Bach’s Greatest Hit

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach; drawing by David Levine

Where does a Harvard undergraduate science major who has listened to Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier “several thousand times” turn to find a ready ear and encouragement for his singular passion? Not, it appears, to any of the notable musicians on the Harvard faculty, but to the even more notable Stephen Jay Gould, who barely raises an eyebrow and signs Eric Altschuler on as an advisee for two whole years. Altschuler produces a senior thesis, we may suppose, consisting of short accounts of each fugue of “The Forty-Eight,” as the British call the Well-tempered, together with numerous miscellaneous glosses. He obtains a vigorous preface from his adviser, secures underwriting from two foundations (Ford, Fannie and John Hertz), hires an agent, and sure enough: his unlikely manuscript is taken up by a major trade publisher.

Survival of the fittest. But Bachanalia is a well-meaning book, for all of its unlikely evolution: sincere, enthusiastic, hard-working, and sometimes ingenious in its effort to help people enjoy music who lack musical training or practical musical experience. The music in question is a limited, specialized, precious repertory, examined in much more loving detail than will be found in most books of “music appreciation.” To be sure, such books tend to be written by musicians, musicologists, or music teachers, not by writers who admit to and indeed insist on the same amateur status as their readers. Altschuler courts his readers in prose “peppered with fascinating lore, abounding in good humor…full of playful, clever analogies to horror movies, human nature, football games, even sex,” as the jacket copy puts it. Downloaded e-mail, it feels like to me, corny in the extreme; but this should not matter much if it works for the job at hand.

What does, in fact, Bachanalia teach about the Well-tempered Clavier? Mainly, and obsessively, it deals with the fugal subjects, the short themes that are heard at the very beginning of every fugue and many, many times thereafter. The heart of the Listener’s Guides that accompany each fugue discussion is a section entitled “Form,” which lists each and every appearance or entry of the subject in the composition—all thirty-seven of them, in one case. 1 Getting his readers and listeners to follow the fugal subject becomes a major concern for this author. Most of his Listening Guides include a “Listening Hint” to help with difficult-to-hear entries.

All this rests upon the conviction, stated many times, that the main thing about a fugue is its subject. The glosses referred to above turn up in the book as miniature chapters or boxes, some grouped together as an introduction and others placed strategically in among the forty-eight fugue discussions. The last of these items, forming an envoy to the book, a veritable benediction, takes off from the story of the man who asks a great rabbi to divulge all the wisdom of the Bible, only to…

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