Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Glenn Gould on Bach.

As a Canadian summer slowly slides into fall, here is an old favorite which I watch again every few months, a 1962 CBC broadcast program featuring Toronto's own Glenn Gould musing about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (and performing the cantata "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" with countertenor Russell Oberlin and a small ensemble). Here is a bit of what Gould has to say:
Bach, you see, was music’s greatest nonconformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process. The age of Bach, speaking in a very general sort of way, was what we can now call the age of reason – perhaps an age of reason; there have really been quite a lot of them. It was fundamentally an age in which man struggled against fear, against predeterminancy. It was an age in which he asserted confidently the wonders of science and of human initiative. It was at times an age of hubris, of defiance for the gods.

But at its most poetic, it was still an age in which the wonderful utilities of science and the proud genius of man could coexist with the magical, mystical, fearful rites of belief – and so the art and poetry and music of the Baroque at its best is touched with this feeling of compromise, this conciliation between the will of man and the inexorable power of fate.

But even during the lifetime of (Johann) Sebastian Bach, this vibrant spiritual compromise which gave such anguish and purpose and passion to his music, became for other artists of his generation ever more difficult to achieve. And slowly but surely fact and logic, the explainable and the predictable became the basis of philosophic premise. And by the time of his death, the world was a very different place from that into which he had been born. It was a world which longed to be logical, a world for young men and for young ideas.

When Bach died, it was not he but rather his sons who were considered to be the masters of music – masters of a music so very different from that which their father had known. It was then composers like the teenager Joseph Haydn who were soon to lay the groundwork for a new musical style in which all of this scientific optimism, all of this naively logical philosophical thought of their generation would find a counterpart in an art in which the aim would be not the communication of man with God, but rather man with man, in which those traits of (Johann) Sebastian Bach which parallel in music the realization of the incredible richness and indefinable complexity of the human estate could find no place. It had become an age in which the focus of musical activity had moved from the church to the theater, in which the new art would rationally reflect a rational world, in which it would be required to deal with probabilities and not to participate in mysteries. This is not to say that the aspiration to transcend the human condition would be forever lost to art; certainly it’s the essence of Beethoven’s work, for instance, that we feel him struggling to strike beyond the realization of human potential. But the grandeur of Beethoven resides in the struggle rather than in the occasional transcendence that he achieves – and it might perhaps never again be possible for us to own more than a glimpse of that inordinate state of ecstasy which (Johann) Sebastian Bach never thought to question.
For a bit more Glenn Gould, consult this post written three years ago at the time of his eightieth birthday. You might also be pleased to learn that the Glenn Gould statue in downtown Toronto has been augmented by a new historical marker, which reminds me that I have yet to make good on plans to make a pilgrimage to the site. AMDG.


At 10/26/2019 4:58 PM, Blogger Izak Rohan Crafford said...


Bach, to me, is one of the most inexplicable composers to have composed. These musings are so very wonderful to read and contradict the idea of Bach as a cold mathematical genius most wonderfully. It links, for me, wonderfully with the much more contemporary musings of Sir Andras Schiff on Bach's work, particularly the French suites and the Ouverture in the French Style. Thank you for this wonderful reminder about Bach and for making us aware of Mr. Gould's now often forgotten or scorned engagement with Bach which, after all, was so very influential.

[Rohan Crafford]


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