Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I love Bach even when it's played badly

Lately, I have had the pleasure of working on lots of Bach with my students.  I wish I could take credit for the fact that so many of them are working on major Bach works at the moment, but in fact it just seems to be coincidence - I try to not impose my will too much on students when it comes to choosing repertoire, though I certainly do suggest things and, when given a menu of options, I do express my preferences.  (I do encourage a variety or repertoire each semester, and some students are preparing for auditions where will be required to play Bach.)  As a child, I loved Bach more than any other composer - I'm not even sure who was in 2nd place for me.  At some later point, I came to appreciate that other composers might be equally great, while being different in their aesthetics and their aims. 

What I've noticed over the years is that Bach's music sounds great, even when it is played badly.  Or at least I can say that *I* enjoy it even when it is played badly.  (I wonder if this might limit my ability to teach Bach well, since a bad performance still has its merits).  This is not at all true of, say, Scriabin.  A good performance makes the music sound great, but a bad performance makes it unbearable. 

I would like to offer the following hypothesis (one which I admit is not well thought-out): one measure of how much we like something is whether we can still enjoy a mediocre form of it.  For example, I love great Chinese food, but if I am in an airport and they have one of those "fast food" Chinese places, I won't eat there.  On the other hand, I can eat Mexican food or Pizza no matter how sub-par it is.  I think that is a measure of how much more I like Mexican food than Chinese food.  Likewise with country music - I don't like it at all, except when I hear Patsy Cline or perhaps a few other really great singers.  Now chocolate - I can eat almost any level of chocolate and be thrilled - whether it's truffles from the famous Sprungli in Zurich (where they won't sell it to you unless you promise to eat it within a couple of days) or last year's Halloween handouts. 

What do you think? 


Stan said...

I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. I have applied your hypothesis to some of my "likes" and found my tolerance is greater when I like something more, no doubt about it!!!

ckoh71 said...

Max, have you ever seen a film called The Chronicles of Anna Magdelena Bach? It's by these avant-garde filmmakers named Straub-Huillet made in the late 60s (in fact there's this weird quote by the filmmakers saying how the film represents their solidarity with the Viet Cong since they were Marxists - but the film itself doesn't have anything to do with Vietnam or Marxism) and consists almost solely of performances of Bach on period instruments by musicians dressed up in period clothes (who are supposed to be Bach or his wife or his colleagues). There are also voice overs from Bach's diaries where he complains about not getting paid enough or not getting such and such position as music director at a various church. It's a pretty fascinating film & definitely worth seeing as a Bach fan. I don't know if it's available on DVD since I saw it at a Film Society of Lincoln Center special screening.

Daniel Jepson said...

Very interesting thought....but I would suggest that "mediocrity-resistance" is a property of the object as well as of the subject's relation to it. For example, I don't think that anyone who loves philosophy has much use for bad philosophy, nor is an ability to appreciate bad philosophy indicative of superior love of the subject (quite the opposite, if anything.) Some things are simply dependent on high quality in order to be of any value to even their most fervent admirers.