Portabella’s Bach: Grim, Trite and Incredibly Boring

In the late 1730s Johann Sebastian Bach come under fire in a widely-read music journal published by a former student, Johann Adolph Scheibe, a cantankerous and brilliant one-eyed musician and critic.  The thrust of Scheibe’s polemic was that Bach’s music was too complicated, too self-indulgent: “This great man would be the admiration of whole nations if his music were more pleasant, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art.” Scheibe’s views represented those of the Enlightened mainstream with its ideals of clarity, accessibility, and grace. Bach could be these things when he wanted, but rarely made things easy on himself or his listeners. In this sense, Bach was a true modernist, espousing art for art’s sake and in so doing struggling against the currents drawing European musical style towards the easier finery and more obvious brilliance of Italian opera.

To be fair, not everyone is moved by Bach at his most abstruse.  Few but the most dedicated or warped will seek their rapture in the Art of Fugue, with its relentless contrapuntal investigations of a single theme outlining a D-minor triad. Like many others, I consider this work one of the greatest achievements in the history of Western music, but to listen to it at one sitting is to ride the knife-edge between cerebral delight and torture. Scheibe exaggerated his criticism of Bach for polemical purposes, but there is something to his critique.

What drove Bach to these wondrous excesses, to this seemingly tireless pursuit of complexity? And how is that, even with the just-mentioned caveat, his most rigorous music can achieve such expressive power?  These two ultimately unanswerable questions have driven the commentary on Bach to levels of production he could never have imagined:  some 20,000 books and articles, various plays and novels, and more than a few films, the most recent of which is The Silence Before Bach (2007) by the Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella.

The movie was shown first in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Fall of last year as part of a Portabella retrospective. Portabella helped draft the post-Franco Spanish constitution, and became senator in the first elections held in 1977; later he served in the Catalan parliament. His involvement in politics explains why, after an intensely productive decade between 1967 and 1977, he wrote and directed only one other feature film (in 1990) before finishing The Silence Before Bach last year.

The picture was duly hailed as a masterpiece by New York movie critics, but only made its way up to the provinces of Upstate New York this past week. The film’s publicity claimed that it will not be issued on DVD, though it is unclear if this is due to the artistic requirements of the director, who might not want to see his Bach movie reduced to small format.  With the Netflix option apparently denied me, I went to the Cornell cinema on Tuesday evening to see what Sr.  Portabella had to say about Bach.

The no-DVD threat coupled with rave reviews nearly filled the theatre. Bach’s legacy seemed to be in good shape. In the aftermath of the film I can at least report that in spite of the medications—nearly all of them way past their expiration dates—administered by Portabella, the patient will survive. Death by cliché would have been a terrible way for Bach to go while still in the prime of his afterlife.

Many of my fellow viewers were less resilient than the venerable Bach to Portabella’s prescription. Several people left the within the first twenty minutes.  I often take that to be a good sign, one that indicates the film is at least provocative. But there was little in the way of provocation on the screen. I suspect boredom was the expulsive force. That I remained in the theater had mostly to do with grim fascination and professional obligation. The only movie I’ve ever walked out of is the original version of the Poseidon Adventure, which I’d sneaked into at the age of eleven in 1977. I grew up on an island, and I got so freaked out by the tidal wave that I cowered in the lobby for the rest of the film. The Silence Before Bach was more a meandering bayou of the trite and tedious than a tsunami of schlock.

The movie began with promise. Portoblla’s camera explored a vacant museum-like building, perhaps a museum, with tiled floor, blank white, and no windows. It peered into empty alcoves but found nothing, until around the corner came an ebonized Aeolian Pianolo on a motorized, remote-control dolly on which it proceeded to follow its indeterminate path through the empty space, occasionally pirouetting on its axis. The machine played exactly what one would expect it to play, the Goldberg Variations, that perfect set of keyboard pieces beloved of filmmakers, from the pill-fueled monomania of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould to the psychopathic culinary tastes of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

The front panel of the pianolo had been removed so we could see the elaborate mechanism cog and flutter as it read the roll in  the most mechanical performance possible.  There was indeed something weirdly compelling about seeing this odd dark contraption, like a spacecraft, aimlessly traversing a vast bunker devoid of any sign of humanity. The messages to be drawn from this surreal scene are infinite: art is longer than life; the prison of the museum and of technology cannot contain Bach’s genius; Bach is the ultimate clockmaker, himself a God. This last interpretation is given some support later in the film, when one of the characters that make fleeting appearances in the course of the vague allusions to plot says as much: “God would be diminished without Bach.”

Or perhaps: If the Goldberg Variations are played and nobody is there to hear them do they actually make a sound?

The answer to that seems sadly to be yes, for what we hear from the pianola is the first cliché in the film, however compelling the scene may otherwise be: Bach’s music is so god-like that no performance can damage it.  The main service of the film is that it proves the opposite to be true, but does so, painfully, by negative example. Indeed, the film is full of bad performances: from a boy (playing one of Bach’s son) at the harpischord, to teenagers thronged in a piano showroom banging away unsynchronized at, yes, the Goldberg Variations, to the modern choirboys of St. Thomas’ in Leipzig hooting their way through one of Bach’s motets, Jesu, meine Freude, to Felix Mendelsoohn playing one of his Songs without Words on a poorly restored 19th-century piano. The best performance is by a guy playing a single line from, yes, the Goldberg Variations, on a chromatic harmonica while seated in a Spanish big rig thundering across the Catalonian plain.

The pianoloa provides the definitive proof Bach’s is not an abstraction.  If only pianolas were around to play his music it would be good and dead. Bach is not a mechanical engineer.

In the penultimate scene in the movie the accursed pianola returns, as the director unwittingly jack-hammers the point home.  A female employee at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, where Bach was the disgruntled cantor during the last three decades of his life, shows a pair of Spanish visitors around the place.  They have just been in the Church of St. Thomas and have watched a janitor sweeping the dust from Bach’s tomb. (Although Portabella does not show us this, Bach has been spinning there for the duration of the film, and will continue to do so until the final credits.) The employee then takes the Spaniards to see the new Thomas cantor, “today’s Bach,” as she puts it. Professor Biller holds forth on the greatness of the institution while smoking a cigar. He informs his visitors and the film audience that while most of the choirboys come from non-religious films almost all eventually request to be baptized after extended engagement with Bach’s music. Herewith another of the innumerable clichés: that Bach’s music is sanctified and sanctifying, that he is the fifth Evangelist.

Just previously, while the “action” of the film was still back in Spain, Portabella treated to us to a long scene of this female Spanish visitor to Leipzig in a power shower washing and loofahing herself, then drying off with an towel. (Bill O’Reilly, if you can last through the first 90 minutes of the film, you’ll be glad you did!) No music accompanies this humid nudity, but after she puts on her glam clothes she does play some Bach on the cello, while her older lover (a piano dealer whose enormous showroom later hosts the teen Goldberg bang-a-long) makes breakfast in the stainless steel kitchen with views out over Barcelona. The profound message seems to be that sexy people with nice towels and cool sense of interior design play Bach, too.

After the employee at St. Thomas has brought the Spanish visitors to see the cantor, she repairs to one of the school’s rooms and takes of her shoes and pulls her feet up under her, as if to take a nap.  Suddenly, the roll of the pianola fills the screen. This is a nap with a nightmare. The machine launches into frantic, bashing performance of Bach’s organ in fugue in G Minor.  We see all the punch holes read off the piece like the primitive computer it is.  The effect is excruciating: already treated to numerous iterations of the hackneyed vision of Bach the inexorable logician, we get pummeled by the sound for a good four minutes.

It is true that film makes recognizes the role of clichés in the Bach myth, as in its luxuriously Romantic staging of the apocryphal tale that Mendelssohn re-discovered the St. Matthew Passion when his butcher used it to wrap scraps of meat. But Portabella seems so enamored of these scenes, even if they are tinged with irony, that they lose any dramatic and critical validity.

In his own forgotten grave, Scheibe is smiling.  There could be no clearer confirmation of his Bach criticism than that projected in Silence Before Bach, which presents Bach’s music at its most graceless and cog-like. It is not an excess of artifice in the 18th-century sense which threatens Bach’s music in this movie, but rather an excess of technology—the modern artificial in all its unyielding grimness.

The film ends with a supercharged recording of “Fecit potentiam” from Bach’s Magnificat heard while the camera tracks along the score in perfect synchronization with the music.  So unyielding is the progress of both camera across the notes drive-train tandem wwith the piston-like performance heard on the soundtrack, that what we hear is really no more musical than the pianola.  After the final chord no more music is heard, and the credits proceed soundlessly. There is no silence as sweet as the silence after the Silence Before Bach.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com