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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 6 Class of 1685 (I)
Richard Taruskin

Here, too, there is significant role reversal: in a way the soloists, who begin alone, and the ripieno, who follow, have exchanged functions. Once again a breach of traditional social hierarchies is suggested, albeit nothing on the scale of the colossal trespass or transgression committed by the harpsichord in the first movement, which one commentator has aptly compared to a hijacking.3 What do all these reversals, mixtures, and transgressions signify?

For a long time they were thought to signify only the fertility of Bach’s composerly imagination. And yet (without wishing to slight that imagination in any way) interpreting them so may not do their strangeness justice. Historians have lately begun to wonder whether, given the frequency with which the orchestra was compared with a social organism and described in terms of social or military hierarchy, Bach’s musical transgressions might not resonate with ideas of social transgression.

Two such hypotheses have attracted scholarly attention (and provided the grounds, it should be obvious, for a great deal of scholarly debate). One, put forth by Susan McClary in an article that appeared during Bach’s tricentennial year, 1985, straightforwardly compared the harpsichord’s behavior with political subversion. By suggesting “the possibility of social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow,” McClary argued, Bach may have been weighing the pros and cons of “an ideology that wants to encourage freedom of expression while preserving social harmony.”4 Such a vision or fantasy did indeed preoccupy many social thinkers in the eighteenth century. Historians refer to the period during which this vision gained ground as the age of “Enlightenment,” an age of secularism and anti-aristocratic thinking during which the ideals of an economically empowered middle class were cast as “universal” progressive ideals. In McClary’s view, the harpsichord’s behavior was a kind of symbolic “storming of the Bastille” some seventy years before the French Revolution turned Enlightened fantasy into political reality.5 She suggested that the concerto as a whole symbolically enacted “the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.”

Resistance to this hypothesis was swift and stout, fueled on the one hand by the absence of any corroborating evidence that Bach was interested in—or even knew about—the political theories of the Enlightenment, and on the other hand by an unwillingness to let the music alone provide the evidence. Yet once the idea had been broached that unusual musical behavior could be, and probably was, motivated by (or at least resonant with) ideas or circumstances that were abroad in the wider world, it became difficult to ignore the possibility without appearing to slight or disregard the unusualness of the music, and thereby diminish it.

An alternative proposal was offered by Michael Marissen, a Bach scholar who sympathized with McClary’s general tendency to seek explanations for exceptional musical phenomena in the world of historical ideas, but who had misgivings about her ascription to Bach of social ideas that were so little shared among German Lutherans. Following Luther himself, Bach and his co-religionists entertained conservative social attitudes and placed great value on the stability of existing institutions—exactly what Bach’s harpsichordist (indeed, Bach himself, as the imagined protagonist of the part) seemed bent on destroying.

And yet, as Marissen pointed out, Lutheran theologians, while supporting the necessity of social hierarchies on earth, have always reminded believers that there will be no social hierarchy in the world to come. Bach is known to have actively endorsed the notion that accepted musical hierarchies also represent “the God-ordained order of things in this world.”6 And therefore, Marissen suggests, if Bach appears to violate or transgress those musical hierarchies, the aim “is not to show that Bach advocated or foresaw revolutionary action against contemporary social hierarchies but rather to suggest that he may be telling or reminding his listeners of the significant Lutheran viewpoint that such figurations have only to do with the present world and therefore are without ultimate significance.” If this view is accepted, then an apparent contradiction in McClary’s argument would seem to have been resolved, while leaving the social commentary in place. And yet to accept this view of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto may require of us an even greater tour de force of historical imagination, leading to an even greater sense of Bach’s strangeness. McClary’s reading of the concerto, even if it is anachronistic or foreign to Bach himself, nevertheless resonates strongly with the beliefs and values of many listeners today, especially in the United States of America, a country founded on the Enlightenment principles that occupy the foreground of McClary’s discussion (a discussion that perhaps could only have been authored by a twentieth-century American).

Marissen’s reading, while it attributes to Bach himself no foreign or anachronistic belief, is fundamentally foreign to the beliefs and values of Bach’s likely listeners today and to the “use” that we are likely to make of the music. It asks us to believe that a set of instrumental concertos, composed in one secular environment (the domestic musical establishment of a German prince) and destined to be consumed in another (today’s public concerts and recording industry), nevertheless expresses in its essence a fundamentally religious outlook on the world. By implication it requires us to be prepared to regard all of Bach’s secular music as possibly containing a hidden religious advisory.

Of course (as Marissen reminds us), Bach wrote for a very different audience from the one that he willy-nilly addresses today, and a much smaller one. That audience might well have been primed to receive messages we no longer look for in such music. And the enthusiastic embrace today’s audience has given Bach’s music is surely enough to show that appreciating its religious message is by no means a requirement for enjoying it. And yet there may be ways in which the idea that Bach was an essentially religious composer even in his secular instrumental works might nevertheless enhance modern understanding and enjoyment of his music, even by listeners who will never set foot in a Lutheran church or set much store by the religious message Bach’s works might embody.

To test the notion, we will return in the next chapter to Handel, of all Bach’s German contemporaries perhaps the most secular in inspiration and expression, and give his work a look of comparable closeness. That work will chiefly be vocal, since Handel’s chief contribution was to vocal genres. But then so was Bach’s, although the place of his instrumental music in the standard repertory has somewhat occluded and belied that important fact. And so after revisiting Handel, we will return once more to Bach and to the vocal music that reveals him as an explicitly, not merely an implicitly, religious composer.


(3) Susan McClary, “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year,” in Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, eds. S. McClary and R. Leppert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 26.

(4) Ibid., p. 41.

(5) Ibid., p. 40.

(6) Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 114–15.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 6 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Class of 1685 (I)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 6 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-06011.xml