I have a lot of knee-jerk quick-negative-reaction buttons.
(Shock! No one who has ever read this blog would guess such a thing in a million years!)
After years of trying to deal with it, sublimate it, make it go away, I’ve now decided that since the above is pretty much not going to happen, I might as well just see what I can learn from it.
For example: I have just realized, after a scan of many years of knee-jerk reactionss, that one thing I always get p.o.d about is when anyone offers a grand and sweeping assertion about What Bach Meant, or What Bach Did Here, and This Is It And Any Other Approaches Are Just Plain Wrong. I seldom disagree with whatever they are proposing as an important structural point or lens through which to view a particular work, but I categorically reject any assertion that nothing else could possibly be valid.
Like for example, (hypothetically, of course 🙂 ) if you tell me that the first Kyrie fugue in the B Minor Mass is a five voice fugue and the rest of the choral material is ritornello and that’s it, no discussion, clearly it’s what he did, there is nothing expository about those last three complete and obvious statements of the subject, it will piss me off. Because I am a Bach numbers geek, and the obvious groupings of 4+3 entrances (even if the final two entrances are by voices that have already had a subject turn) is way too in-your-face to just sort of dismiss as “oh, that’s just ritornello material.” Because it gives this beautifully symmetrical 2+1, 7+1, 2, 7+1 structure which just happens to add up to 21 total subject statements, which just happens to be 7×3, which just happen to be cosmologically and theologically VERY significant numbers in Bach’s sacred music. *(Hypothetically.)
What I also realized, though, is that my knee-jerk seminal rage at such things is exactly the same reaction I have when I listen to someone asserting some one-dimensional, monovalent sweeping conclusion about Scripture. “This is what it means. No, you’re wrong, it’s obvious that there is only one way to look at this, and it is mine, and you should believe me, because I know this stuff.”
Which leads me to acknowledge the slightly wacked-out potentially culty idea that I may believe on some level that the music of Bach in some way is a matrix for the Stuff of Ultimate Reality. That if Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, the collected works of St. Johann Sebastian are somehow the Word Made Music. And while I’m not about to get the “God so loved the world that she sent Johann Sebastian Bach” t-shirt or anything, there’s this really strong voice at my deep core that goes Hey dude don’t #&*$ with my Divine Revelation when I meet up with this stuff.
Has this always been this strong, or has it intensified in the year or so since I turned my ample backside on Rome and her red taffeta-clad oh-so-superior male hierarchy? Am I looking for a new religion? Or has it just been a while since I ran into anyone who so vehemently asserted something about Bach I don’t agree with?
*Look, if you’re Bach, and your writing embraces numbers and Pythagoras and cosmonumerology, and you wanted to write a fugue with seven voice entries, you really only have three choices: you can divide your chorus into SSAATTB, you can leave your chorus smaller and give the orchestra some of the entrances independently, or you can re-use some of the choral voices to give you additional subject statements. Hmm…there’s a dissertation topic for someone, the choral 7-entry fugues of J.S. Bach…but just because the How To Write A Fugue Textbook says the exposition is completed when every voice has entered once doesn’t mean Bach read the damn thing, or that there’s any virtue in shoehorning the guy who was the model for writing the textbook into its pedestrian boundaries.) (And yes, cosmonumerology is a word I just made up, right here, today. Although I supposed numerocosmology would have worked too…)