You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

October 09, 2009

Bach's Cantata BWV 13 (Bass Aria)

By: Bernard Chazelle

To celebrate Obama's Nobel, a cheerful Bach cantata, "Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen, Hilft der Sorgen Krankheit nicht," ie, "Groaning and pitiful weeping cannot ease sorrow's sickness."

YouTube is amazing. No one listens to BWV 13. Unless you live in a large city, you can only buy it online. There is a reason for it. The music belies the stereotype of Bach as the German genius obsessed with "rules." The writing of this piece is, in the words of the world's greatest living music historian, "diseased." It breaks all the rules of harmony. For example, in 0:15-0:18, the melody is harmonized with parallel minor 7ths, a huge no-no in classical music. You'll have to wait until the second half of the 19th century to hear this kind of outrageous dissonance (which, of course, you'll never hear in classic rock).

It's hard for us, in the 21st century, with so much of our art being normatively transgressive (something many might consider a reasonable definition of the death of art), to imagine how bold and gutsy this Bach fellow must have been to write such music. Handel and Vivaldi would have never dared. Handel was the rock superstar of his day and his aim was to please and impress. (His harmonies were simple and perfect, and helped in no small measure by his shameless plagiarism.) Bach's aim was to celebrate the word of God. Sounds all so corny now, but whether we like it or not we must wrestle with the following question: How could a musician in a 3rd rate musical center (Leipzig), surrounded by strict Lutheran fundamentalists (including himself) who basically didn't care for music, supported by a cast of musicians of stupendous mediocrity (his own words: "Half of my musicians are mediocre and the other half are useless"), living his entire life within an area smaller than New Jersey, how can such a person create the greatest art ever seen/heard in the Western world?

I don't have an answer but I find the question a source of endless fascination. Like Mozart and Beethoven, Bach was a supreme instrumentalist, who could play anything better than anyone. But he surpassed both of them in his mental ability with harmony. He was the Ramanujan of music. For years he composed one cantata a week, writing monday through thursday, rehearsing friday and playing sunday. Sounds like the workload of a NYT columnist, until you realize that a single cantata contains more harmonic figures, ie, more complexity than all of the Beatles's output combined. To write contrapuntal harmony is very difficult. Bach was probably the only human on earth who could improvise a brand-new full-fledged 3-voice fugue on the spot. His compositions show his complete disregard for human limitations: I know first-hand how incredibly difficult his guitar-transcribed work is; ask any singer and they'll tell you how Bach routinely forgot that humans need to breathe once in a while.

So the guy had the chops. His timing was also perfect. To see why, a few words of context. In the late 17c, Western music was French and Italian (fiercely rival), with a pinch of Dutch. "Italy"'s greatest contribution was tonality. This whole thing about the cycle of 5ths was an Italian invention. Italian music was for entertainment, giving rise to opera houses, while French music was for court dances and rituals. Bach was a sponge. He completely assimilated both strands and transcended them. In the process he invented German music, which would become dominant for the next two centuries.

That's the context. But that doesn't answer the question. How could a provincial music clerk in a backwater corner of Saxony produce such works of genius?

Part of the answer, I believe, is the intentionality Bach attached to his craft. Handel was a child of the Enlightenment. Bach was not (though born in the same year virtually next door). Handel was cosmopolitan. Bach was provincial. All of his greatest compositions are religious vocal works. Texts mattered greatly to him. If it said "Groaning and pitiful weeping cannot relieve the sorrow of sickness," Handel would try to make up for it by providing soothing, pretty music. Not Bach. If the words are about despair, so will the music be. All these minor 7th dissonances are meant to make the listener uncomfortable. Bach's music is immensably pleasurable, but pleasure was never the intention (except perhaps when teaching children about music as a way of getting their attention).

In some sense Handel won and Bach lost. Art moved on to make pleasure one of its main goals. Mozart would write operas (Bach never did. He despised the opera -- even though he attended it suspiciously often...) Bach despised most musicians because of their desire to please. Music is about greatness and God and beauty. That was his view. He complained about warm springs, because too few people died and he was given too few funerals to compose for...

— Bernard Chazelle

Performance by Harnoncourt/Leonhardt/Egmond


Posted at October 9, 2009 08:56 PM

To celebrate Obama's Nobel, I'd suggest an analysis of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" instead.

Posted by: Duncan at October 9, 2009 10:38 PM

Purity of heart is the will to one thing.

--Soren Kierkegaard

Posted by: N E at October 9, 2009 11:15 PM

I get it Mr Chazelle... Obama is Handel, you are Bach. quit dealing in metaphors and say it straight up, why don't you?

Posted by: almostinfamous at October 10, 2009 12:00 AM

AI: now that you mention it... i am not that crazy about warm springs either.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 10, 2009 01:11 AM

Both Bach and his employers may have been fundamentalists, but to suggest they were folks "who basically didn't care for music" is a bit absurd. Music is, after all, THE approved art form of Lutherans. They built churches with complex and expensive organs and hired professional musicians. Just remember, there was an elaborate musical infrastructure in Leipzig before Bach showed up.

Posted by: techno at October 10, 2009 11:21 AM

Absolutely gorgeous music! Only if I could understand the words!
Many thanks Prof Chazelle.

Posted by: Rups Shah at October 10, 2009 01:39 PM

Sorry about the typo.... my typing is only getting worse. My name is Rupa and not Rups ( though have been called that by some )!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 10, 2009 01:45 PM

Professor Chazelle -

an interesting text, but I think too strongly worded in some places. I would disagree to call Leipzig "backwater" (it was and is a trade fair city) and I also am somewhat incredulous that Bach "despised most musicians because of their desire to please". I have to quote from hearsay, but he wrote "zur Ehre Gottes und zur Ermunterung/Erbauung des Gemüthes" (to the glory of God and the edification of the mind). Just think of Coffee-Cantata and Brandenburg concertos.


Posted by: Peter Hinow at October 10, 2009 01:52 PM

Correct, Leipzig was a commercial center but it was culturally backwards. People used to joke about it. When Bach applied for a job once (he spent his life applying for jobs and being turned down), the interviewer said "Hmm, I guess I was wrong. I thought that music had died 100 years ago but I am glad that in you it lives on." Lutheran music was all hung up on the motet, which was by then completely archaic. In fact, in France they'd give special recitals of "ancient music" (stile antico) playing the same music offered to sunday parishioners in Leipzig. In that sense, it was culturally way behind the times. Every time Bach deviated from it, he got insults that his music was too operatic (a form he despised).

Which leads us to the most interesting point, which is that Bach built on a dying tradition which then died with him. He had very little influence until Mendelssohn "revived" him. That's not how we usually think of artistic geniuses as trailblazers (think Picasso).

Re. the concertos and the coffee cantata, the former were pre-Leipzig (mostly job-hunting) compositions when Bach was still in his secular phase. The coffee cantata was written in Leipzig but for a secular audience (in fact a coffee shop!) -- coffee was a huge novelty back then.

Well, actually, things are more complex with the Brandenburg pieces. The orchestration makes a mockery of secular conventions in that regard, and some scholars have interesting theories about that. The idea is that the orchestra is a military unit with a strong sense of hierarchy: conductor, 1st violins, ... Bach turns that order upside down, banishes violins, promotes the violas (!), etc. The generals become the grunts and the grunts become the generals. It's quite amazing actually. Why did he do that? Most scholars suspect that it was for theological reasons.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 10, 2009 03:44 PM

OK, to be accurate, Bach's harmonies influenced everyone else but not through his own works -- through his sons'. When Mozart said, "Bach is the father and we are his children," he did not mean the Bach we have in mind but Carl Philipp Emanuel ! (I love that line)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 10, 2009 03:54 PM

Bach turns that order upside down, banishes violins, promotes the violas (!), etc. The generals become the grunts and the grunts become the generals. It's quite amazing actually. Why did he do that? Most scholars suspect that it was for theological reasons.

I knew there was a reason besides the music why I like Bach as much as I do..he was an anarchist!!-Tony

Posted by: tony at October 10, 2009 06:00 PM

nice article.

Should be - hilft der SoRgen Krankheit nicht - though.

Posted by: Sebastian at October 10, 2009 06:57 PM

typo fixed. thanks.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 10, 2009 07:59 PM

All of his greatest compositions are religious vocal works. about 'Art of Fugue'? Or 'Musical Offering'? Or even the Goldberg Variations? I guess 'greatest' (as opposed to 'great') is subjective, but for me, 'Art of Fugue' is unsurpassed.

Posted by: jonnybutter at October 10, 2009 09:48 PM

Yeah. Call me hoi polloi but I genuinely like the Tocatta and Fugue in d best.

Posted by: Cloud at October 10, 2009 10:41 PM

i realize comparisons are hazardous. i do agree that the art of fugue is unsurpassed. in fact it literally killed the fugue as a musical genre because once the peak has been reached there's only one direction left -- down. and the goldberg variations are amazing (though i don't get the gould fixation at all).

but my characterization is bach's. his art of fugue was an academic exercise: he just wanted to make a record of what he knew, and he hoped this would be used for teaching. But his vocal works (especially the st matthew) were to be his legacy, by his own admission.

Bach fully expected his music to be destroyed and not survive him (except for his instruction books). (That's also something we cannot understand from our 21st century perspective.) Except for the St Matthew, that is. He wrote it a work of art, I mean visual art. If you have a chance check out the original manuscript: it's an amazing display. What sets it out from everything else is the sheer musical range. I honestly do not believe there's a single idea in the classic/romantic era that cannot be found in some form in the SMP. Or, rather, let me say that if someone were to study it to death and nothing else, they would know most of what there is to know about classical music.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 10, 2009 11:09 PM

. I honestly do not believe there's a single idea in the classic/romantic era that cannot be found in some form in the SMP.

I think you could say the same thing - or nearly - about the WTC book 2, or some other works (like the Goldbergs). The point, which I totally agree with you about, is that Bach left tonal harmony (not just fugue) something of a burnt-up field. The more I study Bach (which I do everyday), the truer that seems to be.

As to the idea that the Art of Fugue was just an academic exercise - so was the WTC and a lot of his other keyboard/abstract music. That he meant his vocal works to be his Legacy doesn't, in and of itself, make it so.

Thanks for the post.

(Cloud: I don't think Bach actually wrote 'Toccatta and Fugue')

Posted by: jonnybutter at October 11, 2009 10:25 AM

Prof Chazelle, I found the English translation of the Cantata.

English Translation
Groaning and piteous weeping
Cannot ease sorrow's sickness;
But he who looks towards Heaven
And seeks solace there,
A beam of joy can with ease appear
In his grieving breast.

I have listened to the music several times and I found total sadness ( to my ears) and resignation in the tone of the singer's voice ( I do not know the language ) so was surprised when I read the last four lines, as I would have expected hope in that voice then. If possible, could you please tell me where the third line begins and I can listen more carefully and see if I can make out the change in the tone of his voice ( of hope )? Many thanks.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at October 11, 2009 02:46 PM

Thx. I'll fix the translation.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 11, 2009 03:51 PM

I admire your perceptions and convictions, Bernard; why, then, is there something about your cultural criticism sometimes give me the shudders? "I realize comparisons are hazardous," you write. I wish, however, you would realize it a good deal more. You seem to reverse the proverb that the best is the enemy of the good. It's as though you were saying, "If only we didn't have these trifling villas, this Handel and Vivaldi and Mozart in our way, we could better enjoy the majestic panorama of Bach." If I caricature you, I'm sorry; but if I merely exaggerate as a goad, I'm unrepentant. There's something that dismays me about a critic, for example, who cannot praise Picasso without slagging Matisse; who would say of Dickens, "Well, he's no George Eliot," or vice versa.

Suppose someone were to state: "I love only the view from the mountains. Compared to this, the plains, the valleys, the ocean merely bore me." If this is how he feels, so be it, and more power to him for saying what he feels. But suppose he were to say: "Only the view from the mountains is worthy of our notice; to admire the view from the plains, the valley or the shore is to encourage mediocrity." When I listen to Handel, I don't feel as if I'm descending from Mount Bach. I need them both, and not grudgingly, as if merely conceding to human weakness. I feel like I'm gasping on thin mountain air when I read these words of yours: "In some sense Handel won and Bach lost. Art moved on to make pleasure one of its main goals." Bach transcended his predecessors and surpassed his contemporaries, but did he despise them - Handel, Vivaldi et al? And if he did not condescend to them, who are we, passing mortals, to do it on his behalf?

The artistic asceticism of my fellow leftists often puzzles me. It almost seems to lie athwart our social convictions. When we object to torture, for example, would we do it by saying, "Humans are the most noble, the most rational beings, and therefore should not be made to suffer"; or by saying, "Humans are animals, and it is wrong to make animals suffer"? We're a fumbling, muddling and appalling lot, all the more in need of fellow-feeling because of our haphazard nature. Our art is a reflection of this. We need it all, not despising any part of it that still appeals to us in any way.

At a time when most of our heritage is being forgotten or trashed, when Bach and Handel and Mozart are all headed for the memory compactor, isn't there something bizarre about this need to pit them against each other? Aren't they all part of making us human? Or do we think, perhaps, we're deciding who gets a seat in the lifeboat?

Posted by: InvisibleSun at October 11, 2009 09:14 PM

I screwed up the second part of my first sentence. It should read: "why, then, is there something about your cultural criticism that sometimes gives me the shudders?"

Posted by: InvisibleSun at October 11, 2009 09:38 PM

i suspect bernard has a bit of adrian leverkuehn in him...

Posted by: anonymous at October 12, 2009 09:22 AM

IS: I think you misunderstood my post. I didn't diss Handel. I just pointed out how Bach and Handel represent a giant fork in the road of Western art. Handel opened the door to the notion of art for its own sake (which we still have with us). Bach's art was entirely attached to specific transient purposes. He was like a baker, making stuff to be consumed, digested, and forgotten. Handel's art is modern and is easy for us to understand. I believe Bach is impossible for us to understand no matter how hard we try. That's because today's art proceeds with an awareness of history: art as an historical moment. Bach didn't think like that.

I am sorry this perspective gives you shudders, but I think it's an interesting insight.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at October 12, 2009 10:38 AM