Bach and Mozart: Essays on the Enigma of Genius

In his widely hailed new book Bach and Mozart: Essays on the Enigma of Genius, Robert Marshall admits: “I subscribe without apology to the Great Man theory of history. My desire has been to gain a deeper understanding of those two great composers as human beings and as supremely gifted creators.”

We’d like to thank Dr. Marshall for contributing this piece for our blog, and also invite you to visit The New Criterion, where you can find Jay Nordlinger’s delightful new review of the book.

According to the traditional view, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was the culmination of the so-called Baroque era during the first half of the eighteenth century; Mozart’s, conversely, was the culmination of the antithetical Classical style, during the second half. The differences between them, however, were not just a technical matter of the contrast between the late Baroque and high Classical styles. They extended into their personal lives as well. We know almost nothing about Bach’s private life; we know almost too much about Mozart’s. Bach was an orphan; Mozart was all-too-much the son of an autocratic father. Their starkly contrasting personal backgrounds inevitably affected their understanding of their artistic missions and inevitably touched on the purpose and, ultimately, the meaning of their music. Why did Bach and Mozart bother to compose at all? What did the effort and the resulting work mean to them? What were their fundamental objectives as artists?

Johann Sebastian Bach
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pondering these, and other questions like them, has preoccupied me for the past sixty years—exactly sixty years: ever since I enrolled as a graduate student in musicology in the fall of 1960 at Princeton University. The attraction of the program there was the presence of Arthur Mendel, unarguably the leading American Bach scholar of the time. I was hoping to discover the answers to questions that haunted many budding music students at just about any time for the past century or so: what is the correct way to perform J. S. Bach’s music? What is the right tempo? How to play the various ornaments? What is the right number of singers and players? How to understand the various dynamic and articulation markings—and what to do when there are none?

Portrait of Mozart
Source: Wikimedia Commons

While I never lost interest in such questions, my understanding of what else there was to learn about the master increased exponentially almost immediately when I attended the first session of my first Bach seminar with Professor Mendel. At the time he was editing a cantata for a new scholarly edition of Bach’s complete works, Die Neue Bach-Ausgabe. That introductory session was a revelation. The edition would be based on a close scrutiny and evaluation of the most authoritative surviving sources of the works. In the case of the composition we were considering, these included Bach’s working manuscript in his own hand: the “composing score.” It was dotted with corrections that provided tantalizing glimpses and potential insight into the composer’s decision-making, his trains of musical thought. Learning as much as I could about the mysteries of Bach’s creative, or, more modestly put, his compositional process, became the topic of my doctoral dissertation.

 Skip ahead now to the autumn of 1966, my first term as a teacher. I was assigned a graduate survey course on “Music in the Eighteenth Century” (literally!): from 1700 to 1800. That is, the course sequence did not divide the historic continuum into the traditional courses on the Baroque and the Classical periods but rather, quite arbitrarily, according to the century markers on the calendar. To cut to the chase: The course initiated me into what would become the second major focus of my scholarly work: the life and works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Over the course of my professional life I eventually realized that what I was ultimately trying to do, for the most part, was “get inside the heads”—one way or the other—of two remarkable mortals. That is: my career can be regarded on the whole as an old-fashioned (not to say “outdated”) Romantic exercise. In short, I subscribe without apology to the Great Man theory of history. My desire has been to gain a deeper understanding of those two great composers as human beings and as supremely gifted creators.

In the service of that objective I have drawn on a diverse range of interpretive strategies ranging from text criticism to style criticism, from Freudian analysis to Schenkerian analysis, from literary and cultural critics such as Harold Bloom, Theodor Adorno, and Edward Said to writers on music such as Maynard Solomon and Charles Rosen, and playwright Peter Shaffer. I have found it most congenial to cultivate this agenda by addressing particular issues in the form of thematic essays.

The University of Rochester Press has given me the opportunity to compile a collection of such essays written over the past thirty years, updated and revised to form a reasonably coherent whole. Fifteen numbered chapters devoted to the two masters follow in roughly chronological succession. Among the topics addressed: Bach’s musical and personal coming of age; the significance of Martin Luther in his career and self-understanding; what the St. John Passion tells us about Bach’s attitude toward the Jews; and the case for constructing a periodization of Bach’s artistic development determined not by his places of employment (as in the traditional approach) but rather by the stages in his stylistic evolution and his changing compositional concerns. Turning to Mozart, one essay pursues the comparative biographical questions vis-à-vis Bach broached above at the outset of this piece. Another considers the depiction of Mozart’s character in the theatrical and cinematic sensation Amadeus against the known facts. One essay suggests that Bach’s influence on Mozart’s style unfolded in distinct, ever more sophisticated, phases: designated, respectively, “transcription,” “imitation,” “assimilation/synthesis,” and “transcendence.” The body of works left unfinished at Mozart’s death is the object of the last numbered chapter of the book. Finally, in an affront to sober scholarly method, a concluding “Epilogue” indulges in a fictional fancy: namely a speculation—grounded, however, in the known facts—about what Mozart is likely to have done and to have composed, had he lived on for another decade or more.

This guest post was written by Robert L. Marshall, a Sachar Professor of Music emeritus, Brandeis University

Bach and Mozart
by Robert L. Marshall
9781580469623, Hardback, £19.50 or $32.47

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