October 19th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Greta Thunberg: she's not doing it all on her own

EDITORIAL Time for Australia to rethink the neo-liberal experiment

RURAL AFFAIRS Queensland Labor punishes farmers to placate UNESCO

CANBERRA OBSERVED Morrison's 'positive' globalism has resonance

NSW ABORTION ACT Amendments annul some of the Act's worst excesses

GENDER POLITICS Doctors call for inquiry into childhood gender dysphoria

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong's 'software' may be key to its survival

GENDER POLITICS Pornography and the transgender agenda

RIGHTS & FREEDOMS Transgenderism poses biggest threat to religious freedom

OPINION When Maggie (Sanger) met Mickie (Mann)

PHILOSOPHY The element of justice in economic practice, Part 2 of two parts

POPULATION Lifestyles and policies ensure population peril ahead

HUMOUR If atheism is the answer, what was the question?

MUSIC Good, better, Bach: The composer who consistently outdid himself

CINEMA Joker: From a heart in darkness

BOOK REVIEW Hope, more than economics, drives Trump voters

BOOK REVIEW A pushback against visceral unreason


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Good, better, Bach: The composer who consistently outdid himself

by David James

News Weekly, October 19, 2019

Listening to Bach’s magisterial Mass in B Minor raises questions about perfection in music. What does it mean when nothing is out of place, everything is developed in exactly the right way and the journey that the listener is taken on is deep and profound?

The Mass is arguably Bach’s greatest work – along with the St Matthew Passion, it is the work on the grandest scale. Yet such ranking of Bach’s output remains unusually difficult, so good was all of it.

When one considers other great composers, determining what is best is comparatively easy. Mozart’s late piano concertos and operas especially stand out; some of his early work, while well executed, less so. Beethoven’s symphonies, late string quartets and late piano sonatas are at a higher level than the rest of his output.

With Schubert, it is the symphonies, songs and the String Quintet in C major – described by musicologist and philosopher Roger Scruton as “perhaps the most beautiful piece of chamber music ever composed” – that stand out.

Stravinsky had an unevenness of output – his ballet writing and symphonies especially stand out. The American Samuel Barber’s more elegiac works, such as the glorious Adagio for Strings and Agnus Dei, represent irresistible listening. But some of his more atonal works are entirely forgettable, as is the entire corpus of atonalist Arnold Schoenberg, who was as academically notorious as he was musically trivial. It is possible to be consistently bad.

Wagner was capable of both the bad and the good. Rossini’s comment that his music had some fine moments “but some terrible quarter-hours” is not too wide of the mark (although perhaps, in this writer’s opinion, a little generous).

With Bach, by contrast, the entire output is on the same high level. There are some famous pieces, memorable melodies such as the Air on a G String, or Sheep May Safely Graze, but they do not achieve a different level of expression. In part, this attributable to the Baroque structures, whose rules impose a cer­tainty on the musical development. But no one has ever been able to use those rules like Bach – and he never faltered.

In the Mass, everything is perfectly executed, flawless. Yet it means that, to some extent, the music has a certain linearity. There is rising and falling in both the vocal and choral lines, and dynamics. But the texture does not vary greatly. It is intriguing how Bach found ways to break out of that.

There are several points in the piece where instruments are used to blend with the choral parts creating tension and raising the music to sublime levels. Especially effective are the high trumpet lines in the Gratias agimus tibi, which rose above choral lines, exploring empyreal spheres. There are also less dramatic, but deeply melodic and affecting, interplays between the vocal parts and the oboe or flute.

Flawlessness as an attribute

Such perfect execution raises inte­resting questions about evenness and unevenness in music. With Bach, evenness was integral to his aesthetic. It did not appeal to later, Romantic, sensibilities. When Mendelssohn redis­covered his works, Bach was regarded as little more than a musical mathematician; his virtuosic use of counterpoint and musical symmetry was considered a problem, not a strength. Flawlessness is not to everyone’s taste.

In jazz, unevenness is commonplace and often central to its effect. Pianist Thelonious Monk’s entire work is ludicrously off balance, although this is counterpointed by his compositions, which tend to use simple melodic sequences that are straightforwardly symmetrical.

The end of Monk’s melodies also often border on the obvious and trite – which makes his playing of them all the more comic for not being executed in anything like a predictable way. Being off balance is the essence of his odd musical statements.

Opposite end of the scale

Another exceptionally uneven per­former is singer and trumpeter Chet Baker. His aesthetic is based on the imperfections of his voice and trumpet sound, both of which are fractured, heavily evoking vulnerability and a failure to express things adequately. An aesthetic more distant from Bach’s seamlessness it is hard to imagine. It is often attributed to Baker’s drug addiction, which was no doubt a cont­ributing factor, but it was also a deliberate artistic choice. Baker was using his own pathos to good musical effect.

Musicality, ever an elusive pheno­menon, can emerge from many different directions.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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