Prelude and Fugue

I remember the night that my father came home from work with a copy of the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields’ recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It was a double-LP boxed-set (recorded music came on black vinyl discs in those days) with extensive booklet of liner notes. My father let me read the notes, but insisted that we would only listen to the records when we had time to sit through all four sides without interruption. My next few days were filled with curiosity and anticipation. Today, on Bach’s 332nd birthday, I recognize that this was one of the great formative moments of my life.

My father called me into the living room on the following Sunday for what he called “a concert.” It was a bright winter afternoon of the type that we used to get in early January in Montreal. The sun flooded through the big picture window, reflecting off the snow drifts in our front yard. I was eleven or twelve years old, and had spent the morning skating and playing shinny on a patch of ice cleared on Lac St-Louis behind the Town Hall. We had had the traditional Friedman weekend lunch of bagels, lox, and tomato soup.

Placing the first disk on the stereo turntable, my father promised that I was “in for a real treat.” The tone arm moved, the stylus dropped to the groove on the record… And my life was changed forever.

I am sure that many of us have had moments of artistic revelation – even many of them – that moment when a book, a poem, a painting, a film or a work of music opens up a whole new aesthetic vista. I was no stranger to music. My father had an enormous (for the time) collection of records, ranging from the Deutsche Grammophon bicentennial collection of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, concertos and overtures to jazz and boxed sets from the Newport Folk Festivals. We listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts together with the kind of devotion that more religious Jews attended schul, and we regularly attended concerts by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

My mother played the baby grand piano in our living room brilliantly. In retrospect, I believe that she loved the experience of producing music with the graceful, balletic motions of her hands – music that would fill the house from glassy piano to thunderous forte – more than the music itself. She inclined toward Mozart and Chopin, and would often pull scores from the bench pretty much at random, mixing it up with Scott Joplin and arrangements of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Her performances were full of delicacy and passion, and I would often imagine her looking through the score to some distant point as she inhabited the sounds.

I had the benefit of a thorough, if unconventional, childhood education in music. My grade school music teacher Andreas Gutmanis imparted musical knowledge with a combination of urgency and enthusiasm. He put my classmates and me through the paces of the Orff Method – tee-tee tee-tee tah-tah on the school’s xylophones and glockenspiels – without great success. His real interest was in getting us to listen to music, however, and he would frequently draw the curtains and have us listen attentively and respectfully to everything from Mozart to Morton Subotnick’s electronic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon. In that he was immensely successful, and I am astonished at how many of his students became musicians.

Mr. Gutmanis taught me the violin. I loved the instrument, even though I hated practicing. My first concert performance was in a third-grade recital of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in all of the Suzuki variations. My father introduced me to conductor and pedagogue Brock McElheran when I was five. Dr. McElheran presented me with a baton and a copy of his book Conducting Techniques for Beginners and Professionals and gave me a series of private – though informal – lessons. (I still have both the baton and the book.) I later studied the piano and the flute and, though I never displayed any great talent, I learned to read music and to appreciate its beauty at a very profound level.

The vaults of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

The Art of Fugue, however, was an epiphany. It isn’t that this recording was or is the best music that I had ever heard. Make no mistake, however, it is an extraordinary piece of music, and the performance Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is outstanding. Rather, the experience of listening to this music for the first time, in that time and place utterly transformed me. It was the first time that I heard music from the inside – and saw it too, for this was a profoundly synesthetic experience. The counterpoint rose above and around me like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Years later, I saw a photo of the nave of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor and Director of Music for more than half of his career, and said out loud “yes, yes, that’s what I saw!”

Although the beauty of The Art of Fugue is highly architectural, the fugal lines of Bach’s masterpiece are never static. They move, and sweep and dance in ribbons of melody. The music is always serious and contemplative, a product of the Enlightenment, yet it is full of dark depths, ecstatic highs and restrained passions evoking both the religious foundations of Bach’s work and the chromatic future. It is both a palimpsest and a prophecy, and it ends abruptly 239 bars into the last, immense, four-voice, triple fugue – apocryphally at Bach’s death.

If I was to identify the moment when the starting point of trajectory that led me to become a music historian, that would be it. It is the ursprung of my own intellectual and professional genealogy. The process certainly was not quite that simple or predetermined, and I have drifted and dodged in any number of professional and scholarly directions in the decades since. But listening to The Art of Fugue on that afternoon, and every time since, I find myself connected to a nexus of history, art, culture and the genius of an artist whom I never met but somehow know intimately.

That is why music is important. Several years ago, when I sat down with my dissertation advisor to pitch the project that would consume my life and presumably define my academic career, I described those moments – beginning with The Art of Fugue, and following innumerable times thereafter – when listening to music connected me to those networks of meaning, history and feeling. Music is important because through it we can hear both the abstract and the concrete: the composer’s imagination, the performers’ skill and training, the resonance of the luthier’s craftsmanship, the boundaries of culture and knowledge, the expectations and prejudices that obtain at is moment of production and at every subsequent moment of reception. We cannot touch it, but we can feel it. We cannot see the notes as they are transmitted through the air, but we can read them.

The great unfinished final fugue from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, performed by Pierre-Laurent AImard.