Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn.
A number of scholars in recent years have begun to examine, in much more detail, the reception of Johann Sebastian Bach's music between the composer's death in 1750 and the Sing-Akademie performance of the St. Matthew Passion under Felix Mendelssohn's direction in 1829. Although it is commonly posited that an admiration for Bach's works never fully died out, especially among composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, little specific research has been done in this area until recently.
Matthew Dirst's Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn is a welcome addition to the literature on this topic, not only providing a detailed account of key developments in the reception of Bach's keyboard works (especially Well-Tempered Clavier), but also connecting these developments to broader cultural trends. Furthermore, Dirst demonstrates how such trends in the reception of Bach's keyboard works helped lead to an openness to Bach's works in general among the cultural elites of both Germany and England, thus preparing the way for the subsequent Bach "revival" of the mid-nineteenth century.
Dirst has formatted the volume in such a way as to lead the reader into a deeper consideration of Bach's keyboard legacy through a series of key questions:
Why were these works crucial to Bach's historical legacy? What impact did they have on their respective genres? What lessons did they convey to composers and to other students of the art? Who played this music and why? How did successive generations and different national communities interpret and perform it? (p. xii)
Rather than providing an overview of the answers to such questions in an introduction, Dirst instead jumps right into the topic and its significance in chapter 1, "Why the keyboard works?" Readers seeking a more traditional introduction may want to first read the "Epilogue," which presents an excellent summary of the book's contents as well as its main arguments and conclusions.
Dirst does not present a comprehensive account of the reception of Bach's keyboard works from 1750 to 1829, but rather engages six case studies that each provide a different perspective on this topic. (In addition, the book actually treats a slightly longer time period, from Bach's death in 1750 to the establishment of the Bach-Gesellschaft in 1850.) While it is clearly connected as a single monograph and reads well as such, Engaging Bach has the added advantage that each chapter also stands well on its own and can be read independently of the others. Given this format, the book as a whole or individual chapters of it are well suited to classroom use at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
For example, chapter 3, "What Mozart learned from Bach," provides an excellent study of compositional influence, which could be made use of both to study this particular case of influence and to engage the topic of influence more broadly in conjunction with examples from other time periods (Beethoven and Brahms, for example, or Wagner and Debussy). Dirst frames the chapter within the broad context of the study of compositional influence and closely engages the issues related to this topic through the study of the perceived influence of Bach on Mozart. Through a careful study of documentary and compositional evidence, Dirst clearly defines for the first time just what it is that Mozart's compositional style owes to Bach.
Engaging Bach is well written and easy to read, with clearly-fashioned arguments. Dirst combines careful and well-documented research with insightful music analysis and good use of music examples. Furthermore, in treating the legacy of Bach's keyboard works from 1750 to 1850, Dirst addresses many topics often mentioned in passing--such as the continuous regard in which Well-Tempered Clavier was held even after the composer's death, Mozart's relationship with Bach's music, or the collection of the four-part "Bach" chorales--and presents them in a fuller light and with much more nuanced detail. Dirst explores many sources that are not often brought into conversation with each other. For example, in chapter 2, "Inventing the Bach chorale," he examines publication records, music manuscripts, and published chorale collections, in addition to compositional treatises, letters, and secondary sources. In so doing, Dirst also brings different musicological subdisciplines to bear on the conversation, for example, interweaving the histories of publishing, performance (both public and private), and pedagogy (see, for example, pp. 37-47).
Dirst's connection of the reception of Bach's keyboard works with larger cultural trends is especially fascinating in chapter 4, "A burgerlicher Bach: turn-of-the-century German advocacy." Dirst traces efforts to update the portrait of Bach from a composer whose works were antiquated, complex, and inaccessible to "a more fully human" Bach whose works were challenging yet enriching and within reach. Through these efforts, led especially by Johann Karl Friedrich Triest (in his "Bemerkung uber die Ausbildung der Tonkunst in Deutschland im achtzehnten Jahrhundert," Allgemeine Musikalischen Zeitung, 1 January 25 March 1801) and Johann Nikolaus UForkel (in his Uber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke [Leipzig: Hoffmeister und Kuhnei, 1802]), Bach also came to be identified as the quintessential German composer and the pride of the German people. In examining such themes, Dirst explains the ways in which the wider literate German society was gradually prepared for, and eventually claimed, the idea of Bach as the ideal German musician. He concludes:
Bach's early-nineteenth-century German champions wanted more than mere recognition for the composer who had perfected Harmonie; they wanted their readers to engage with his music and to regard music-making itself as a purposeful activity that improved humanity. Although it took another couple of decades for Bach's music to appear regularly on concert programs on the Continent, these individuals succeeded in making him the cultural property of an incipient nation whose destiny was increasingly linked to its artistic heritage, (p. 118)
In addition to its value as an insightful historical account of the reception of Bach's keyboard works in the century following the composer's death, Dirst's Engaging Bach provides thoughtful connections to the present day. For example, Dirst's discussion of the nature of how the perception of fugue changed in the late eighteenth century--from a private experience of a contrapuntal complex for a single learned player to a public display emphasizing the independence of the contrapuntal voices--has significant implications for how Bach's keyboard fugues might Ire reconsidered in performance today (pp. 145-51). Engaging Bach thus has great value not only for historians, but also for performers and listeners alike. Such a broad appeal grows out of Dirst's distinctive approach to reception history, which he describes in his preface:
[T]he study of an art work's (or an entire repertoire's) reception provides valuable perspective--on the many potential ways of understanding, interpreting, and taking inspiration front it--by identifying what has made and what continues to endow it with unique appeal. This kind of inquiry reminds us, in other words, why a particular cultural artifact retains its allure; we learn simultaneously about history and about ourselves, a process that can be both interesting and humbling, (p. xi)
In telling the story of the reception of Bach's keyboard works, 1750-1850, Dirst not only provides us with a detailed historical perspective but also with new ways of thinking about Bach and his keyboard works in the present.
MARK A. PETERS
Trinity Christian College
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|Author:||Peters, Mark A.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2014|
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