Bach ‘On the Move’: The Six Brandenburg Concertos.

Published on 28.08.2018, 12:00

Moving one’s body to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is not a self-evident affair. Indeed, as a composer, Bach never took to composing straightforward ballet music – unlike, for instance, composers such as Telemann or Rameau. Even his instrumental dance forms, like the orchestra and harpsichord suites, were never explicitly meant for dancing.

Still, one can examine the question from a broader perspective. After all, Bach has been going places for such a long time now. From the moment Mendelssohn brought the St Matthew Passion back to life in 1829, more than one hundred years after its première, Bach’s music itself was given a tremendous boost, creating musical pulsations of such magnitude that they were bound to last through the coming centuries. After two hundred years, these pulsations have now travelled such a great distance that it is no exaggeration to say that not a single day, hour or minute passes by without works by Bach being played somewhere in the world.

Apparently, the music of the Thomas Cantor is of such compelling force that even three centuries after its creation it still manages to move people on a visceral level. The universal nature of Bach’s music turned out to be so substantial and groundbreaking that his work even survives a variety of non-authentic influences. No matter how one looks at Bach’s music – provided it is treated with due respect and insight – its stature remains beyond dispute.

In fact, the attempt to ‘move one’s body’ to Bach’s music, even though the composer never hinted at it, even appears logical, almost self-evident, when looked upon more closely. To understand this, one must look at Bach’s own place within the history of music. Bach lived at a remarkable moment in history, at the crossroads of two developments that took up a total of several centuries.

Back to the past: the stile antico

Firstly, his music inevitably looked back to a distant past. This development (which will later, in the baroque era, be labelled ‘stile antico’) began in the thirteenth century when the first simple forms of polyphony were slowly taking shape; they gradually evolved from the simple canon to the famous Dutch School (Orlande de Lassus, Josquin des Prez) into the illustrious art of polyphony. In polyphony, all voices are considered of equal import. This art would continue to develop until it reached its peak with Bach. Bach’s work is the successful synthesis of everything that preceded him: the perfection of such a summary, to which nothing of consequence could really be added, meant the final point had been reached – all possibilities had been exhausted.

The music from Bach’s early period betrays a strong focus on the figure of the Creator, on God. Music, in this sense, was to serve one single purpose: to act as a reflection of the cosmic order and of the divine laws of creation, impersonal, objective and clearly proportioned. And this fitted perfectly with the worldview of the time, which was marked by a need to find correlations in all matter of things. This was still very solidly entrenched in the ideas of Pythagoras: musicology, arithmetic (study of numbers) and cosmology (study of astronomy and astrology) were considered the highest of sciences. The relationship music-numbers-cosmos continued into the Baroque period: Johann Sebastian Bach adhered to these old traditions.

Looking into the future: the stile nuovo

Secondly, Bach’s music points to a new future. In the early seventeenth-century, Italy had become known as the birthplace of an entirely new form of musical expression. One melody took the lead in this form, and was supported by the other voices in a consonant effort called harmony, which was vertical in nature. The melody could become extremely expressive, the accompanying voices simply continued to support (basso continuo).  The operas of Claudio Monteverdi were a first expression of this ‘stile nuovo’.

Also during this period, music came to serve an entirely different societal function. In parallel to a changing world view, a new style of music-making shifted emphasis from God to humankind. Music no longer served to give expression to God’s perfect creation (the Music of the Spheres), but was given a purely mundane purpose, which was to please humankind, to excite the senses and evoke emotions… in short, to move people. Music increasingly became a language people could understand.

This new musical style was strongly influenced by the old Latin and Greek Ars Retorica. A composition was increasingly viewed as a discourse, a story, with a structural and emotional content which both the composer and the musicians were to use in order to convince the audience. In the end, this resulted in the formulation of a musical rhetoric that was entirely in keeping with the rules and regulations of the Ars Rhetorica itself – in terms of both the structural composition of a musical story, and the application of all manner of rhetorical figures – which was required to amplify the plastic effect on the audience. This process involved the various musical elements – including key, interval, rhythm, motif, harmony, tempo and so on – to be endowed with their very own emotional meaning. This would enable several entities; firstly, the composer and, secondly, the musician, who was to summon affects of the greatest possible variety, ranging from negative emotions like sadness, fear, aggression, despair and melancholy to positive ones like joy, ecstasy, assurance, peace, harmony, etc.

At a crossroads of two traditions

As mentioned previously, Bach lived in a time when both these two traditions were at a crossroads. He successfully bridged the two and arrived at an ingenious synthesis. Not only did he fully master all the elements of the old style, he was also a master in applying musical rhetoric and inventing (‘invenire’) the very special musical techniques required to express a delicate emotional value.

An essential part of the Latin Ars Rhetorica was the presentation of reason, the story of the rhetorician. The manner in which this story was told determined to a great extent the success of the suggestive nature of the discourse. First and foremost this concerned matters like the tempo of the discourse, the articulation, intonation, accentuation, the timing of pauses, and so on. Furthermore, it involved an intense experience of the story to the extent that all affects would reach the audience.

But no less important was the composure and the movement of the body, the mimicry and especially the gestures, the language of signs that accompanied it. The movement of the entire human body constituted, as it were, the final link to draw the attention and the imagination of the audience to the content of the discourse to the greatest possible effect.

It would seem, then, that with a musical discourse these elements play a subordinate role because the player is in need of all his bodily faculties (arms, fingers, feet, mouth) to provide a correct rendering of the score. Here dancers have free scope: the task of the musicians to award Bach’s penetrating rhetorical power with pure physical expression is compensated by the physical patterns of the dancers.

This makes it possible to experience the confluence of three closely related arts in the unique creation of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concerts: the spoken word, which fashions itself in accordance with music, and is completed in the art of movement. These are the immaterial arts, unfolding in time, contrary to the more material, concrete arts like painting or sculpting.

This extraordinary triumvirate allows for an unparalleled, in-depth exploration of Bach’s own musical narrative. The result is a harmonious dialogue that is logical, functional and, most importantly, emotional.

Kees van Houten

Kees van Houten was born in Helmond in 1940. After a grammar school education, he undertook training in piano- and organ-playing at the Brabant Conservatory in Tilburg. From 1957 to 2008, he was the organist of the St Lambert Church in Helmond where, for more than fifty years, he played the historical 1772 Robustelly organ. From 1971 to 1992, he was head teacher of organ at the Faculty of Music of the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht. He and Marinus Kasbergen co-authored the book ‘Bach en het getal’ (1985) and ‘Bach, die Kunst der Fuge en het getal’ (1989).
In the series ‘Van Taal tot Klank’, he went on to publish 14 books on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, with topics including the cross shape in the St Matthew Passion, the Hohe Messe and the Weihnachts-Oratorium.

As a concert organist, Kees van Houten has held numerous international performances. In addition, he gives lectures, workshops and interpretation training on Bach to professionals as well as to amateurs and laypeople in the Netherlands and beyond.

Kees van Houten was very closely involved in the preparation of the choreography of the Brandenburg Concertos.