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Bach’s Beat

The Bach-o-sphere has been inundated this week by reports of a new study that purports to show that the performance of the Great Man’s music is getting faster, and doing so rapidly—as much as thirty percent quicker in just fifty years. At this rate an earbud-equipped aficionado will be able to imbibe the entire Art of Fugue (traditionally about a ninety-minute outing) in the time it takes to polish of a pumpkin frappuccino.

The claims about the quickening pace of Bach performance were issued in connection with BACH 333, a hugely ambitious recorded set of the composer’s complete works filled out with numerous “enhancements.” This box-set monument was assembled by the Universal Music Group under whose vast corporate umbrella the Deutsche Grammophon and Decca labels both now seek refuge against the market forces that have long laid waste to swathes of the classical music recording industry.  BACH 333 resists these forces with opulence and assurance and—it would seem—faster tempos.

Bach would have turned a third of a millennium this past March, and it’s a clever ploy to seek another anniversary to tout his music, though on seeing this project’s title I was expecting a retro move of bringing out his entire corpus on vinyl. The LP turns at 33 1/3 revolutions a minute—the perfect pace to mark Bach’s third-of-a-millennium birthday. However enticing for hipsters and analog-geeks, the noble format would require that most buyers get a mini-storage space for their Bach. Rather less bulky, but not exactly stocking-stuffer, BACH 333 is comprised of 222 CDs—another aesthetically pleasing number that may have been appreciated by Bach, who was, some have claimed, fascinated by figures and proportions. Along with the discs come hardback books: a biography and a collection of essays by leading scholars. The latest catalog of all his works is thrown in for good measure.

The project brings together the best of historically-informed interpretations played on antique instruments and led by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner (who provides a written “Welcome” to the collection), Ton Koopman and others, as well as vintage materials, valuable in their own right but also fascinating in tracing the evolving traditions of Bach interpretation in the age of recorded sound. There are premieres as well; harpsichord and organ works are recorded anew by young stars, Justin Taylor and Christian Schmitt, and the solo violin music gets yet another reading courtesy of the towering Italian virtuoso Giuliano Carmignola. Also included are eight CDs of music by composers who influenced Bach and whose music he knew, performed, and arranged; another eight discs collect the work of composers and performers inspired by him, beginning with his own sons and extending into our own time and also beyond the borders of classical music. The set retails for upwards of $500,  which doesn’t strike me as much of an outlay for the expertise and effort, the sumptuousness of the product, its historical reach, and the quality of the performances—not to mention the sheer quantity on offer.  To listen to the whole stack at one sitting would take two weeks round the clock.

It is from the cache of multiple performances of the same work spanning many decades that the shift in velocity has been noted by the curatorial team at the Universal Music Group. The set includes no fewer than five versions of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor (BWV 1043). It is one of the best-known and oft-played pieces of classical music, not least because of its central position in the Suzuki String Method whose worldwide convocations often include dozens, even hundreds of young violinists, on each of the solo parts.

BACH 333 includes a performance of the concerto from 1961 by David and Igor Oistrakh. It takes the famed Russian father-and-son pair more than seventeen minutes to get through the work. The latest version in the set comes from 2016 and Nemanja Radulovic & Tijana Milosevic. They gambol through the work’s three movements in just twelve.

Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the editorial overseer of BACH 333, chalks this hastening beat—also noted by previous studies in the realm of pop—to modern audiences’ taste for lighter more sprightly interpretations of the music of certain composers, chief among them Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Kenyon is former head of the BBC Proms, and also has served as music critic for the New Yorkerand editor of the scholarly journal Early Music. He’s a man of impressive intellectual range and engagement, and his views on the perceived quickening are hard to challenge.

Yet one doesn’t really need statistical buttress to come to the same conclusion about the fact of faster of tempos.  The BACH 333 promotional trailer makes it manifestly clear that modern Bachists are in a hurry: the timpani of Christmas Oratorio proclaim great things to come, spurring the cascade of strings into a full gallop right out of the gate, the snorting steed urged on by trumpet blasts. Dynamic CGI images of the box and its beckoning contents entice the prospective buyer as the glories of Bach at his most brisk rip past: high-speed snippets of the exuberant soprano cantata Jauchzet Gott in den Allen Landenmorph into a supercharged Italian Concerto on harpsichord racing headlong into the cross-hand antics of the first keyboard partita ion modern piano and into the frenetic flute Badinerie from the B-Minor Orchestral Suite (in baroque pitch that matches the preceding B-flat of the preceding). And the promo isn’t even half way done yet!  I was feeling woozy after just that much, and if anything, the pace accelerated all the way to the marketing Amen. It’s a topsy-turvy highlight reel as bruising as NFL Hits of the Week, and should probably come with a health advisory for anyone with heart palpitations.

Things are indeed getting faster, and not just on the Bach double.

In doesn’t take an Einstein to know that musical speed and its perception are relatively matters, dependent on taste and custom.  According to Bach’s second Carl Philip Emanuel, his father generally took a “very lively” tempo as a conductor.  Whether that was as quick as the opening of the Christmas Oratorio on the BACH 333 trailer is anyone’s guess.  Even in the eighteenth century, particularly in church, the Germans were renowned, even notorious, for the glacial progress of their music-making. After having visited Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Hamburg in 1772, the English traveler and music historian Charles moved on to the Hanseatic city of Bremen. On entering the cathedral there one Sunday he heard the organist start into a hymn at a “true dragging pace.”  Bored after “ten or twelve verses,” Burney went sight-seeing for two hours, but on his return, he claimed, certainly in a sardonic vein, that the congregation was “still singing all in unison, and as loud as they could, the same tune, to the same accompaniment.”

Did this lugubriousness apply to Bach’s lively Italianate music for the coffee house, princely chamber, and also church? One doubts it.

Whatever the case, the BACH 333 findings fuel the notion that time is short, that the end is near. Aside from the question of how fast Bach played, sang, or conducted his own music, it’s an attitude he might have shared, if we consider the profusion of millenarian tracts that appeared in his teenage years in the run up to the year 1700 with its ominous double zeroes. That very midnight was also the moment at which the Protestant Germany switched to the Gregorian calendar. Eleven days were suddenly edited from time’s tape.  According to many of the day’s theologically-informed opinions, Bach was lucky to be granted the ensuing decades to get down to the business of being Bach. It could have all ended in the first minutes of the 1700.

We live an age of acceleration:  ever more quickly the earth heats up, the glaciers melt, the species die.  It makes intuitive sense that we feel, perhaps like Bach did, that there just isn’t time to get it all in before the Apocalypse.

But ours is also an age of unfathomable of freedom in which the listener no longer need be subjugated by the will of the performer. With DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software one can speed up or slow down to individual preference any recording without changing its pitch. If there is to be a future ushered in by BACH 333, it will be one of Extreme Listening in which the whole of his creation can be raced through in a single day—or a single sublime measure extended into eternity.

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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  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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