I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.
How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.
In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”
Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.
And then there’s Richard Wagner — what a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran from debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”
Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Saint-Saëns, the pederast, in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?
If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?
I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any music, to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.
This Sunday (May 22) is Wagner’s 203rd birthday, and I have no desire to commemorate the memory of that loathsome man. I will, however, spend time on the day after his birthday listening to the Overture to Tannhäuser and Isolde’s “Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde. No doubt I will enjoy the music, even if it was composed by an abhorrent human being.
Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic)
Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Waltraud Meier under the direction of Daniel Barenboim at Scala Milan)
© 2011 James L. Smith (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)
For what it's worth, a "Bourée" is a seventeenth-century French dance with two beats per measure.
Andreas Martin, Lute
Paul McCartney, "Blackbird"
Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson on flute at the AVO SESSION Basel, Switzerland
So much music. So many choices. So little time.
I turned to an old episode of Northern Exposure recently and caught the character played by Barry Corbin drinking wine and listening to the Goldberg Variations. A few days later I was streaming Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and heard Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Every week or so I hear Jon Batiste greeting one of Stephen Colbert’s guests with something from Bach. After Sarah Silverman sat on Colbert’s couch, she asked Batiste, “What was that?” Batiste answered, “Bach,” as if Silverman should have known. (She should have.)
I hear Bach’s influence in songs by the Beatles, as well as the introduction to the Door’s Light My Fire. When I listen to jazz, I often hear music derived from Bach.
No matter where I’m going, there I am — listening to Bach. Bach died over 265 years ago, but more than any other composer his music is ubiquitous in our culture.
Just look at the information below.
The Internet Movie Database lists 979 movie and television soundtracks from 1931-2016 that use Bach’s music. This number has increased from 755 since I first looked at it two years ago for a class I was teaching on Bach, and I expect the number will keep increasing. Anyone who watches movies and television cannot escape Bach.
- Fifty Shades of Grey (Concerto in D minor)
- The Butler (Partita No. 1 in B-flat)
- The Iron Lady (Prelude in C major from Well-Tempered Clavier I)
- The English Patient (Goldberg Variations)
- Silence of the Lambs (Goldberg Variations)
- Die Hard (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3)
- The Godfather (Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor)
- Sunset Boulevard (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
- Fantasia (Toccata and Fugue in D minor)
- The Beach Boys, “Lady Lynda” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring)
- Procol Harum, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Air on the G String)
- The Doors, “Light My Fire” – Ray Manzarek said his keyboard playing was influenced by Bach
- Jethro Tull, “Bourée” (“Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
- The Beatles, “In My Life” (listen for the Bach-influenced keyboard solo)
- The Beatles, “Penny Lane” (listen for the trumpet solo influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 2)
- The Beatles, “Blackbird” (see the video embedded below to hear Paul McCartney explain the influence of the “Bourée” from Suite in E Minor for Lute)
- Modern Jazz Quartet, "Fugue in A Minor”
- Classical Jazz Quartet, “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2”
- Donald Fox Quartet, “Variations on a Bach Fugue”
- After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich sat by the ruins of the wall and played the "Sarabande" from Cello Suite No. 3 in C major.
- During the Persian Gulf War in February 1991, Isaac Stern was preparing to play at Jerusalem Hall when an air raid siren sounded, obviously causing great concern for people attending the concert. Stern stepped on stage and began playing Bach’s “Sarabande” from Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin to calm everyone down. People in the audience sat through the rest of his performance wearing gas masks. (Stern's gas mask was kept offstage in case he needed it.)
- For ten days after the September 11 attacks on 2001, public radio stations in New York City adhered to an all-news format. On September 23, WNYC-FM reverted to its classical format with a program titled “Bach: Solace and Inspiration.” The host, David Garland, described the music as something that would “reassure and renew the spirit.” Garland played Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, Sleepers Wake, and Sheep May Safely Graze.
- On September 11, 2002, Yo-Yo Ma played Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor at ground zero to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The names of those who died were read aloud as Ma played.
- On January 27, 2010, Steve jobs introduced the iPad to the press by playing Bach on iTunes. Jobs had been listening to Bach since he was a teenager. Yo-Yo Ma, one of Jobs’ friends, played at Jobs’ memorial in October 2011.
- Mozart studied Bach’s music and admired his ingenuity.
- Beethoven thought of the Well-Tempered Clavier as his “musical Bible.”
- Liszt memorized all forty-eight of the preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2.
- Chopin told his students that Bach’s music was “the highest and best school.” Chopin spent two weeks before every concert playing nothing but Bach and did not even practice his own compositions to prepare for a concert, playing only Bach.
- Mendelssohn admired Bach more than any other composer. His family had long supported a Bach salon in Berlin. Mendelssohn re-introduced Bach to European audiences after he had remained relatively unknown to the general public for almost eighty years.
- Schumann said, “Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder…. We are all bunglers next to him.”
- Brahms said, “The two greatest events of my lifetime are the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach Gesellschaft's publications."
- Wagner proclaimed that the greatness of Bach was “almost inexplicably mysterious.”
- Stravinsky went through a “neo-Bach” phase, composing music that used “the wonderful jolts, the sudden modulations, the unexpected harmonic changes, the deceptive cadences that are the joy of every Bach cantata.”
- Villa-Lobos composed Bachianas Brasileiras, a collection of nine suites for various instruments and voice that were based on Bach’s style of composition.
- Almost all modern musicians playing a keyboard instrument, string instrument, or wind instrument have developed their musical technique by playing Bach’s music.
And why Bach? Why has Bach, more than any other composer, cast such an inescapable presence over music history?
First, let me state the obvious. Bach was a damned good composer, a highly skilled artist who gave us over 1100 pieces of music. In 1992, Phil G. Goulding published Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1000 Greatest Works and declared that Bach was the greatest composer of all time. In January 2011, a New York Times poll conducted by Anthony Tommasini also declared that Bach was history’s greatest composer. Even if he is not history's "greatest" composer, his music has certainly stood the test of time and remains as popular as ever.
The second reason that Bach’s music has become ubiquitous comes from its flexibility. Bach's music can be taken out of the early eighteenth century and easily transferred to the instruments and styles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Bach’s music can be transposed and transformed to adapt to changing technology. It can be adapted to almost any format or medium, from chamber orchestras to full-size orchestras, from lutes to rock bands to digital performances. Bach’s music lends itself to constant reinvention. We can also listen to it as it sounded in the eighteenth century, and it will still sound great to the modern ear.
There's no doubt that long after everyone reading this blog is gone, the world will still be listening to the ubiquitous Bach.
Paul McCartney explaining how Bach influenced his song "Blackbird"
Modern Jazz Quartet, Fugue in A Minor
Yo-Yo Ma Playing Bach at a September 11 Memorial
The inspiration and much of the information for this blog came from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie,
a book I highly recommend, as well as the other books shown below.