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Saturday morning quotes 8.7 Fact v. Fancy

December 19, 2020


“I am prepared to believe, after sifting through all the available scientific evidence, that (1) oat bran lowers cholesterol and that (2) it does not. Meaning only that when confronted by the conflicting arguments of acknowledged experts, I tend to think both sides may be on to something. In any event, argument is the essence of truth-seeking, whether medical or musical.”

– Donal Henahan (1921 – 2012), Music View; Bach looked ahead, or was it back? New York Times, Jan. 28, 1990.

People have a peculiar way of arranging the facts in such a way as to support whatever idea they might wish to advance. This is particularly true in the world of current political discourse, where inventing facts to establish and control the narrative is the way a certain contingent of octogenarians believe the world actually works. But writers of every sort tend to draw upon favorable fragments of ideas to support a theory, sometimes speculating past the point of reason in order to lend credence to an interpretive point of view.

Take the four-note chords that appear in the Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato by J. S. Bach. Having lost touch with playing techniques of just a few generations earlier, musicians and musicologists of the late 19th century decided that Bach must have commonly used a special type of bow that enabled the violinist to sound four-note chords at once, rather than tastefully arpeggiate the notes as we now know was the custom in Bach’s time. The idea for the absurdly arched bow, equipped with a mechanical lever that engaged to slack the bow hair on demand, was first proposed by Arnold Schering (1877 – 1941), musicologist and violinist who studied with the famous 19th-century master, Joseph Joachim. A strong advocate for German nationalist music at an unfortunate moment in history, Schering was an early Bach specialist who had very instructive insights into the disposition of voices in Bach’s choral music. Schering successfully promoted the funny-bow-for-Bach idea to one Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), another noted musicologist enthralled with the music of Bach, but one whose ideals ultimately followed a very different humanitarian path.

“Every one who has heard these sonatas must have realised how sadly his material enjoyment of them falls below his ideal enjoyment…Anyone who has heard the chords of the Chaconne played without any restlessness, and without arpeggios, can no longer doubt that this is the only correct and, from the artistic standpoint, satisfactory way of playing it.”

– Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, published in 1905 (English translation by Ernest Newman published in London, 1911).

Schweitzer appreciated the musical result of using the novel bow, but acknowledged that this adaptation actually seriously attenuated the incisive brilliance of sound the violinist was able to achieve through the historically-appropriate arpeggios that Bach intended in the score. Paradoxically, filtered through the unfortunate and distinctly unhistorical mechanical contrivance of the bow, Schweitzer was able to hear Bach’s music more acutely, and made an astute observation when he wrote that it was his wish that “the works for solo violin would disappear from the programmes of the larger concerts, and be restored to the chamber music to which they really belong.”

We have come a long way towards gaining an understanding of the techniques that enable us to play old music in a manner that approximates the sounds that may have been heard in days gone by. But we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the historical context of the music as it was originally heard; in a chamber for a small gathering rather than on the concert stage. Or perhaps we understand the context but it has not been convenient to play to a more intimately-sized audience because that does not fit the 21st-century concert paradigm.

Musical sound transfers as pressure that activates the human ear but is also felt by the rest of the body when in close proximity to the source. Intricate music was meant to be heard in an intimate space by auditors who are capable of engaging with the music. Technical solutions, like the unhistorical bow, only confound the senses. But the otherwise hairy idea actually did inspire some great music by jazz violin virtuoso, Joe Venuti, who used a standard bow that was taken apart so the slack bow hair would cover all four strings. Venuti would then improvise in four-part harmony (5:45 in the video) in a manner that even Bach may have appreciated.

[E]very musician must constantly measure his instincts against the available fact. This is difficult. Often the musician (like the historian) will find a fact or a body of information which clearly contradicts his assumptions, common sense and musical instincts. This will not be the moment for an impulsive about-turn—something which is difficult enough for the historian but so much more so for the performer. The information must be stored—in the back of the mind, perhaps, or in red letters on some handy cork-board. But it must not be forgotten merely because it is for the moment ignored. That, it seems to me, is where musicology fits into the musician’s life.”

– David Fallows, review of Denis Stevens, Musicology: A Practical Guide, Macdonald, London, 1980, in Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, App. 244.

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