Reading Bach 1

Antigona Rădulescu, Johann Sebastian Bach

Editura Didactică şi Pedagogică, 2010
Muzica Viva Collection


          Thousands of books were written on Bach and one could expect a solid bibliography to exist in Romanian, but this is not the case. Whoever has the curiosity to browse through a book written in the ‘60s, finds out how Bach, “as a true artist connected to the masses (…), fought a restless battle against church dogma and scholastics” (Gh. Hubov, J. S. Bach, 1960). From a volume published in the ‘80s, the reader can delight in letters where Protochronist Ovidiu Varga addresses the musician with „Sancte Johannes”, “esteemed Master”, “colleague” etc. and amongst others, gives him full information on the “recent research in Thracology” (Bach, an Earthly Orpheus, 1985). After more than two decades of waiting for a normal book on Bach, during which Davitt Moroney’s work was published – in a less than perfect translation – Bach. An Extraordinary Life (2006), the composer’s character is once again brought to the fore, in a unique and personal fashion through the recent volume by Antigona Rădulescu. The historical perspective – predictable for such an endeavor – gains depth through the author’s knowledge of musical semiotics and polyphony. Actually, these preoccupations are reflected in most of the volumes she authors: Semiotic Perspectives in Music (2003), Palestrinian Counterpoint (1999), Modern Counterpoint - Paul Hindemith (2005) etc.
           A few questions formulated in the introduction reveal part of the intentions and references of the author in her attempt to write on Bach: “Do the mechanisms of composing, influenced by the established norms in a moment of musical history weigh heavier than the ideas circulating or the force of psychological expectations of the society he was born in? (…) Is the musician’s biography relevant or it’s just gossip?” The rhetorical ambiance of the last question, for instance, offers a clue on how Bach’s biography is approached: Antigona Rădulescu ignores the sordid details and focuses on those relevant biographical details for the musician’s career. The absence of extraordinary events is suggested through a quote from Igor Stravinsky who, in the troubled twentieth century, yearned for “the life of Bach, living in anonymity and composing for a stable job and God.”
           For a better foray into Bach’s music, the author feels the need for a preliminary preparation and clarification, starting from premises formulated in the terms of musical semiotics: “we only hear what we understand and we only understand what we like, what we can relate to. As long as we have access to the meaning of music, this becomes part of our system of values”. An analysis of opera requires progressively browsing through a few cultural-musical paradigms: the baroque style seen through literary and art theory, adapting the term “baroque” by applying it to music, as well as a description and contextualization of Bach’s style.
           The largest chapter is devoted to his creation, carefully examined, from his vocal-orchestral works to masterpieces such as The Goldberg Variations, The Musical Sacrifice, The Art of Fugue. In the audition of these pieces, the reader is guided towards multiple ways of reading, through decrypting the “significant layers” of the discourse (from the conception of the counterpoint to subtleties of musical rhetoric).
           The book doesn’t lack inquiries into how Bach could be received nowadays. The concise mapping of the present – in which concert repertoires are inconceivable without his music, in which even jazz and pop music are influenced by Bach’s harmonies – offers predictable answers. We are told Bach is a symbol of humanity – and this is not just an over-used idiom. In fact, among the artifacts launched in space by the Voyager rocket in 1975, a sample of his creation was found.

Florinela Popa
(English Version by Simina Neagu)

1 Review published in Romanian, in Dilemateca, nr. 60, May 2011