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, and he was personally mentored by Buxtehude during the winter of 1705-1706, it seems almost certain that he created this bold work in Arnstadt around the age of 21 (c. 1706), if not a year or two earlier.  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) at that time 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 repertoire prior to this work.  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 precisely.

This piece 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 sections were either omitted or consolidated, 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).  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], which he would have known simply as a "Praeludium."

If this work ever existed on paper before it was premiered 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 yourself, you've discovered that it's easier to develop the free work from the fugue rather than the other way around.  Although it's sheer speculation, it's very possible that this work existed merely as a sketch which Bach developed into an improvisation and later committed to paper for its practical use, to which a later copyist (family member or other pupil) penned a title.  The title "Toccata con Fuga" which the oldest copy of this work bears was not original with the composer.

The kind of breathtaking artistry found in this piece is nowhere to be found in the music of Bach's 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 ideal interpretations of this music.  The very best ones have drawbacks (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 ridiculous association -- between this work and a few scenes from a retarded Dracula film -- is something they never fail to make.  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 or she took a measurement of this ocean's depth with their index finger.  Bach would have torn 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 c minor 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.  We've heard it butchered and cut into pieces for the sake of color.  We've heard its powerful opening ruined by smug ornamenting.  We've heard it played like the organ's keys were burning the fingers.  We've heard it played like the fingers were playing in a pot of glue.  We've heard it demolished with "additions" and "corrections."  We'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.  We've heard it circle the drain for pages and then save itself at the end.  We've heard it take a nose dive from the opening fanfare only to gain altitude and crash and burn on the 2nd page.  We've heard it executed all right, the same as a criminal guilty of an atrocious crime.  Then again, we'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 [See blog, Mannerisms].

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.  The middle section employing fugal procedure has been reincarnated as a French Toccata and recorded at a ridiculously fast tempo, turning it into a torrent of notes; the coda also has been arranged to include a big final chord in the parallel major key in spread harmony for both hands which is then reiterated under an inverted pedal point.  This does more than multiply notes, insert massive crescendos, or employ color stops unknown to the composer as the late Virgil Fox used to do -- it changes the composer's harmony.  This kind of proceeding may impress the senses, help to sell a prize-winning performer's next CD, or win them applause from an initiated audience, but it would have the composer tearing his wig from his head and throwing it at them.  If we're going to play Bach, then we should play Bach, not a commentary based upon Bach.  What we hear in our own minds is better saved for when we write our own music.

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.  The first third 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, and to make a parody out of a work of art.  This poor composition simply got caught in the crosshairs of this fad -- and the next fad may be worse.  The real proof of knowing this piece forwards and backwards is how well the powers at work on the page can be communicated to the listener and deliver what went through the composer's mind AS HE HEARD IT AND AS HE WROTE IT.

As with so much of Bach's other major organ music, no autograph of this piece survives.  The oldest copy surviving to this day traces to German organist Johann Ringk who studied organ with Bach pupils Johann Peter Kellner and Johann Christian Kittel, made many copies of early music, and played an important role in the dissemination of Bach's works.  While it's possible that Kellner may have been the source for Ringk's copy, more surviving copies of this work are traceable to Kittel who was one of Bach's last surviving pupils.  Ringk's copy therefore was very likely made from an earlier copy, now lost, once in the possession of Kittel, as it agrees with all the others.  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 the composer and were additions by Ringk or a later copyist.  The title "Toccata con fuga" appearing in Ringk's copy is probably also 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)