If you are moved by Mischa Maisky’s or Anner Bylsma’s versions of the Bach cello suites, does it matter that they’re not the way Bach heard them? I like Baroque cellists’ interpretations of the Bach suites, which may be closer to his intentions, but I absolutely wouldn’t be without modern interpretation. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin are another example: they are available in Baroque renditions, but my favorites are played with more vibrato and expression, in a post-Romantic style. And the Goldberg Variations? Like many I prefer them played on an instrument Bach never heard, the modern piano, with nuance not available to him, and I would bridle at these versions being called “illegitimate.” Seeking to justify my bias, I came to my own conclusions about it after connecting it to Robert Goldwater’s theory of African masks.
When 20th c. European artists first set eyes on African tribal art, they were amazed. So much that they were striving toward was already there, in the masks and the fetish figures. How could “primitive” hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers in a hostile tropical clime, using only rudimentary tools, have achieved such raw emotional power, or even more unlikely, such elegant abstractions? And more remarkable was that these objects weren’t “art for art’s sake”—a meaningless concept in their societies—but facilitators of ceremony, mere adjuncts of religious services. And yet they seemed more “advanced” than our most avant-garde art.
Goldwater had an answer: termites. Sub-Saharan cultures had no available marble or other permanent materials to fashion; they had to work with wood. And wood breaks down, rots unavoidably, or gets eaten by insects over time, particularly in a tropical environment. So Africans had constantly to re-fashion their masks and objects, carve new versions. They were traditionalists and wanted to keep the original forms, of course, but what happened was that generations of carvers inevitably added their unconscious changes in the direction of more ideal, more powerful, or more efficient form, with the stunning results that so impressed the Europeans. Goldwater called this “collective genius”: not that one or two carvers were preternaturally gifted and made innovations in form (that would have been discouraged anyway), but that multiple generations served collectively to create the effect of genius.
The obscure history of many of Bach’s works for solo instruments, together with the relative lack of musical notation of his time, have allowed successive generations of cellists, violinists, and keyboard artists the license to interpret them with relative freedom. Undoubtedly they have been “romanticized,” but perhaps it’s the nature of Bach’s lack of notation, or the nature of the music itself, to permit and even reward stylistic exploration. So both Bach and the “modern ear” can be royally served. I’ve loved Casals’ renditions of the suites and Landowska’s of the Goldberg, for example, but it seems even in my lifetime that succeeding cellists and violinists and keyboard artists have found new depths and marvels in these works. So not just Bach’s genius but the equivalent of collective genius has been afoot, and we are the beneficiaries.
I’m sure this collective genius applies, though maybe not quite so dramatically, with successive performances of other European music down through the years, and at an accelerated pace, now, with advances in recording and dissemination. Styles change, “golden ages” come and go, and there are inevitably missteps in stylistic pomp or flash or ponderousness along the way. But musicians listen to other musicians, positive contributions accrue, and musical interpretation generally goes deeper with each generation, I think. Anyway, that’s my theory as borrowed from Dr. Goldwater! I’m open to hear others, however.
Curt Barnes is a visual artist who lives and works in New York City.
This month at the Great Composers Appreciation Society, we are listening to selections on the theme of “Less is More.” Our first selection is J. S. Bach’s Cello Suite No.3 In C Major BWV 1009. To see the entire list of selections for this listening month, click here.
J.S. Bach : Cello Suite No.3 In C Major BWV 1009 (Anner Bylsma)
Selected Books by Robert Goldwater
Primitivism in Modern Painting. New York University, 1937 (listed in the Goldwater bio here)
Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1964