About a month ago, I listened to the first volume of the Great Lectures treatment of Bach and the high baroque. I say “the first volume” because the second still hasn’t returned to the library. As a fan of Bach, I expected some interesting anecdotes about Bach himself, which I got, but didn’t expect any eye-openers from the discussion of the music itself. A few points of interest, perhaps, but nothing remakrable.
So imagine my surprise when Professor Greenburg described the enormous pressure Bach’s musicians were under. We tend to de-emphasize the fact that Bach was a virtuoso keyboardist; we tend to forget entirely that he was a virtuoso on many other instruments as well. I, for one, didn’t know he was a master violinist. And he wrote music to the limits of his virtuosity—not so much as Liszt did, to show off, but rather because he wanted the challenge, and because he loved spectacle for its own sake. So his musicians had to play music at or even beyond their ability, unable to grumble about the unrealistic expectations of composers, knowing their boss could play all their instruments better than they could themselves.
Compositions like this, said Professor Greenburg, and played the fugal segment of his Sonata in Gm (BWV 1001). I know the piece, have it on CD, listened to it many times. What I didn’t realize was that this was a violin solo. Three separate voices cranking away at once from a single violin, sounding just as beautiful and natural as somebody else’s fugue for three separate musicians.
Bach set these crazy challenges for himself all the time, just because he could. It’s like a writer who sets out to write a novella without ever using the letter N, or a golfer who decides to play a round using nothing but a 3-iron and a putter. But unlike the writer, who might finish the book but starts to sound oddly stilted after one chapter, or the golfer, who can score pretty well but would never win the PGA, Bach routinely turned out masterpieces while so bedeviling himself, something of a playful break from churning out more mundane oratorios twice a week on contract. Incomprehensible genius.