, one of tremendous richness, subtlety, and sophistication.  Somewhere on the shore of this musical ocean we know as Sebastian Bach lies the American movie producer, proud that he took a measurement of this ocean's depth with his finger.  Bach would have pulled his French full bottom wig from his head (photo) and thrown it at these people when it was never ever, repeat never, his intention to frighten anyone with his music or connect it with the macabre.  The very idea would have been abhorent to him.

If this were all that's been done to mischaracterize this music it would be bad enough, but it's been put to worse use.  To be perfectly honest, it's been torn asunder and made into a dog and pony show as if it were some kind of proving ground (sadly, we observe some of this same thing in certain recordings made of other Bach organ favorities, notably the Passacaglia and the G Major "jig" Fugue -- pieces that also seem to survive somehow in spite of every punishment known to Western civilization being inflicted upon them).  I've heard it butchered and cut into pieces for the sake of color.  I've heard its powerful opening ruined by smug ornamenting.  I've heard it played like the organ's keys were burning the fingers.  I've heard it played like the fingers were playing in a pot of glue.  I've heard it demolished with "additions and corrections."  I've heard it leave the station with a mighty roar, go through a bumpy ride, then chug to a stop, start up again, run out of steam, pour on the coal, then go off the rails.  I've heard it circle the drain for pages and then save itself at the end.  I've heard it take a nose dive from the opening fanfare only to gain altitude and crash and burn on the second page.  I've heard this music executed indeed, like it were some criminal guilty of an atrocious crime.  I've also heard and have been very moved by some amazing interpretations, many of them on period instruments, by some very inspired performers.

We have also seen this work performed with all manner of gyrations on the bench, postural distortions, even grimaces, head shaking, and swaying movements which gave the impression that the player was either channeling, suffering from vertigo, or having an apoplectic fit.  The habit of swaying forwards and backwards, shaking the head, and introducing graceful arm choreography and other mannerisms into organ performance takes no part in the production of sound.  This is cultivated merely to make it look to the casual observer that the player is doing something besides push keys.  The truth is, all unnecessary movement on the bench is harmful because it's a waste of time and energy which can be spent more profitably on matters of technique.  How and which mannerisms to cultiviate should find no place in the player's mind, ever, as it distracts from the work at hand.  Organ playing, indeed, requires no physical strain, gyrations, or mannerisms to deliver all the powers at work on the page or in the player's imagination to the listener's ear.

There's a certain type of player, on very large instruments, who will draw suboctave stops (Doubles) in the manuals and Pedal with abandon and then play certain passages an octave higher than written; they will then add more notes to the arpeggios in the coda of the fugue, double them an octave higher, and double the Pedal notes an octave lower, all to get a larger sound.  Some players heavily influenced by Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcription like to solo the fugue subject and color the fugue like mad.  In Karl Tausig's transcription for piano solo the ornamented first note of the toccata is even wrongly written upside down using an upper auxiliary note (Bb) instead of a lower auxiliary note (G).

Nothing in this work seems to have escaped the wrecking ball.  A retrograde version of the free opening, or toccata portion (J.S. Bach/Enjott Schneider, Attacot), was even published having every one of its 30 measures written backwards, note for note.  What has become known as the "toccata" portion of this work is thus performed in reverse.  The purpose here, obviously, is to entertain and nothing more, simply to show that it can be done.  To do this at the expense of a monumental work of Art is some kind of fad.  And the next fad may be worse.  The real proof of knowing this or any other composition forwards and backwards is how well you can communicate the powers at work on the page to your listeners and deliver the emotion that went through Bach's mind when he wrote it. 

As with so much of Bach's other major organ music, no autograph of this piece survives.  All later copies seem to derive, either directly or indirectly, from a copy in the possession of German organist Johann Ringk, a pupil of Johann Peter Kellner who via copies made by him and his school played an important part in the dissemination of Bach's music.  The Italian tempo marks, fermatas, and staccato dots in Ringk's copy, all of which are very unusual in pre-1740 German organ music, probably did not originate with Bach and were addions by Ringk or a later copyist.  The title "Toccata con fuga" appearing in Ringk's copy may also be a later addition, as most German organ compositions written in this style during this period were usually given the simple title "Praeludium."

The notation itself also has to be watched.  Bach had the habit of including an extra bar among the stems of a consecutive run of short notes to indicate when he wanted an extra note of equal value to be squeezed into that run.  This extra bar does not mean that the extra note moves suddenly faster.  It simply means that between the bottom note and top note all the notes come out evenly, but with one more.  This is how it was notated in early times, and an example can be found in measure 19 of this work.  The run is performed in one swoop where the bottom note and top note come out on the beat.  All the notes of this run written for the right hand are of equal duration.  The first section of Bach's G Major Fantasia for organ is loaded with these figures.

(continued in Part IV)