“…nicht Bach, sondern Meer.”

While working on the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, I’m reminded of Beethoven’s eloquent estimation: that his name should not have been Bach (brook) but Meer (ocean). Truthfully, I’m reminded of that when I study or listen to any of Bach’s music, but perhaps none more so when it comes to the solo works.

What could be mistaken for limited examples of Bach’s craft (by virtue of having been written for a single instrument), the solo partitas, sonatas, and suites turn out to be some of the most sublime and sophisticated expressions of his art (or, perhaps of anyone’s art). Johannes Brahms echoes this notion in a well-known statement he made about the Chaconne:

“The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”

At every moment there is the relentless, if invisible, progression of harmony. No phrase, motive, or even single note goes unsupported by this “imaginary continuo”, and it is as intense an aspect of expression as it is of design. It is the implication of the harmony that contextualizes the melody; it is his masterful treatment of motive and phrase that dictate the position and expression of the harmony; the confluence and divide between the two manifests as form. An analogy can be found in the quantum theory of light: Just as light can be described as particles that behave like a wave, so too Bach’s music for solo violin and cello can be described as melody that behaves like harmony.

“Observing” one aspect of the music in isolation, such as the vertical (i.e. harmony) will yield chord members, embellishing tones, position, etc. But when apprehended in real-time (i.e. in performance), the connectedness of the linear properties (melody) prevail. “Music”, then, could be described as having a metaphorical wave function, which collapses when we try to observe the vertical apart from the horizontal, or vice versa. But this is only if we start from a false presumption: that a pitch, motive, or other gesture has to belong to one or the other. (I think of this seeming contradiction instead as a false dichotomy: Melody is a function of time—a series of connected iterations—whereas harmony is not. Therefore melody and harmony are not mutually exclusive—a pitch can be observed as a member of both melody and harmony simultaneously).

Of course, there’s much more to this story, including the cultural biases of Western tonality and the compositional preference-rules of the German Baroque, not to mention the incomplete analogy between music (as an art form) and observable science. But there is something captivating, transcendent, and compelling in thinking of these pieces as oscillating between two opposing (if not contradictory) states, and existing only as “music” when they pass together through time (i.e. listening, performing, or audiating). That when we attempt to observe music as either/or, “music” collapses; that it is most meaningfully apprehended as an undivided whole despite the elegance of the component parts. This description could be extended outward, to all of music.

And even though Heisenberg may have been Uncertain, it’s perfectly alright for music to occupy an indefinable space. In fact, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

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2 Responses to “…nicht Bach, sondern Meer.”

  1. musicalassumptions says:

    Nice post, Sean! Do you, by any chance, know who first made that wonderful BACH graphic? I used to know, and have forgotten. It’s driving me crazy. All I can remember is that a napkin was involved.

    [For your readers who do not read C clefs, the pitch when read by rotating the graphic counter-clockwise begins with the treble clef B flat, which in German is called “B;” the tenor clef names the pitch as “A,” the alto clef names it as “C,” and the final treble clef without the flat makes the pitch “H,” which is German for B-natural.]


    • Sean says:

      Thanks, Elaine!

      I too have forgotten when this musical puzzle was first written. As with many puzzle canons, it may well have its origins in “table-top” music, which could explain your napkin memory.

      P.S.: If the readers can’t read the C-clefs, they probably can’t read the other ones, either. Though this “signature cross” is well-known, I think puzzles are more fun when you don’t provide the answers right away.


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