Bach’s Awkwardness

Listening to the wildly beautiful Concerto For Violin, Strings & Continuo No. 1 In A Minor, Bwv 1041 by J.S. Bach (1685-1750). In Bach's music (though I'm no expert) there is always a struggle between order & disorder, with order usually triumphing in the end. In many passages the music sounds as if it will simply disappear in clouds of its own energy. Of all the forms Bach worked in, the concerto makes this conflict most explicit, though the suite for solo cello also demonstrates: The instrument seems to be at war with itself, singing to itself, the starting an argument that will usually be worked out by the end of each section, even if the synthesis of order & disorder is partial, provisional, incomplete. This sense of incompleteness may be the reason that modern listeners have been so taken with Bach's music, after it had lain unperformed for three centuries. One of the hallmarks of modernity is way(s) in which it regards all structures & systems (aesthetic, political, commercial) as provisional. Bach's concertos require the full attention of the listener & not just aural attention, but moral, aesthetic & intellectual as well. In musical terms, it seems that the composer is constantly challenging the limits of genre, but even more startlingly challenging the harmonic conventions of this music subsequent centuries would later call "classical." That may be the wrong way of putting it: Perhaps we hear Bach's harmonies as revolutionary only in retrospect. It may be more accurate to hear Bach as one of the primary inventors of a new music & thus composing harmonies that later--after the canons of taste had been established--would be seen as "mistakes." In his willingness to court disaster, Bach resembles the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542), a courtier & diplomat to Henry VIII.[1. Biography.] who wrote during a period in which the English pentameter line was just emerging into dominance & it is only in retrospect that his prosody sounds awkward. Examples: "Whoso List To Hunt," "They Flee from Me." My bringing these two towering geniuses is to some extent arbitrary, but I want to think about the ways in which similar aesthetic problems can crop up in widely dissimilar contexts. My working hypothesis, then is that the arts do not progress, but solve the same fundamental problems. It is the very awkwardness--the willingness to risk failure[2. c.f. Thomas Kuhn on ordinary science versus revolutionary science.]--that marks the great artist from the mediocre, though it is the run-of-the-mill practitioner who sets the dominant aesthetic mode of a particular period. Bach's music has sometimes been disparaged as mechanical, or "intellectual" & his work virtually disappeared during the Romantic period, but anyone who has attended to the Brandenburg Concertos or the suites for solo cello should be disabused of that notion. Bach's work, if I were forced to characterize it in general is that it is filled with a longing for resolution that seldom comes. The concerto offers a form that can dramatize  the resolution of order & disorder. What particularly attracts me to the form is a philosophical drama in which the forces of disorder threaten to dominate the aesthetic space of the concert or recording--and where the anarchic is recognized & respected.
The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternate episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music's flow. (Wikipedia)
Perhaps I am drawn to the concerto as a form because it draws up the curtain that usually keeps us from peeping into Desolation Row--that it is capable of accommodating the need for security--woven together-- while at the same time recognising & honoring the forces of disorder that continually threaten the comfortable, orderly, bourgeois art of a given period. And this is why artists like Bach & Wyatt are awkward: unlike the bourgeois conventional art of their time & place, they must struggle to find their way, wrong moves & all. In fact, it is the embodiment of those struggles in poetical or musical form that is the greatest & most admirable achievement of their work. Awkwardness, then, in my poetics, is a term of approbation, for beneath the apparently confused & difficult face such work presents, the most essential arguments are playing out. "Electricity howls in the bones of her face."[3. Bob Dylan.]

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.