Bach-Beethoven-Mendelssohn-David Matthews

Posted on December 11th, 2009 by

Bach-Beethoven-Mendelssohn-David Matthews

Extract from pre-concert talk given at Wilton’s Music Hall, Spring 2009

 The unifying figure behind all of the composers that we are playing today is, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach.  All three of them arranged Bach’s music, and one, Felix Mendelssohn, was responsible for the revival of Bach’s music in the concert hall, and the centrality of that position today. In all these composers’ output, Bach’s influence can be heard on a number of levels. Beehoven made a stunning arrangement of the B flat minor Fugue from book two of the Well-tempered Clavier. Mendelssohn used this fugue as the basis for the third of 3 Fugues Op 37 (dedicated to Mozart’s pupil, Thomas Attwood). This material also found its way into Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 111. The same can be seen in David Matthews’. David not only makes spectacular arrangements of Bach, but Bach’s voice, with Beethoven’s. can be heard and seen as both distant and present characters in many of his pieces.

 With Bach in particular, this does not seem to present a problem. After all, he is, to music, what Shakespeare is to English, and Luther to German, a père créateur. Acknowledging him, speaking ‘with his voice’ is not parody, plagiarism or poaching, but  speaking with our own voice. He does not own it any more.

 Mendelssohn himself was prone to hiding the influence of the ‘48’. Unlike Beehoven and Matthews,  he did not arrange any of them, but used their themes repeatedly; in fact the only published Bach chamber arrangements that he made were of certain solo violin works, which might be seen as untypical of the Bach that fascinated him. But we can hardly accuse Mendelssohn of hiding his debt to Bach; after all, if he had not bearded Zelter, as a 20 year old, insisting that he put on the Matthew Passion, it would be not part of our collective memory now. Indeed, most of the Bach which is in the popular imagination now was not available to Beethoven.

  As a 10 year old Beethoven was given the 48, and within 18 months, had totally conquered it;, his ‘deeply fingered’ approach to these works can be said to lie at the heart of his keyboard style. It is very clear that he also became well acquainted with the Art of Fugue, no doubt through his counterpoint teacher in Vienna, Albrechstberger, wrote a quartet fugue based on B-A-C-H.  In 1825, the year of the first of the ‘late quartets’, Beethoven wrote an insulting canon to  the composer Friedrich Kuhlau, where the notes B A C H, are sung to ‘Ku-h nicht lau’, or ‘cold, not tepid’.

 Most of the Beethoven that we are playing today could not have happened without Bach. However, he never experienced, the ‘public Bach’, the great crowd scenes, which might MIGHT, be said to be a factor in the bustle and jostling counterpoint of works such as the last movement of the Mendelssohn’s B Flat Major Quintet Op 87, that we are about to play. What might have Beethoven have done, had he experienced, or taken part in, the B minor Mass? More to the point, where would have Brahms been without out it-certainly the opening of his most Beethovenian of works, the 1st Symphony, simply could not have existed. And so it is with David Matthews; just as there are elements of his work that would have been unthinkable without Beethoven and Berg, just as much there are aspects of his ridiculously rich output, which would be inconceivable without Bach, both the ‘wrestling with the Angel’, and without the gift of the actual language.

 For we lowly performers, there is a very useful correlation between composers’ interaction with the music and the idea of other composers, and our own struggle with them-all of them.

 Lets briefly divert to Beethoven, and look a few of the entries that he kwrote in his Tagebuch, which stretches from 1812-1818, his period of comparative  ‘creative silence’. Entry 36 reads:

Every day share a meal with someone such as musicians, where one can discuss thtis and that, instruments etc., violinist, cellos etc.( Beethoven-Tagebuch , Entry 36: in Beethoven Essays, Maynard Solomon, Harvard, Cambridge Mass, 1988)

 By way of balance, the previous entry says the following:

  ‘No copy of a score is as correct as the score the composer himself writes.’

 A few entries later, Beethoven is surrounding himself with his gods, his goads:

 ‘Portraits of Handel, Bach, Gluck, Mozart and Haydn in my room. They can promote my capacity for endurance.’

 The next entry qualifies this and then wanders into strange territory.

             ‘If one had wanted to separate oneself from the past, still the past has created the present…’

Working with any composer is not easy, just like any true relationship is not easy.. By the time a score reaches a performer, in the modern world, in many cases it has lived with the composer alone, for a long time. Effectively the performer is walking onto territory that has been hard won, crafted, by this one person, and if they are not used to the collaborative process, then battle can ensue. Everyone has heard the horror stories of the modern standoff between living composers and musicians, with, by way of example, some organisations having very strict rules as to how close to an orchestra a composer is allowed to stand in the course of a rehearsal. Composers walking into such situations often swap tips as to how best to get the happiest and quickest result from we resentful and recalcitrant musicians.

 However, the agon between composer and composer directly reflects that between collaborating musicians and composers, and can provide an safe opening for exploration. Without exception, in my own experience the fierce debate with composers over their music is counterpointed by lively discussion over other musics-with George Rochberg, it was Beethoven and Mahler, with Henze, Mozart, with John McCabe, Haydn and Nielsen, with Jörg Widmann, Schumann and Mozart (and not  Beethoven), with Michael Finnissy, a veritable menagerie, of whom the most recent are Haydn and Grieg: the discussion as to how to approach a third party eases debate over the present material.

 Which brings us to another question; the issue of playing one composer’s arrangement of another’s work raises another set of interpretative questions. This leads us into the debate as to how any composer’s work should be played. Making an arrangement can be defined as a series of choices; when to add, when to subtract, when to elaborate, when to simplify, and then how to shape.

 When Beethoven transcribed the B flat minor fugue, his big choice was a colouristic one-that of using the ‘Boccherini combination’-a quintet with two cellos.

  When Mozart arranged, his intervention was more dramatic; by adding his own preludes, he threw a ‘creative spanner’ into the works of anyone playing the ensuing fugues. Put simply, it is difficult to justify going from a Mozart-ean playing approach in his preludes, before abruptly introducing a modern ‘informed’ performance aesthetic to the ‘pure’ Bach material. (In general, Bach’s fugues include almost no performance instructions).

  In the case of the Mozart/Bach works, this question is delightfully extra-problematicised. The only performing material that we have of this material was prepared by Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s violinist. Whatever we do, we early 21st century musicians are playing an early-18th century work, arranged by a late 18th century composer, and prepared by a mid 19th century violinist. David’s approach to Bach is interventionist-he adds indications that Bach did not use-such as graphically notated crescendi and even ritenuti, which mean that as players now, we have to find a way of honouring his ear. A glance at Ferdinand David’s versions of Bach inventions and sinfonias is enough to convince anyone that any such indications in the Mozart transcriptions are likely to be his.

 With all this in mind, there is clearly no easy answer to the stylistic questions. One blogging review of a concert that we gave of this music bemoaned the fact that we played these pieces with vibrato. There is little truth to the allegation that ‘baroque players’ (whatever that means) did not use vibrato (we know that Corelli was repeatedly criticised for using too much), any more that there is any truth to the notion that 19th century players applied it constantly (Much of the evidence suggests that 19th century players used less vibrato but  more portamento than we do today).

 However it is also clear that David Matthews’ ear for baroque music, is essentially a warm one, just as Anton Webern’s was essentially a heavy and perfumed one. Playing their arrangements, unless we are unfaithful to them, we should seek their sound worlds. This is the same tussle as with an original work, but heightened. As their scores is already interpretations, there is far less room for creative manoeuvre.