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GG: Bach with little sense of humor??!!

From: Neil <neil@thump.org>
To: f_minor@email.rutgers.edu <f_minor@email.rutgers.edu>
Date: Wednesday, January 05, 2000 6:26 AM
Subject: Re: GG's Opinion

>On Tue, 14 Dec 1999 21:21:12 EST, you wrote:
>>But I can't stp thinking about what Glenn
>>would have to say (certainly much) about the theory that all of the
>>mathematical perfection in Bach's music lacks the passion and danger that
>>later composers had, the bravery to take chances. But I guess for his time
>>maybe this was what he was doing, maybe I'm just too modern to see the
>>"rebelious" side of Bach's music?
>There's a simple solution to this. grab a copy of the the st matthew
>and after a few hearings I think you'll find that Bach was capable of an
>emotional intensity almost unparalled in western music.
>Bach didn't appear to have a great sense of humour though, but him being a
>German, this should not come as a shock :-)

Yuh-HUH!  Bach with little sense of humor?  Please demonstrate.

Meanwhile I present a set of exhibits:

Exhibit A: St Matthew Passion, the humorous passage where he
depicts Jesus' followers running around like headless chickens since
he's taken away.  (Movement 60 in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe
numbering: "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand..."; in bar 34 the text is
"verlassnen Kuechlein", "deserted chicks".) Throughout this
movement there are two oboes da caccia squawking away in
ridiculously ornamented lines that really do sound like chickens.
One is not "supposed to" deploy "hunting oboes" for that, or to inject
humor into such a serious story, but there it is.  (Unfortunately, this
passage is usually underplayed.)

Exhibit B: The fugue on the mailman's horn call in the Bb Capriccio.

Exhibit C: The story about Bach petitioning his employer for extra
remuneration during a particularly mild winter.  His reasoning was that
fewer people than usual have been dying from the weather, and he was
losing expected income from not playing the typical number of

Exhibit D: Keyboard Partita in A minor, Burlesca: the weird staccato
notes in the right hand.  Also the way both hands are moving in octaves
in bar 32 and then suddenly the right hand has an unexpected rest.
Same partita, next movement, Scherzo: at the beginning of each section
he has the left hand playing four notes, then three, then two, then one, a
natural diminuendo...fooling the listener into hearing the barring the
opposite of the way it is.

Exhibit F: WTC 1, E minor fugue: the whole passage from bar 15 to 20
is very weird.  First he sets up the unexpected pattern of two groups of
six notes (instead of the prevailing three groups of four), then he gets out
of it by putting both hands in unison...unisons in a *fugue*?!  It isn't as
he couldn't think of anything more contrapuntally robust to put there.
has both hands

Exhibit E: First Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, everybody
playing along in duple rhythms except the horns, which are playing
a series of traditional horn calls in triplets.  Incongruous.  Also, the
second trio there which features two horns vs three oboes in unison:
very weird sound (sort of like a funky village band), and the oboe line
is a horn-like part with all the arpeggios.

Exhibit F: his notoriety for choosing wacky organ registrations.  He
would pull combinations that his observers thought would never work,
but then he'd make them work beautifully by the way he played.

Exhibit G: Magnificat, the movement about the rich being sent away
empty.  The flutes suddenly cut off before the final note, which is left for
only the continuo to play.

Exhibit H: The final movement of the orchestral suite #4 in D, the
"Rejouissance".  The staccato notes, phrasing, and syncopation
mess around with the triple meter throughout this.

Exhibit I: The Quodlibet in the Goldberg Variations, juxtaposing
popular songs.

Exhibit J: Christmas Oratorio, the movement where two sopranos
and an oboe are passing an echo around the building.  Sometimes
the order of the echoing changes.  Also, sometimes the echo singer
jumps in and completes the phrase instead of the main singer.

Exhibit K: The Coffee Cantata.  All of it.

Exhibit L: The extremely long harmonic sequence in the finale of the
D minor harpsichord concerto.  It keeps going around and around so
long that we wonder where it's going to get off.

Exhibit M: Partita in G, menuet.  The hands alternate in such a way
that it becomes very ambiguous where the beat is supposed to be.

Exhibit N: Brandenburg Concerto #5, early version (see the Hogwood
recording or the NBA edition): the harpsichord solo is laced with odd
chromatic stuff.

Exhibit O: French suite in E, menuet: the left hand gets fixated not only
on its rhythmic pattern but also on a very limited set of notes.  It has the
same response to whatever the right hand leads with.

Exhibit P: Toccata in D, finale: the gigue-fugue suddenly breaks into
notes twice as fast.  If the gigue has been going along at a quick tempo
already, these are almost too fast to hear (or to play).  Exhilarating and

Exhibit Q: Sonata #6 in G for violin and harpsichord.  The second
movement (Largo) ends with a half-cadence that sets up the third
movement...and then in the third movement the violin does not get to
play at all!

Exhibit R: First movement of D minor harpsichord concerto: Bach pulls
a viola joke here, with a keyboard solo passage accompanied by viola.

Exhibit S: All the cuckoos in the Art of Fugue, Contrapunctus 4.  The
way that much of Contrapunctus 2 "swings" with ties across the beat is
also pretty funny.

Exhibit T: The fact that all of the Art of Fugue can be played by one
player, two hands...except for *one* note.  One!  (Bar 59 of one of the
three-voiced mirror fugues: try reaching low G, high Bb, and middle C#
simultaneously....)  Then when he rearranged these strict mirror fugues
for two players, the new material has nothing to do with either mirroring
or thematic content.  The originally strict lines are broken up as the fresh
music wanders into and around and through it.  Yet it sounds like the
original parts are still there (the auditory version of an optical
and it's also an orchestration for the stereo spread of two instruments.

Exhibit U: First movement of the solo flute partita in A minor: can be
taken as a joke on merely mortal flute players who need to breathe.
Also, the last note (extremely high A) is almost impossible to play on
the flutes of Bach's time.

Exhibit V: The sound of B-A-C-H hidden in the bass line of Brandenburg
Concerto #2, first movement.  (Bb - A - C - B natural)

Bradley Lehman, http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl
Dayton VA