A stunning keyboard break

I keep meaning to give an introduction to the work of Susan McClary, which (both for its ideas and its lively language) has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962. Don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 7.17ish:

Reception history is always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights too (from 21.19ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

One thought on “A stunning keyboard break

  1. Pingback: Flamenco, 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance | Stephen Jones: a blog

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