Working like Bach?

I interrupt my regularly scheduled (if not regularly completed!) posting to contemplate J. S. Bach for a few minutes. Today is his birthday, and since I cannot remember a time when I did not love his music, I always take the excuse to listen to even more of his music on this day than I do on other days. (You could sample some of his choral, orchestral, or keyboard music as a bit of a celebration, too!)

I got to thinking on this date in 2011 (nearing the end of my first, terrifying year as a Visiting Assistant Professor) about how Bach provided an interesting set of analogies for those interested in literary criticism. I know this because I cleverly sent a series of e-mails to myself to record those thoughts before they had a chance to slip away in a sea of good intentions, lack of direction, and even more severe lack of time. This blog will, I hope, solve the problem of a lack of direction, for these and other homeless thoughts. Perhaps I can also use the impetus of another celebration of Bach’s birth to overcome the other two difficulties.

If there is anyone who understands the pressure on academics to regularly produce work of a certain quality, it is a Cantor or Kapellmeister from eighteenth-century Leipzig! Anyone who wrote a cantata for each Sunday and every other holiday in the Lutheran calendar for at least three years running (plus at least two other complete cantata cycles from other periods of his life) surely knows the demands of producing high-quality work under extreme pressure.

I have to admit, I quite like the idea (conceit?) of this professional affinity, but leaving that aside, it seems to me that there are some interesting lessons to be learned from Bach’s music and the legacy of that music. It is true that Bach had a remarkable output, but some of that output in fact consisted of reworkings of earlier pieces. In some cases, this was in fairly strict transcriptions, but at other times, such as when he used what is now known as the “Passion Chorale” as a unifying element within his St. Matthew Passion, the reworkings were truly reworkings. The Passion Chorale is developed throughout the course of the St. Matthew Passion, with different harmonizations (and different keys) each time it is utilized for a different text.

Now, I cannot expect to earn tenure by simply revamping one article over and over, but I, for one, am perfectly content to have more opportunities to hear some beautiful music, even if I’ve heard something similar before. I was thinking, having just attempted to craft a narrative of a coherent research program as part of the dossier for my annual pre-tenure review, that perhaps this is the wrong way to think of the analogy. Perhaps, in the context of a research program whose coherence is based more in a related set of questions than in a single chronological period, the reharmonizing is the application of that intertwined set of concerns to a distinct and more focused topic in a particular article. (Hmmm, is it too late at night for me to be trying to articulate this? Is it just a terrible and silly idea to begin with?) I’m at the stage of my career where the harmonies (or at least the relations between different harmonizations) are still tentative, contingent upon the success of a couple of specific “reharmonizations.” I’d like to think that there will come a day when my reharmonizations will have achieved the degree of creativity shown in the reworkings of Bach’s music by some other musicians – if you don’t feel anything when you listen to Nina Simone improvising in the middle of “Love Me or Leave Me,” well, then I’m not sure that you have a soul – but I suspect that it will take me some time to even come close. For now, here’s a heartfelt “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” to the greatest of them all.