Bach Laughs

The first musical technology I remember operating, from the age of five, was an Estey upright piano.  The second was a stereo, the make of which I’ve forgotten, if I ever knew it.

My father taught me how to read music and to play all my major and minor my scales at the family keyboard, and it was he who showed me how to play records on the turntable.  The first one I can remember putting on myself was a Columbia LP of the Russian virtuoso David Oistrakh playing Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. To my seven-year-old self, the performance captured on that disc seemed ancient, as if it came from Bach’s own lifetime, even though the classic recording was made in 1956, then not yet two decades distant.


I loved that record and played it countless times. I was sure that I could hear the music speaking, saying something I understood. Though wordless, this instrumental work had specific even if, paradoxically, undefinable meaning—like adults conversing in another room, but much livelier and more interesting than that. (After embarking on a Ph.D., in historical musicology fifteen years later, I might have called what I was hearing “rhetorical,” having by then learned that the study of rhetoric was a crucial aspect of musical education for Bach, his predecessors, and contemporaries.)

Bach’s message moved me, literally.  I did not sit still to listen. I skipped around the room, waving my arms.  My face moved too. I smiled and laughed.

I recognized many of the musical elements—triads, arpeggios, scales— in the concerto from what I had learned at the piano.  I was enthralled by how Bach put them together, expanded on them, mixed the predictable with the unexpected, made something that captivated even after a dozen listenings in a row. My father had taught me to play a cadential pattern up of triads after finishing each scale. I could play that cadence either as chords are separate the individual notes from one another, that is, arpeggiate them. In the E-major violin concerto I think I could hear how Bach put these raw material together into thrilling music, music that had character, that was far more human and imaginative than the exercise routine of scales and chords with which I began my practice each day. What is composing but assembling distinct parts into new wholes?

The brash assertion of the concerto’s opening motto consisted of nothing more than the home key triad key separated into its constituent parts and heard in succession moving from bottom (the “tonic” note, as I would later learn to call it) to top (the “dominant” note). This statement in quarter notes resisted forward motion, yet was ready for take-off. After I’d listened to the record many times, I always heard this opening gesture as packed with potential energy that crackled in the mischievous rest that followed, like a kid waiting for a chance to grab a something forbidden before making a break for it. After the rest came a quicker repeated figure that bridged the upper two notes of the triad before rising up the octave to the home note an octave above, these elaborations still anchored to the home key.

Then the music bolted. A scale scampered up to a high B-natural that repeated nine times and sounded to me like laughter. I wanted to giggle along in time. In order to do that I had to count the exact number of repeated notes. In the opening section the figure was played by the full orchestra and alternated with solo arpeggios for the violin, the two-bar pattern moving in sequence downward by step. This meant that were three initial chances to try and count those repetitions.  On the third time the figure made a last-ditch feint, rising up a step just before playing what would have been the ninth repeated note. The line then tumbled down in a turning pattern that came to cadence setting up the first lengthy stretch for solo violin (called an “episode”). That solo section reiterated the same triadic motto of the opening before spinning off into some fancier, faster filigree, these faster notes slipped in like so many winks.

Over the course of the seven-minute movement there were yet more chances to hear that repeated-note laughter. The figure kept coming back. The opening section with the full orchestra was, I would also later learn, called the “ritornello”; separated by solo episodes, it returned in various keys often in truncated or otherwise modified form as the movement moved through time, eventually finding its way back to the tonic for a final confirming iteration.

I didn’t know then that many of these words (ritornello, arpeggio, allegro) were Italian. Nor did I know that the concerto—another Italian word—was originally an Italian genre, and that Bach’s approach to it drew both specific techniques and broader inspiration from Vivaldi. This vital influence would have seemed unlikely to me, since I was taught that Bach was a genius who towered far above the historical standing and musical talents of the “Red Priest” and his Four Seasons.

The impishness and good humor I heard in the concerto contrasted with the cover photo of Oistrakh (flanked by Isaac Stern who joined him in a Vivaldi concerto for two violins) and Ormandy at the podium. These men who were all business.  Classical Music was serious stuff. All those the album covers in my parents’ collection showing tuxedoed maestros had gotten another message across:  even though one “played” music, practicing and performing it was not about having fun. Maybe listening shouldn’t be fun either. Maybe one prayed music rather than played it.

These suspicions were confirmed by images of Bach I saw in books and on other records—the frowning face beneath the stiff wig, told me that no music was more sober or studious than his.  Yet even in austere Oistrakh’s mid-century performance that I later came to reevaluate as suffering under the weight of massed strings, the concerto remained enthralling, unpredictable, irreverent.

A few years later, like a child who easily learns a foreign language then just as easily forgets it, I lost the ability to understand the concerto in the way that I had. The piece still conveyed a mood, yet it did not speak to me. But it still laughed.


Here’s newer, spritelier performance on period instruments from the busy bunch at All of Bach:

Next Week: Glenn Gould shows me how to Invent Bach.

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