By: Jeremy Denk
The New Republic, Nov. 15, 2012
As a rule we don’t want music to act like Spock. We want it to let go, to make us feel, to express inward states. But Bach is a multi-tasker: his logic is unassailable but is not tedious. His proofs soar. He captures the deepest feeling while remaining perfectly logical, thereby demonstrating that those imperatives are not at all opposed. On the strength of this tremendous logic, Nicolas Slonimsky labeled Bach the “supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music,” which seems like hyperbole but isn’t. Bach is much more than a logician—he is Moses, minus Charlton Heston, handing down commandments. Bach’s laws similarly tend to come in convenient even-numbered packages: the thirty-two parts of the Goldbergs, the forty-eight preludes and fugues, the six cello suites, the six keyboard partitas. They lay down prescriptions about harmony, about the treatment of dissonance, about design and voice-leading—musical morals that most people would never understand but can perceive through Bach’s vision.
Bach’s examples did not intimidate the whole nineteenth century, the way Beethoven’s did, but they were never questioned. We tend to glorify composers who break or stretch the laws: Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Debussy. Bach is the exception, a composer whom we love for his rules. And having created them, he sets up shop in them, and takes inspiration from their self-evident goodness. The commandments generate freedom. Owing to this lawfulness, Bach’s choices come to feel permanent, and immune from passing style and taste; they give the illusion of being facts. All other composers seem to be writing novels, but Bach writes non-fiction.
BACH HAS QUITE a hoard of virtues. The rectitude is almost annoying: selflessness married to reason married to imagination married to lawfulness married to craft. Bach is a mirror to everything we would like to be; he is almost too good to be true, to be believed. But we believe in Bach on the evidence of the notes themselves. Having invoked fact, law, and logic, I think the larger and more precise term, the umbrella term, to sum up Bach’s mystique is truth. There is a lot of talk of truth and truthiness these days—the death of truth, a post-truth era, and a proliferation of fact checkers debasing the currency in which they pretend to trade. But in Bach’s case we are talking about a certain kind of truth, a necessary truth, even a divine truth, something unarguable. Bach allows us to deny our suspicion that music may be a tissue of lies, a sensory decadence.