March 31, 2006
Vol. VI, No. 7
"Interpretation Debate Heats Up!"
The debate over the interpretation of music by a certain Baroque composer has intensified in recent weeks. On one side of the debate is a camp generally referred to as The Purists. On the other side is a group that might best be described as The Pragmatists. At the center of controversy is a composer who was not only a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach but also a relative, yet another in the long line of cousins. I'm speaking of none other than Johann Monotonius Bach (JM).
The recent flare-up over interpretation of JM's music resulted from the presentation of a paper at the annual meeting of the Society of International Composers and Kappelmeisters, entitled "The Letters of Johann Monotonius Bach." In his presentation, the author of the paper discussed a newly-discovered collection of letters written by JM, bringing to light a great deal of hitherto unknown information about the composer.
For instance, while it has long been known that JM composed exclusively at home, there has never been any information available as to the instrument or instruments on which he composed and what impact it or they may have had on his compositional style. From the letters, we now know that there was one instrument in the home of JM and that it was an organ. As described by JM, it can be determined conclusively that this instrument had a major impact on his compositions.
As the letters revealed, JM, having the misfortune of being born into the poor branch of the Bach family, did not have the opportunity to develop the grandiose style and technique of his more-successful cousin, Johann Sebastian. As a consequence, JM did not share the same access to village instruments or ability to earn an income to afford his own. A local organ builder took pity on this Bach of limited means and provided an instrument that, while small, fit neatly into his humble abode. Where other composers might have complained of being limited by this instrument, JM saw it as his "ticket out."
JM got right to work and produced several fine compositions. For those not familiar with his work, here is his Op. 1, No. 1 in G Major:
Ex. 1: Prelude in G Major (Op. 1, No.1) by Johann Monotonius Bach
As you can see the compositional style of JM is quite simple and reflects the fact that the instrument with which he had been gifted had been used by the generous organ builder to test new pipe designs. Consequently, it held just one pipe.
And so now the interpretation debate is in full force. You can see where tempo would be an issue but also articulation, registration and don't forget fingering. Thumbs or no? The purists want to strip away the layers of romantic interpretation that have grown upon the music of JM, as can be seen in the previous example, but especially from its frequent, some say predictable, use in horror films, generally during particularly suspenseful moments.
Ex. 2: Prelude in A Minor by (Op. 1, No. 3) by Johann Monotonius Bach
Purists are appalled at this exploitation, claiming the sffz a desecration. They are even calling for the building of instruments designed specifically to play JM's music. They don't want his music played on romantic organs or organs with more than one key, for that matter. They feel his music can only be properly realized when played on appropriate instruments, that is, with a single pipe.
Amazingly, that's not where this story ends. Also discovered in the correspondence was a series of letters between JM and his cousin Johann Sebastian (JS). JM sent his newly-composed organ pieces to his famous cousin hoping for a leg up. Offering constructive criticism, JS encouraged the use of harmony but JM wouldn't hear of it. Consequently, JM's music carried the label 'old school' and that was one strike against him. JS also suggested that JM explore Equal Temperament but again JM refused, insisting that it made his music sound "out-of-tune." That was strike two.
After the spurning of these suggestions, JS had little patience for his cousin. However, it wasn't long before JM noticed a new development in the works of his cousin, something JS was calling "Pedal tone." A quick comparison of JM's Prelude in C Major, Op. 1, No. 2 and JS's Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537) reveals the issue.
Ex. 3: A Telling Comparison?
A bitter fight ensued between cousins with JM making accusations of creative theft (strike three) and JS claiming the pieces weren't worth stealing but no one would blame him if he had -- he said he had nothing to do with his hands during the boring pieces (He may have had a point there). Furthermore, JS claimed he invented "pedal tone" while working out some fairly involved fingerings on the keyboards and his foot fell asleep on a pedal.
It is said that good composers borrow, great composers steal. Suggesting creative theft is easy, proving it is difficult but one thing that JM learned the hard way, history is written by the winners. One final note, the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued JS forevermore referred to JM as "eine notiz Johanny," apparently the source for the Lorenz Hart lyrics to "Johnny One Note:"
Johnny could only sing one note
And the note he sings was this
Poor Johnny one-note
sang out with "gusto"
And just overlorded the place
Poor Johnny one-note
yelled willy nilly
Until he was bleu in the face
For holding one note was his ace
Couldn’t hear the brass
Couldn’t hear the drum
He was in a class
By himself, by gum!
Poor Johnny one-note
Got in Aida
Indeed a great chance to be brave
He took his one note
Howled like the North Wind
Brought forth wind that made critics rave,
While Verdi turned round in his grave!
Couldn’t hear the flute
Or the big trombone
Ev’ry one was mute
Johnny stood alone.
Cats and dogs stopped yapping
Lions in the zoo
All were jealous of Johnny's big trill
Thunder claps stopped clapping,
Traffic ceased its roar,
And they tell us Niag’ra stood still.
He stopped the train whistles,
all whistles bowed to his skill
Sing Johnny One-Note,
Sing out with "gusto" and
Just overwhelm all the crowd
So sing Johnny One-Note, out loud!!
Sing Johnny One-Note
Sing Johnny One-Note out loud!
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