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A Mighty Fortress is Our Bach

Over the two-and-a-half centuries since his death, the citadel of Bach’s oeuvre has withstood the most far-flung attacks without sustaining anything more than the most superficial damage. A scattering of shallow bullet holes can still be seen where the Swingle Singers sent their fusillade of doobie-doos towards the battlements in the 1960s. A few years later some bricks were dislodged when Gheorge Zamfir lofted his panpipe version of Air on the G String up towards the ramparts.

So solidly constructed are the fortifications that the marauders down below sometimes serve the useful purpose of keeping the defenses in a state of amused readiness. Now and again the raiders even enrich life inside the keep. The catapult volleys of Uri Caine’s Goldberg Variations with their forceful updatings, bold eclecticisms, and irreverent humor enliven things up in barracks.  Guitarist Andy Fite’s readings of the same variations in his “jazz interpretation” are like swifts doing their aerial acrobatics high up off the parapet. Bobby McFerrin’s vocalizations on the just-mentioned Air, so often taken hostage by this or that vandal, are like burning arrows soaring over the crenellations to be stamped out by the commandant’s daughter, who puts the colorful feather flights in her hair and wears them to the evening’s banquet in the great hall.

One of the most imposing of the fortress’s turrets is Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor for organ.  It is probably an early work, and its breathtaking ambition could be that of a young man known for his occasional hotheadedness. But the audacity of its conception, and the rigors and inventiveness of the music suggest much greater wisdom than one typically associates with youth. Among the huge stockpiles of Bach organ works it represents the longest single piece of continuous music— depending on tempo, about thirtten minutes without pause.  The great preludes and fugues of Bach’s late years approach these dimensions but there is a cadence and quick breath between the two halves. The Passacaglia is relentless.

The piece’s mode of construction is deceptively simple, adopting one of the oldest of musical techniques: devise a bass line—in this case one of eight measures—and then have the upper parts vary it for as long as the composer and player can sustain his invention and the interest of his listeners.  Girolamo Frescobaldi, organist at St. Peter’s in Rome in the first half of 17th century and a composer who’s music was owned and admired by Bach, wrote a hundred variations on a short Passacaglia theme. Bach’s more immediate influences were the German organists of the prior generations, especially Dieterich Buxtehude, whom Bach walked 200 miles to study with in the winter of 1705, asking his own employers for four weeks off from his job, and staying for four months instead. Bach brought back with him copies of Buxtehude’s great organ works, including several built on repeating bass lines.  These works survive at all only because of Bach’s interest in them. Bach’s own Passacaglia could have been composed as early as 1706, soon after his return to central Germany after visiting Buxtehude up on the North Sea.

In contrast to the ground bass works of Buxtehude, Bach begins his with the theme alone in the pedal, as if confronting the player and listener with the ineluctable fact of the bass line. Bach then develops it in the most diverse ways: kaleidoscopic figurations; textures shifting from thick to gossamer and manifold gradations between these extremes; migrations of the theme from the bass to other voices; contrapuntal dialogues between the the parts; unexpected harmonic inflections. The variations group themselves into larger architectural units. The turret is built to last, but on each new inspection yields different truths: the battlements may be imposing, but they are fascinating, too.

Most remarkable, however, is what Bach does to the very genre of the Passacaglia. After nearly ten minutes of elaboration, the cycles of the bass line seem to be headed for conclusion. But after what seems to the final culminating cadence a demonic fugue breaks out. The bass line itself then sheds its shackles and becomes a fully involved participant in a raging contrapuntal debate. Before Bach, the Passacaglia bass line knew its place and stayed put. With the fugue that follows without break on the passacaglia, Bach explodes the tradition he had received. As the harmonic foundation flies into the air, the instinct is to run for cover: this outbreak of fugal revolution is as frightening as it is exhilarating. But with Bach demolition is often a primary mode of construction: the resulting edifice formed before our eyes from the falling boulders of the past is nothing short of miraculous. One almost thinks it a mirage, but there is nothing more real than this swaying tower of counterpoint.

The piece is a conceptual tour-de-force, but also a physical one. Bach unharnesses the pedal, formerly the plodding Clydesdale in such ground basses, and lets it gallop into the glorious contrapuntal wreckage wrought on the passacaglia by the fugue.  This is where Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of the piece—on the model of his more famous version of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor heard and seen at the opening of Disney’s Fantasia—fails: there is no trace of the north-south struggle enacted between the upper and lower limbs of the organist. An essential aspect of piece is lost in translation.

This does not mean that such translating is a bad idea.  One of the most audacious of these attempts to perform the piece away from the organ has recently been made by the young Ukrainian, Aleksandr Hrustevich with an accordion, an endeavor that at first glance seems about as foolish as storming the castle with peashooter. The video was earlier this week on Alex Ross’s New Yorker blog, and can be seen on YouTube.

The disparity between the mis-en-scene and the music in this video amounts to a Grand Canyon-like chasm even by the meretricious standards of YouTube. The small stage on which Hrustevich demonstrates his art is festooned with yellow and organ balloons and fake flower garlands. The camera is hand-held, with a few jerks and stutters to give the proceedings the requisite feeling of the homegrown, the immediate,the believable.  So great are this virtuoso’s gifts that higher visual and aural fidelity might lead one to suspect the introduction digital conjurery.

Hrustevich plays the bayan, a Russian accordion devised a century ago. Where the organist had all appendages in play, the bayanist has only the hands.  The right-hand keyboard is made up of a five-tiered bank of small, raked buttons, rather than piano-like keys. Their range extends beyond five octaves, a larger compass even than the organs of Bach’s time. Because of the buttons’ small size large spans and large number of notes can be reached by the five fingers. Tricky passages that the organist divided between the two hands, Hrusevich manages with one. But the size and compact layout of the buttons also increases the treacherousness and the chance of missed notes. It’s rather like playing the Bach Passacaglia on a travel typewriter, only harder.

For the bass line and harmonies the left hand navigates across still smaller buttons on the other side of the instrument. When the pedal begins to make bombastic noises that presage its ultimate emancipation in the fugue, Hrustevich thunders away on these tiny buttons with his left hand. The fingers become feet.

Registers are on top of the instrument and are operated with chin, which Hrustevich does in the course of the Passacaglia with bold movements of his head, imbuing his stage presence with a combination of regal hauteur and romantic rapture. The deployment of the agile chin, reminds me of the spurious anecdote that circulated in England in the 18th-century that J. S. Bach sometimes played the organ with a stick in his mouth so he fill out the harmony even beyond what his hands and feet could supply.

At an important cadence in the middle of Passacaglia, in which Bach might be fooling us into believing that he is following the accepted rules of decorum with respect to the Passacaglia and end it at a reasonable juncture, the audience begins to clap prematurely.  This also indicates the gusto with which our young player marks the cyclic return of the inexorable bass line: while Hrustevich revels in the virtuosic spectacle of fingers flying and sliding and contorting over buttons, it is always clear that his is a Romantic art reliant on the grand statement. Each new variation is an eight-bar epic to be traversed, a giant obstacle to be conquered.

Hrustevich ends the piece at the close of the Passacaglia. One suspects he omitted the fugue because he didn’t want to tax his audience with too austere a stretch of Bach. The speeding polyphony of this genre-busting conclusion would have been putty in his hands. If the organ is the king of instruments, the bayan is his jester. But his act is brilliant as it is bizarre, and this fool has compelling things to say about a one of the greatest works ever written for the monarch.

From a Ukrainian community center, we move to Classical Music Night in the East Room of the White House. It was to this hall that the Obamas summoned violinist Joshua Bell, guitarist Sharon Isbin, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianist Awadagin Pratt, whose name the President stumbled over in his introduction, though not egregiously as Pratt bungled his solo contribution to the evening—Bach’s Passacagliain the transcription of the late 19th and early 20th-century piano virtuoso and mystical music theorist, Ferruccio Busoni, made a decade or so before the bayan was invented.

Seated at the goofily decorated 1938 Steinway ordered by FDR, Pratt cut a striking figure in his dreadlocks, wired rimmed spectacles and African-themed leopard-dots shirt. One of the cameras shot him from an angle such that his legs were masked by those of the piano, which carved in the shape of hulking America eagles.  From this perspective Pratt looked a strange being indeed, half man half bird. Whereas Bach ultimately set his own feet to fly over the pedal board in this piece, Pratt’s had nothing to do but put the damper pedal down and try and cover up the blunders and blights of his performance. The piano eagles’ glowering impotence was as fitting symbol of Pratt’s musical troubles as it was of waning American might more generally.

Whereas Hrustevich picked almost every note cleanly from his bayan’s miniscule buttons, Pratt’s struggled to cross even a few stretches of the East Steinway without one gaff or another, from the transparent lines to the manly octaves meant to evoke the power of the organ, especially the roaring of the pedals feet.

This barrage counted as a rather generic assault on the Bachian redoubt, albeit one emanating from the White House itself.  The flaccid way Pratt segued from the passacaglia to the fugue was a sign of the horrors to come.

It was in the final measures of the piece that the warrior, mortally wounded after his attempt to scale the turret, reached for his dirty bombs. With the piece driving towards its thrilling conclusion, the frantic pedal part pushing the music on, Bach lands on a Neapolitan chord, so called because opera composers in Naples liked to use this harmony to spice up their music in Bach’s day and before. It is an electric harmony that sides the home key and grabs a chord one-half step above it: in the Passacaglia we land on D-flat Major in a piece that in C Minor. This comes as quite jolt. Bach writes a fermata over this chord followed by the only general pause in the piece.  Few have dared to venture a cadenza here, not because they don’t want to go up against Bach’s counterpoint, but because this is not the context for rhapsodic utterance.  There are places for cadenzas in Bach’s keyboard works and this is not one of them. But the flailing Pratt went for a garish and bellowing quote of the hackneyed Toccata and Fugue in D minor, ironically transposed to the D-flat Major Neapolitan harmony of the Passacaglia’s great dramatic moment. The issue is not that the Toccata in D Minor is, as most scholars now agree, unlikely even to be by Bach. The problem with the lame cadenza was that it was infantile and stupid. I’m all for the witty aside, and Bach himself was praised by his devotees as the greatest humorist of the age. But with his silly quotation, Pratt thumbed his nose at the whole glorious work, and one couldn’t help but think that “cadenza” reflected not post-modern irreverence, but the bitter sarcasm of the vanquished.

Things got still worse. After the dark and harrowing journey of the Passacaglia finally concludes, Bach ends on a radiant C Major chord. (Hrustevich should probably do the same, if he is going to end in the middle and not do the fugue.)  At his arrival on the final chord Pratt launched directly into the opening strain of “Hail to the Chief,” a move that failed to distract those who knew anything from how poorly he had played. This creepily crass coda must count as one of the most fawning and vacuous gestures in the annals of music classical performance. Obama was seen to smile at these crimes.

The Passacaglia glowed radioactively for several weeks after Pratt detonated his musical suitcase nukes in the presence of the great and powerful arrayed in the East Room. Bits of Bachian mortar turned to powder and were blown away by the wind. But the turret did not fall. Even Barack and his courtiers couldn’t bomb Bach into oblivion.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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



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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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