Bigger Than Jesus

He wasn’t Jesus, but in some ways he’s just as important. In music, there is Before Bach and After Bach, a period of time that bifurcates two completely different ways of imagining musical possibilities. All the pagan, Judaic and Platonic ideas and values that are the foundations of Christianity needed Jesus to synthesize into something coherent, new and full of possibilities. All the features of music that Bach used, especially polyphony and counterpoint, existed prior to his own era, but Bach used them, in concept and practice, in ways still so powerful, exciting and important that he changed the course of musical history. Not all music that comes after Palestrina comes from Palestrina, but all music after Bach comes from Bach, even if the point of that music is to attempt to refute his legacy.

Bach’s body of work is easy to enjoy (it is deeply pleasurable) and also hard to described. It is, at least in small parts, familiar to audiences who know little of the thousand or so pieces he produced, in that they’ve probably heard a bit of the Brandenburgs, and Glenn Gould’s last recording of The Goldberg Variations is in the collections of many pop and rock fans. His contrapuntal style has been clumsily incorporated by rock groups from Yes to Spinal Tap. The opening phrases of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor have been used to represent ominous terror in haunted houses and in Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person In The World” segment on Countdown. A little bit of Bach’s sound and quality is familiar, while his body of work and achievement remain mysterious to many.

Bach is an enduring mystery to musicians as well, which is one reason that Bach’s work will always be with us. Playing or listening to his works is like the experience of stepping off the edge of a beautiful vista. The landscape before us seems so clear and so seductively inviting, yet once we take that step it’s too late, and it’s a long way down. Fortunately, we never reach the bottom, because Bach seems to have unfathomable depths. While it’s a cliché that music is math, math is useful for describing music in the technical sense, just as math is the language for describing physics, and music itself is a result of the fundamental properties of physics. Math can be applied to how Bach sounds, in that each note and musical event accreted upon the last seems to open up new branches of reasoning and of proofs, the number of possibilities accumulating geometrically, all equally fascinating and attractive. Bach is like an architect, designing and building the structure while simultaneously describing the process to us. He’s like a magician in that what he seems to be explaining so clearly is still an incomprehensible ‘trick,’ one for which the explanation is just another way to demonstrate how indescribable it is. Bach is also deeply, passionately emotional, with a combination of warmth, tragedy and tenderness that is enthralling. I have never heard, because it is probably impossible, a dry, plain playing of the opening Aria of the Goldberg’s, because that musical phrase is so ravishing and sensual that a musician cannot help to caress it. The body of meaning in his music is as vast as the universe, as inexplicable, and as beautiful.

Since there is always something new to hear in Bach, he always sounds new. He’s a serious challenge to musicians; his keyboard works takes substantial skill to play, and great musical intelligence and emotional sensitivity to play with meaning. Bach is bravura for the soul, not for the eyes. He is full of content, and so the musician must have something to say in response to that, not just run up and down the keyboard. I cannot bear the thought of hearing Lang Lang play Bach. But hearing Simone Dinnerstein is an altogether different experience.

Dinnerstein is an exceptional Bach player, not only because she plays the piano with great clarity, touch and musicality but also because she has a great deal to say about the composer. Her recent concert at Miller Theater was a wonderful experience of hearing Bach presented with skill, thought and imagination. Titled “Bach and the Concerto,” Dinnerstein played solo and was joined by the seemingly counterintuitive forces of ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, in stripped down orchestrations of the Keyboard Concertos in F minor, BWV 1056, and D minor, BWV 1080. ACME also performed orchestrated selections from Die Kunst der Fuge, though in the larger context of the concert this performance, with a capable but staid arrangement for strings, winds, percussion and keyboards, was an afterthought.

Dinnerstein began the evening with four selections from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Prelude and Fugues BWV 874, BWV 871, BWV 872 and BWV 878. These were deeply involving performances. While many fine Bach players will choose a specific aspect out of the myriad of dense information in these pieces, she has the intelligence and imagination to explore multiple arguments with a sense of simultaneity. She seems to be both channeling Bach and offering her own insights, a considerable feat when there are ideas in every voice, themselves commenting on each other in the extraordinary aesthetic structure that is fugue. We like to think that our age is more special than the previous ones, and there is a constant buzzing about multi-tasking and attention spans. Multi-tasking is, of course, a myth, nothing more than a buzzword, while Bach’s music, 400 years old, presents the densest and most exhilarating sensation ‘multitasking’ ever accomplished. Dinnerstein’s way balances a careful, pensive, poetic way in the preludes with an almost fierce manner in the fugues, and her technique is capable enough for both; limpid at tempos which are slower than expected Bach playing, crisp, powerful and never rushed when fast. She played these pieces with the emotional rigor of Richter and the intellectual rigor of Gould, which makes her style all her own.

Her masterful musicianship continued with the concerto performances, which were remarkable. She was accompanied in each by nothing more than a string quartet, and the effect was to compress hundreds of years of aesthetic and intellectual history into concentrated time. Hearing Bach like this is hearing both the Baroque beginnings of this kind of polyphony through the immediate lens of its apotheosis in Romanticism. Without his predecessor, there would have been no Brahms, and it was impossible to hear these arrangements without hearing both the sound and ideas responsible for Brahms great chamber music, along with comparable emotional intensity. In the concertos, the accompaniment is part of a dialogue between soloist and ensemble, and the bare-bones clarity of the quintet was revelatory. The musicians gave Bach force and fullness that was without weight, kept from floating away by the verve implicit in the music and the way they played it. This stripped-down sound was also an ideal setting for Dinnerstein, whose playing is pellucid and determined, focused expressing the music. The concerto often requires the performer to bring attention to herself, and it’s preferable to hear what she has to say about the music, rather than the playing itself, because she has so much to say. It’s Bach, the great old man with new ideas, and shows the immediate confluence between old and new music.

That’s something Miller Theater specializes in and their early music series is as robust as their Composer Portraits. In January, the series presented Emilio De’Cavalieri’s Lamentations of Jeremiah at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, in a performance by Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre. This liturgical work was presented in a nicely ritualized context, the church perfumed with incense and illuminated by candles, with the lights of the building, including the candles and music stand lights, slowly extinguished throughout the playing until the final “Miserere mei, Deus” was heard in utter, contemplative, dramatic darkness. It was fitting, certainly, because this is music meant for contemplation, a public performance in the service of private reflection and dedication. The music is beautiful in a refreshingly plain fashion; Cavalierei was composing during the time of the mannered madrigal, but his work is anything but mannered. It is adorned, certainly, but through the vehicle of improvisation and ornamentation, demonstrated in concert by the dazzling soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, who combined a rich, clarion instrument with superb pitch and an adventurously chromatic ear. Improvisation was for centuries a staple of musicianship, Bach himself was a formidable improviser, and to be considered a competent musician one needed to improvise idiomatically. Somewhere along the way, perhaps as a side effect of the spread of music through recordings, teaching the playing of an instrument was separated from the teaching of how to make music on the instrument. One of the great things of value that the early music scholars, performers and presenters have given to us is the skill and pleasure of improvisation, and the developing crop of new musicians, eagerly tackling the most difficult works of their contemporaries and their predecessors, have been inspired by the past.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.