Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mega Biblion Mega Kakon

Now to the two remaining Christmas books, both inviting-looking fat tomes.

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. I don’t know what sort of reinvention he writes about, but 500 pages about Bach are surely a good thing. The great Cellist Paul Tortelier was once asked in a television interview who he thought was the greatest of all composers. ‘Bach of course’ he said dismissively and in a tone suggesting the interviewer was a moron, which he probably was. ‘You seem very definite about that.’ ‘Of course. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not a musician.’

There are senses in which every generation reinvents earlier composers, and in the case of Bach there is plenty of scope for this. At least in his clavier works, Bach used almost no phrase marks, legato and staccato indications, or dynamic markings. We can often guess at tempo because many pieces are headed ‘Bourré’, ‘Gigue’, ‘Sarabande’ etc.; dances whose tempi we know. Very often the score just has the notes, with the clefs, time-signatures and key-signatures, but he was often careless about putting those last three in and we need to work them out from a knowledge of the western tonal system. Interpretive traditions grow up, some of whose adherents insist that their interpretation is the ‘right’ one, but we can’t know, and listening to recordings over the last century or so we find huge differences.

Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, was a contemporary of Beethoven, and Beethoven enthusiastically added metronome marks to many of his pieces, so we have a guide to tempo, but there is evidence that Beethoven’s metronome was rather inaccurate.

Mozart is another case altogether: Ur-text editions show that Mozart himself usually put in dynamic markings, phrase and slur marks, staccato and legato, and so on. Should we slavishly follow them? Those who heard him play have said that he often played the same piece quite differently on different occasions. He may have had second thoughts, or he might have been saying ‘Look, don’t bother too much about those marks; try it different ways.’ But even if he had been consistent in his interpretations and demanded the same from other players, there is still a case for reinventing him. Frank Zappa, a very accomplished musician who should have known better, complained that Mozart was ‘predictable’. He wasn’t. Hearing a piece of Mozart for the first time (though it is rarely in fact the first time — one has usually heard the piece before, if inattentively, and has then ‘forgotten’ it —) one simply could not guess ‘what comes next’. What happens is that when one then hears what does in fact come next, one says ‘Ah yes, of course.’ That is not predictability; that is the inevitability of perfection.

Even so, certain short phrases of Mozart’s, often those marking a return to a main theme, have become clichés through being heard again and again. I think particularly of the melody line, in many of his piano sonatas, falling chromatically from the dominant to the mediant. That may well have seemed very daring and original in Mozart’s time but, especially when played legato as it almost always is, it now provokes an ironic ‘Da-da-da’ from the more irreverent in the audience. The originality of the phraselet can I think be partly recaptured by playing the notes well-separated, non-legato. I think this is legitimate, for all that it goes against Mozart’s own legato marking. It is even, in a sense, faithful.

But back to Paul Elie’s huge book. I don’t yet know what sort of reinventions he writes about. One thing I notice, skimming through, is the absence of musical examples. Perhaps they are not needed for what he is writing about, but there is always the suspicion in such cases that the publisher asked him to avoid them as they might put off people who can’t read music. The logical progression of that idea would be the avoidance of long words; no doubt people are already ‘writing’ books that consist entirely of ‘Emoticons’ and text message abbreviations. Good luck to them actually, provided it doesn’t lead to nobody any more being able to read Middlemarch or Ulysses. But it is extraordinary the lengths to which people who claim to be interested in music will go to avoid learning to read standard musical notation, and the lengths to which writers and publishers will go to pander to their ignorance and laziness. An ability to read and write music makes discussion of music so much clearer and easier.

As I say, it’s quite likely that little of the above is relevant to Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach. I look forward to reading it and finding out what sort of reinvention(s) he has in mind.

There remains one even huger book to write about, but it must wait.

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