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The Great Inventor

Dreyfus remarks on an even more inspired “invention” in the Fugue in F sharp minor from the first book of The Well-Tempered Keyboard, one of the most striking pieces of the collection. The principal theme has a memorable chromatic contour. Bach writes a second theme, or countertheme, which already surfaces in another voice when the first theme has only sounded its three opening notes: the new theme sounds like a decorated free inversion of the first, falling and rising as the original rises and falls. Dreyfus observes that the original theme and its strict inversion cannot be played together for more than a few beats, and then the combination becomes unworkable. It was second nature for Bach to see whether a theme and its inversion would combine, and he was forced to reject the possibility for this fugue; but the attempt to make it work inspired the invention in which the free decorated form makes the initial subject doubly effective, more agitated, and even more expressive.


The advantage of Dreyfus’s approach to Bach is that it makes us listen to his work as he himself listened to the music of his contemporaries, and as they would have listened to his. It does not claim to read the composer’s mind, but it reconstructs some of the processes through which he had to go to compose in each case, and it does so by referring to aural experience, leaving questions of ideology and doctrine temporarily on the side. They eventually move back to the center, however.

For Dreyfus, we must reconsider Bach’s relation to his age, to the composers and critics who were his contemporaries. The traditional view of Bach—found in the famous nineteenth-century biography by Philip Spitter, and in Albert Schweitzer’s once-influential book on Bach—pictured him as a reactionary, out of step with his time, intent upon conserving the great Baroque contrapuntal tradition that was rapidly becoming out of date. This was, to some extent, what some contemporaries of the composer thought, although their opinion was nuanced: they praised his craft and admired his virtuosity both as performer and composer, but thought that much of his work had the swollen, turgid character of old-fashioned German Baroque rhetoric, poetry, and drama of the late seventeenth and very early eighteenth centuries. One critic objected to Bach’s writing out of the elaborate decoration that would normally have been left to the inspiration of the performer or singer, but Bach was not the first to do this: François Couperin had also filled in all the ornamental details of his suites for harpsichord, called Leçons. Most of the graces and trills of a Bach aria are fully indicated, while a Handel aria provides only the scaffold that must be finished by the singer.

However, Bach was working in the small, backwater town of Leipzig for a church with a number of local singers who made up a choir so insufficient in numbers that he complained (in vain) to the church authorities; Handel wrote in London for singers of international reputation, famous for their ability to improvise ornamentation, and who would have resented any elaborate prescriptions from the composer. Furthermore, the detailed ornaments of Bach’s published keyboard works are at least partially explained by their function: the published texts were without exception educational models that told the performer and composer (there was not much difference then) how to play the entire work, including ornaments. It is true that Bach must have relished an expressive, full ornamentation and made it an essential part of the original conception of many pieces; and his decoration generally had a richness and complexity that went against the growing fashion for a simpler, leaner line. By the end of his life, indeed, there had developed a preference for brilliant, less expressive decorative detail, and in this matter he remained attached to an older tradition. He even looked further back into the past by studying the great late-medieval Flemish masters of more than two centuries before him and incorporating some of their art into his own.

This view of Bach as a reactionary figure, at least partially accurate, lasted for more than two centuries until a now famous and provocative article of 1976 by Robert Marshall called “Bach the Progressive.” Marshall emphasized the evident influence on Bach during the last two decades of his life of the most advanced modern stylistic experiments, and showed that there were even clear anticipations in Bach of the stylistic developments that would appear only with the era of Mozart. This was a sensible approach. Bach lived into the period we think of as the Enlightenment, and it is unlikely that he would have remained untouched by some of the radical changes in modern aesthetics; indeed, he himself explicitly insisted on the importance of keeping abreast in Leipzig of all the different stylistic possibilities of his time—although Dreyfus points out that for Bach that meant being aware not so much of the music of other composers, as of the way he himself incorporated different styles in his own work.

Dreyfus takes issue both with the accepted view of Bach as reactionary and with Bach as progressive, but he largely builds on Marshall to carry the argument further. For him, the music of Bach does not sit comfortably either with Baroque or Enlightenment aesthetics. Dreyfus is, I feel, correct but not entirely convincing on Bach’s incompatibility with the older aesthetic of the Baroque: he observes that this aesthetic required an attention to decorum, a demand that each artistic genre be carried out according to rules that were agreed upon by connoisseurs; nevertheless Bach continuously violated decorum and inventively and brilliantly broke the established rules of the different genres in which he wrote. But then so did Handel and Rameau, both Bach’s exact contemporaries, born at the same time; it is what has kept their music, and Bach’s, alive after more than two centuries. Dreyfus is right to combat the idea of Bach as an old-fashioned representative of the past, and he observes that nothing that Bach took from his predecessors was not radically transformed under his hands.

Nevertheless, the sense that Bach’s contemporaries had of the reactionary cast of much of his work will not go away. They accused his music of being monotonously thick, overloaded with learned and decorative detail—bombastic, in short. We must admit this to be true in many instances, but it does not, in fact, elucidate Bach’s relation to the past. He himself described his own compositions in a memorandum of 1736 to the Leipzig town council as “incomparably harder and more intricate” than the older liturgical works still performed. His music did not exactly resemble the music of his predecessors in its bombast: on the contrary, it could be more bombastic than anything ever written before, more complex, more artfully worked out, more oppressive, more ostentatious in its display of esoteric skill.

On the Enlightenment aesthetics which arose during the last decades of Bach’s life between 1720 and 1750, and its irrelevance for his music, Dreyfus is more provocative as well as convincing:

The new Enlightened aesthetic was also a theory that desired the representation of nature to be as effortless as possible. That is, art was to be produced and judged according to how well it offered direct access to the mental representations that lay behind the work, its signifying ideas, if you will. Words, music, gestures, pictures—all were there not to draw attention to themselves as signs but to be as transparent as possible…. Georg Friedrich Meier (1718-1777) …put it this way:… “One must avoid everything through which the attention is diverted from the object itself and is steered principally toward the contemplation of the signs and images in which the object is clothed.”

Any such theory spells big trouble for music, particularly music that is dedicated to thinking through its own materials. For one thing, the principle of transparency is more problematic for music than for any of the other arts. Moreover, the sheer breadth and detail within a musical experience are always far out of proportion to any underlying affect that can be proposed for it. Whereas a painting can be seen to resemble an observed view, or the plot of a novel can seem to replicate a realistic experience, the phenomenon of music itself does not by and large resemble the experience it may wish to convey…. Given, then, Bach’s continual propensity—indeed, obsessional need—to “divert attention” precisely “to the signs and images in which the object is clothed,” he must be seen as one of the leading musical thinkers to take a decisive step in refuting this damaging view of signs, though he may have lacked an adequately explicit theory to do so.

Dreyfus does not wish to make Bach into a Romantic, but he suggests that it is only in the late Enlightenment with the appearance of an expressive theory of aesthetics that overthrew the representational theories of the earlier eighteenth century and dominated Romantic criticism that Bach’s music could come into its own. At the end of his book, he writes about Bach’s disciples and admirers in the last years of his life:

Even Bach’s followers…were not prepared to admit that the progressive musical thought of the day, for all its elegance and charm, had signaled a regression in technique and a demeaning of the divine task that Bach saw as entrusted to the composer. As it stands, only his music (at least in Germany) opposed these regressions, if only by doggedly pursuing a path at odds with the dominant aesthetic.


The later canonization of Bach, however, is dependent on more than a change of aesthetic doctrine. Dreyfus is right to say that all of Bach’s contemporaries, friends as well as enemies, were surely aware “that Bach’s music by and large went out of its way not to curry favor with anyone’s taste, that the composer wrote music which fundamentally ignored a concern with public approbation.” But this is not as straightforward as it might appear. What does “public approbation” mean between 1720 and 1750 in a town like Leipzig with no opera house and a niggardly financed tradition of ecclesiastical music?

On a larger European scale, what does public approbation mean for a culture in which public concerts are not yet a fully established institution? Bach’s fame as a virtuoso performer on the organ is well attested, and was international in spite of the fact that he traveled very little. Fame as a composer, on the other hand, was largely dependent upon a position at an important court and on the composition of serious operas, paid for at that time by a court. Bach did try to free himself from the obscurity of Leipzig by applying for a court position in the important city of Danzig: there he would certainly have had to compose operas. He was unsuccessful: perhaps his well-known formidable contrapuntal learning put him at a disadvantage.

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