The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: In his new book “Reinventing Bach,” culture critic Paul Elie tracks how music and technology interact through the avatars of Johann Sebastian Bach. | October 13, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

If you are anything like The Ear, you have heard the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in many different forms and for a very long time through many different technologies.

You have heard the music of Bach (below) performed on the organ, the harpsichord, the modern piano and the electronic synthesizer; on string instruments with both gut and steel; in arrangements by winds and brass; in chamber ensembles and in small orchestras; in choirs and with solo vocalists; on vinyl LPs, plastic CD and via digital downloads.


And if you are like me, you think that such flexibility is one reason why Johann Sebastian Bach (below) continues to be The Big Bang of Western classical music, a composer of quantity and quality unrivaled by his own contemporaries, his predecessors or his followers.

Some will disagree with that, of course, and argue that it is pointless to argue who is The Best or The No. 1 Composer, when there is so much greatness to choose from.

But even many musicians felt that way. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Mahler all revered Bach.

So what makes Bach’s music so great?

One measure can be found in how it has survived so many different changes of technology and even prospered through that technology to find new audiences and new uses.

Last week, The New York Times’ senior music critic, Anthony Tommasini  (below top) wrote a fine and perceptive story about a new book — the title is “Reinventing Bach” (below bottom) — by award-wnning culture critic Paul Elie that tracks how Bach has survived such changes.

Elie singles out the late pianist Glenn Gould as one of the landmarks of modern Bach interpretations. (At bottom, you can hear Gould’s two entirely different recordings, the first in analogue stereo on vinyl and the second in digital sound issued on a CD,  of the opening aria from Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.)

It will be interesting to see what other Big Critics – say, Alex Ross of The New Yorker magazine – have to say when they weigh in.

The book by Paul Elie (below), is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux – where Elie, who also writes for Commonweal magazine, is an editor — and stands on its own as a recommendation. But with the holiday gift-giving season just around the corner, one can well imagine packaging the book with some wonderful recording of Bach on period instruments or modern instruments, in original version of transcriptions.

Here is a link:

What do you think of the main thesis and ideas?

Of J.S. Bach and technology?

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. […] Classical music: In his new book “Reinventing Bach,” culture critic Paul Elie tracks how… ( […]

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  3. Counterpoint is ideally suited to adaptations. Music of most other composers is not mainly or exclusively contrapuntal. This is the main reason why Bach gets re-invented whenever some new way of making noises gets put up for sale. Switched-On Beethoven, Ravel, or even Mozart would take a LOT more thick textures, and sound too much like the acoustic originals.
    The music is as great as it comes, but it is also a bit of a bane. Most conservatories and music schools require some Bach, such as a Prelude and Fugue, as an audition requirement. Yet the music is not actually performed much on regular recital programs. It is usually heard when played by so-called Bach specialists, who really dig this stuff, and make an entire career out of it. The Myra Hess, Egon Petri, Busoni and Szambati transcriptions are much more often played by non-specialists.
    I once had a Moog Prodigy monophonic synth. I made some 1/8 reel-to-reel, sound-on-sound overdubbed recordings of some Bach chorale harmonizations. It was kinda easy to do.
    I play Bach, I play transcriptions, I compose, I play synths. But Bach is not my all-time composer hero, because our modern ears have come too far away from the Time of Counterpoint, although there is more dissonance in those 4-voice goodies than most people think!

    Comment by Michael BB — November 1, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  4. […] Classical music: In his new book “Reinventing Bach,” culture critic Paul Elie tracks how… ( […]

    Pingback by Kids and music | Episyllogism: Phil & Lit — October 25, 2012 @ 8:42 am

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