Bach’s eternal challenge: There are two forests for every set of trees

Once in a while, stating the obvious can turn on a little lightbulb.

The Pacific Standard (formerly Miller-McCune) reported yesterday that a Dutch psychologist and a team of researchers have concluded that people who see the big picture (specifically in visual art and poetry) make better critics.

Because lately I’ve been obsessing over the seemingly infinite decisions an interpreter has to make when taking on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, this banal insight into critical thinking made me consider how, as in all music, the notes are the trees, but instead of making for one interpretive forest, in Bach there are two thickets.

The first forest is structure — the harmony, the counterpoint, choice of key. One can perform Bach with an eye on this cluster alone, laying out a self-sufficient musical clockwork.

Take this as an example:

The second forest is form, the product of decisions on which notes and rhythms and voices to emphasize, and how to use subtle changes in tempo to mould the progress of the music, in exactly the same way an accomplished storyteller modulates her tale.

Like this:

There are not many other composers who have written music in a way where these two metaphorical forests can be seen as separate entities. It explains, for example, how so much of Bach’s writing can be interpreted on such a wide range of instruments and in such a wide variety of styles.

It also helps explain how the art of serious interpretation becomes a lifelong search for a balance between the two, and how, for the listener, there is always something new to hear in music that is nearly three centuries old.

Here are two extreme examples that start with the Minuet from the B-minor French Suite No. 3.


Versus this:

There’s a wonderful opportunity to hear one of Bach’s greatest creations, the Mass in B minor, live this afternoon (and available for on-remand streaming for seven days) from the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall. Conductor Harry Bicket (last seen and heard in Toronto earlier this year leading the Canadian Opera Company’s Semele) heads the English Concert and an excellent set of soloists here, starting at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

John Terauds


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