Fjordman: A History of European Music Part II

Fjordman has posted Part II of “A History of European Music” at Atlas Shrugs. Some excerpts are below:

The organ is one of the oldest instruments still in use in Western music. Its earliest history is so buried in Antiquity that it is difficult to reconstruct, but the first organ we know of was the hydraulis, or water organ, from about 250 BC, created by the innovative Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria, a pioneer in the use of compressed air. It was used for public entertainments and circus games in ancient Rome. The first recorded appearance of an exclusively bellow-fed organ was not until almost 400 years later. By the eighth century AD organs were being built in Christian Europe, and from the tenth century their association with churches had been established. By the seventeenth century all the essential elements of the instrument had been developed. It was during the High Baroque period that the organ reached its greatest popularity and found its greatest composer in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

In the eighteenth century for the first time, many of the greatest European composers came from the German-speaking regions of the continent: Handel, the Bach family, Haydn, Mozart and finally Beethoven and Wagner. Britain, in contrast, became a virtual colony for foreign musicians, and largely remained so until the twentieth century. While the Italians and the French were proud and often resisted foreign ideas, German and Austrian composers blended the best from the native tradition with other traditions and created a very successful synthesis. German-speaking Central Europe continued to be divided among hundreds of political entities, from large states such as Austria and Saxony to tiny principalities and independent cities. Some of these local rulers followed Louis XIV’s example from France of displaying their power and wealth through patronage of the arts. Many aristocrats were also enthusiastic amateur performers who often became particularly generous patrons of music.

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Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in the heart of Germany. He probably learned the violin from his father, who was a court and town musician, and later became fascinated with the music of Vivaldi. The Bach family produced a string of talented musicians for many generations, of which J.S. was just the most prominent. Johann Sebastian Bach composed primarily to fulfill the needs of the positions he held, as church organist and concertmaster. His first positions were as a church organist, beginning at Arnstadt in 1703. He worked in different cities, among them Weimar and Leipzig, and tutored students in performance and composition, including several of his own sons. Like other musicians of his time he was the subject of restrictions placed on him by his employers, even restriction of movement.

Although now considered one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was a modest man who regarded himself as a craftsman doing his job to the best of his ability. He gave God credit for his achievements; the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory”) were added at the end of many of his scores. His church music was not confined to cantatas but included motets, passions, and Latin service music. His greatest works include the masterpiece The Art of Fugue and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, still one of the most popular works in the organ repertoire, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos, to name but a few of the highlights. When he died after a stroke, he left a small estate which was split between his nine surviving children and his wife, who died in poverty ten years later.

Read the rest at Atlas Shrugs.

5 thoughts on “Fjordman: A History of European Music Part II

  1. Stradivari made or supervised the production of more than 1,100 instruments, including harps, guitars, violas and cellos. More than half of these survive and are still being used today by some of the world’s leading string players. He was a careful craftsman and selected woods of the highest possible quality, but scientists are still struggling to explain exactly what set his instruments apart from others.

    Leave it to an American professor emeritus of physics and violin maker William Frederick “Jack” Fry to have decoded the stunning achievements of Amati and Stradivari. Through excruciating analysis of wood composition, varnish ingredients and the physical construction of seemingly minor instrument components such as the bridge and other arcane features, this American genius has successfully identified the necessary elements that are largely responsible for the grand “voice” of early Italian great master violins.

    Legend has it that these instrument makers would wander through the forests of Lombardy “knocking” upon trees to identify appropriate sources of wood for their instruments. An enduring addage about orchestral grade violins goes:

    “The violin is much older than the player.”

    This I can attest to as some of my vintage Johannes Adler German-made recorders (blockflutes) are constructed of 25 year-old pear wood.

    At all events, Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was for a long time the first and last of the ‘greats’ who was not either East European or Jewish or both.

    Legend has it that Niccolò Paganini was condemned as having sold his soul to the Devil himself for such astounding expertise upon the violin. According to lore he was also possessed of an amazing “reach”, similar to piano players like Sergei Rachmaninoff whose handspread could span half-again over a keyboard’s octave.

    Consigned to debtor’s prison, Paganini endured a broken bit of cat gut by adapting his compositions to three strings only, which his manual dexterity alone could accommodate. This merely served to entrench his diabolical reputation all the more. Watch this rendition of his Carpice №. 5 by Schlomo Mintz and dare to deny the nearly Satanic aspect of this composition’s intricacy. [to be continued]

  2. Although now considered one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was a modest man who regarded himself as a craftsman doing his job to the best of his ability. He gave God credit for his achievements; the initials SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone be glory”) were added at the end of many of his scores. His church music was not confined to cantatas but included motets, passions, and Latin service music. His greatest works include the masterpiece The Art of Fugue and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, still one of the most popular works in the organ repertoire, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos, to name but a few of the highlights.

    Bach was not just a journeyman instrumentalist but a performer par excellent. Legend has it that he could play almost every instrument in the orchestra. This assertion is borne out by the way that solo passages in his chamber works are―despite their seeming complexity―actually rather easy to play. The pieces were clearly written with fingerings for the individual instruments that were composed by someone who knew how to play them rather well.

    A delightful anecdote about J.S. Bach and his mastery of the fugue details how King Frederick of Prussia was obsessed with having the master visit his palace. No small talent himself, King Frederick would often lead his own personal orchestra on flute for the entertainment of his after-dinner guests. An assiduous collector of the, then novel, pianoforte (our modern day piano) Frederick’s collection was second to none in all of Europe.

    So eager was King Frederick to have papa Bach visit that he even hired one of his offspring, Carl Phillip Emmanuel as court harpsichordist. Amid such indirect patronage the elder Bach could hardly refuse and eventually accepted a long-deferred invitation to the royal court of Prussia.

    Keep in mind that the fugue is a most challenging musical format. A given foundational measure may be inverted, reversed, split half-way, mirrored or divided into a number of staggered fractions to create the numerous variations contained within a given composition.

    After dinner, Bach very politely deigned to improvise upon a theme of King Frederick’s invention. Had the monarch such a candidate to suggest, he inquired? But of course. Frederick hummed it for Bach and the master proceeded to improvise a twelve part invention upon the spot. What’s more, later that evening Bach returned home and penned from memory, the entire piece, known as “The Royal Offering” in its entirety as a demonstration of his undeniable skill.

    Another astonishing creation of Johann Sebastian Bach was his collation, Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, otherwise known as “The Well-Tempered Clavier”. Well-tempered referring to the instrument being correctly tuned. In fact, if the entire catalogue of the WTC could be played without any obvious off-notes or disharmonies, the instrument was most likely in correct tuning. Witness the incredible counterpoint and multiple harmonies of Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in C Minor. [to be continued]

  3. Bach had a distinct reputation for showmanship. While mechanical limitations with respect to the actual instruments of his time may have curtailed his ultimate abilities, renderings by Canadian maestro Glenn Gould probably most closely match the intended keyboard offerings of this classical master. (We’ll all try to ignore Gould’s intensely annoying “sing-alongs” with the quieter and less dominant pieces in his repretoire.)

    Few people today realize that the traditional pipe organ, in all of its complex grandeur, was the music synthesizer of its time. The catch-phrase “pull out all the stops” originates with Johann Sebastian Bach. As a master of this instrument, Bach was often paid very well to test and tune newly installed organs throughout Europe.

    At that time, there were two principal methods of providing the immense amounts of compressed air needed to drive one of these pneumatic behemoths. The alternatives amounted to human or hydraulic power. Either a flock of hyperactive choir boys or a major water wheel provided the compressor strength to power such a tremendous musical apparatus.

    Witness in this “strip chart” representation of Bach’s justly famous Toccata und Fuge D-moll (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), the onset of a veritable avalanche of timbres or instrumental voices. Note how at time intervals 00:35 and 1:10 a number of simultaneous voices are employed. These group voicings make heavy demands upon the compressed air reservoirs of a given instrument of this sort.

    As punishment to those who did not adequately plan for the requirements of a competent composer, Bach intentionally created pieces like Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to stress and challenge the compressed air supply of major organ installations. The great number of voices that were demanded all at once would just as often cause an immensely expensive, brand new pipe organ to wither and die in the midst of a performance. This was the end result of “pulling out all the stops” and it frequently led to the berating of a cathedral’s organ master.

    A similarly curious history follows what would become some of Bach’s most justly famous orchestral pieces. The “Brandenburg Concertos” were dedicated to the then Duke of Brandenburg. Using the “widest spectrum of orchestral instruments… in daring combinations”, Bach reached some of his loftiest heights. Again, witness the magnificence of Concerto №. 3 in G Major. The contrapuntal rubbings of bass and higher voiced strings leave the spirit soaring among clouds of infinite celestial harmonies.

    Be that as it may, none of this prevented the Duke of Brandenburg from informing Bach―newly returned from Italy―that his groundbreaking Italianate embellishments and ornamentations were way too jazzy for that time. Corelli’s influences be damned, this was just too bloody much! Far be it from me or anyone else to notice how the musicians performing the aforementioned works at the previous link are most likely having the time of their lives executing these magnificent orchestral works.

  4. *sigh* This is a bit OffT but the other day I heard an interesting theory about the shroud of Turin. That it could have been Leonardo who did it and that he actually did “photograph” himself. The critics replied, if he actually invented a camera, why didn’t he write about it? Then they answered, he could have been burnt at the stake for making lifelike images like that. Whatever the truth is, I wish science hadn’t been hampered by the church as it did and maybe we would have been where we are now a couple of hundred years earlier. As it is now, we will never find out but Leonardo was obviously a genius and way ahead of his time. What if he had really gotten the recognition he deserved when he lived and financed properly so he could have persued his works, the submarines, scuba gear, parachutes and flying devices. Maybe then we would not only have the sheet music o the great composers but actual recordings of the masters themselves! I mean, the pre-cursor to the modern camera, the camera obscura had been known long before Leonardo’s time and the alchemists where the pre-cursors of modern chemists, so why not? And if they could have developed photography that early, why not recording technology as well? The problem with Leonardo was mostly that his works lay dormant for a long time after his death. I’m aware this is all speculation but things like that are interesting too.

  5. Before this thread closes, I just wanted to add a final comment.

    The Western European orchestral tradition represents one of the highest achievements and most refined artistic formats in all of human history.

    A replete symphony orchestra possesses an inventory of instruments that can span the entire range of human hearing.

    Few people realize that certain instruments possess an acoustic envelope that, in combination with its tonal (i.e., frequency) range can mimic familiar natural sounds.

    For instance, the cello most closely duplicates the human voice. The clarinet owes its distinctive tonality to producing a near-square wave with odd order harmonic overtones at 1/3, 1/5, and 1/7 etc. of its fundamental tone as compared to the usual 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, harmonics of most regular instruments.

    One merely need listen to Spike Jones‘ orchestra delicately mutilate Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” or watch the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band work through an outré Elvis impersonation to realize that traditional instruments can be used to create a range of sounds far beyond their ordinary musical capacity.

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