Bach Will Break Your Brain

Here is Nahre Sol, a young and brilliant composer and piano player, talking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a teacher of hers, David Louie, who is an expert on Bach.

If you’ve never played any Bach or tried writing music, the discussion may seem so much arcane gibberish. But if you’re a player, and have tried to really understand what Bach is doing, this is just a deeper level of mind-blowing.

The thing to always keep in mind when plunging into the deep end where Bach swims is that it only matters because it is beautiful. Bach’s music is beautiful on so many levels. If you just want to lose yourself in sounds, you can do that. Try his famous Cello Suite #1 or Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. If you want something more emotionally complicated, how about Mache, dich, mein Herze, rein from his Matthew’s Passion. Composers since at least Mozart have found his Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue, in addition to the Goldberg Variations, dazzling intellectual and artistic triumphs.

I’m a hack piano player, but enthusiastic, and I love Bach. For the last 40 years, off and on (mostly off, sadly), I’ve been learning pieces from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The ones that are currently open on the piano are the Prelude and Fugue in D minor.

They don’t sound that complicated, certainly not by Bach standards, and they are not too hard to play. But, man, there’s a lot going on here in three minutes of music.

The Prelude starts with that relentless repeated D in the left hand, while the right hand jumps in outlining a i-ii-V-i change over the D as a pedal point. What Bach is doing here, as he does in almost all of the Preludes, is setting up a rock-solid tonal center in as direct and economical manner as possible, while still laying out the melodic and rhythmic materials he’s going to use in the piece.

This prelude is going to feature 8th notes in the bass, 16th note triplets in the treble, with phrases beginning with an upbeat.

Bach then takes a quick tour of F major, and then starts getting more adventurous by playing sequences to move from F to G-minor to A-minor.

We ended the F major section on the first beat of measure 6, then add E-flat and C-sharp and run quickly through G-minor; then add B-natural and G-sharp and run through the exact same pattern in A-minor.

Pretty standard Baroque stuff, done beautifully, and illustrative of the pattern Bach follows in most of the Preludes:

  1. Strong statement of the tonal center (I-ii-V-I or equivalent) and introduction of melodic and structural materials over the first measure or 2;
  2. Quick tour of the key (or the relative key);
  3. Introduction of a little harmonic complexity that are almost forays into nearby keys;
  4. Brief strong reminder of the original key, used as a launching pad off into Bach genius land – about 1/2 way through.
  5. A ramp up into increasingly complex ideas/riffs off of the original material;
  6. A pre-ending climax where hacks like me can’t even figure out he’s doing, except that it sounds great;
  7. The end, which is where Bach tends to throw his ‘that wasn’t supposed to happen for another 100 years!’ stuff.

All this in under 30 measures, most of the time, with the feeling that, despite stretching the limits of understanding for us mere mortals, Bach tossed it off with a little smile.

Here’s the climax and ending, at 7 measures long almost 1/3 of the entire Prelude:

Up to measure 20, all we’ve heard is 16th note triplets in the right hand, and 8th motes in the left. Now we get a D pedal, with increasingly dissonant notes on top, and one of Bach’s little things where accidentals introduced in the right hand are immediately canceled in the left, to curious and beautiful effect.

In measure 21, the bass starts a chromatic rise and fall from G-sharp up to B then back to the dominant A, and 16th notes appear in the left hand for the first time as the action intensifies. A rising arpeggio riff gets us up to a high D, then a series of diminished chords brings us chromatically back down to a lower D, and then a vanilla cadance, and we’re done.

26 damn near perfect measures, a little over a minute of music. And the Fugue is worse, by which I mean better. Every time I play it, at the end, I’m thinking, if not saying out loud, that it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. (Of course, I think that a lot for a lot of music – immediacy bias. Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium is really the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. A lot of Bach is close, though.)

I have almost no idea what he’s doing. Starting in measure 9, he does this, whatever it is:

The more educated musician will tell me: it’s a descending sequence, the first development after the subject has been introduced in all three voices. And I’m like, no, he’s setting up some magic. Later, he does the same thing, a descending sequence, except the second time it has a completely different character. I can’t explain it. It all fits perfectly, and triggers in the ear some sense of recognition and appropriateness, yet, looking at it, it’s hard to figure out why. Two other passages he lays out in the first half of the piece get the same treatment, where he repeats them, sort of, in the second half, but they have that same/completely different vibe.

In between all this fancy-dan stuff, Bach weaves aurally satisfying and beautiful stuff that, again, I can’t figure out. It’s one thing to write a pretty passage, it’s another to follow the constraints of the form, it’s an entirely different game to use the constraints of the form to deepen the beauty of the pretty passages. As is explored in the first video above by people far better versed in this stuff than I, getting the math and mechanics straight is tough but conceivable; doing that and not only achieving beauty, but using the mechanical stuff to inspire and enhance beauty – well, there is where Bach’s genius stands alone.

And this little Prelude and Fugue is almost trivia compared to Art of the Fugue and Goldberg Variations. Yet Mozart, Beethoven, and a dozen other famous composers had *hand copied* sets of the Well Tempered Clavier that they studied in awe. So, at least I’m in good company!

Music at Masses Review: TAC Baccalaureate & St. Therese Alhambra

Was blessed this weekend to be present at two very beautiful masses, the baccalaureate mass for our son’s graduation at TAC, and a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass at St. Therese’s in Alhambra, California. These masses were both very different and yet very much the same, one a huge celebration in a gorgeous church presided over by a bishop and half-dozen priests, with a amazing choir and organist, and all the pomp and ceremony one could want. The other was a low mass in a pretty parish church, with the only music being the typical Latin commons for the Kyrie (yes, it’s Greek, I know) Sanctus and Agnus. The priest also sang a bit of an old Marian hymn as an illustration of some point in his homily.

Arcade View
Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Ojai, CA

They were the same in their reverence, and in being directed to the glory of God and not the glory of men.

The choir at TAC is amazing. A school of 350 or so students can somehow produce a choir more than worthy of their beautiful church and school. There has long been a frankly shocking amount of musical talent at that school, given that there’s no music program as such (the students study music a little as part of their Great Books program). Yet in the now decade that I’ve been going down to campus, seems there’s always something musically excellent going on. At the family of the graduates dinner Friday night, for example, two different acapella groups founded or peopled by students, or both, performed, and both were excellent.

Interior of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel
Interior.

Saturday morning, the baccalaureate mass began at 8:30 in a packed church. Here’s my one and only complaint about that beautiful building: site lines from anywhere other than the nave are terrible. When it’s a full church, half the people are in the transept or side aisles, and might as well be outside for as well as they can see anything. This obscured vision is a result of the sanctuary being recessed enough to be mostly invisible from the transept, but mostly from a nave and side aisle design in a building that’s not that big. In gigantic cathedrals, it’s often possible to see fairly well from much of the side aisles, as the columns are farther apart and the nave wider. In Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel, all you can see from 90% of the aisle spaces is the columns and the nave – the altar and sanctuary are totally blocked. Of course, for 95% of the masses celebrated there, everybody sits in the nave and it’s no problem, so this is a minor complaint, really.

The Mass began with Come Holy Ghost while the faculty and graduates filed in, followed by the chant Introit while the clergy and Bishop Barron processed in and the altar was incensed. The mass commons were some lovely polyphony I didn’t immediately recognize, most likely Palestrina, perhaps – one of that crowd. They also did motets for offertory and communion including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and more chant propers.

For the recession, the choir sang the hymn tune from Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets – an extreme case of redeeming some beautiful secular music, in this case, from the hands of a goodball gnostic astrologer. Lovely.

Or it seems you can just listen to it – here. Audio is a bit spotty, but you will get the gist. Bonus Bishop Barron homily.

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St. Therese of Lisieux, Alhambra, CA, interior.

The next morning, Mother’s Day, we – my wife, mother-in-law, our 15 year old son David, freshly-minted graduate Thomas, elder daughter Teresa, who lives in Alhambra, and our younger daughter Anna Kate who flew in from New Hampshire to surprise her big brother, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Therese’s and brunch afterwards. Younger daughter also is graduating, in one week! She had handed in her senior thesis Monday, defended it Thursday, then flew out Friday, flew back Sunday in order to take her finals! Insane, but typical – those two are only 20 months apart in age, and were often thought to be twins growing up (and fought like cats and dogs). Despite needing special permission to defend her thesis early so that she could leave Friday, and despite having to try to study for finals on the plane, she was not going to miss this.

Our older daughter Teresa helped arrange all this, picking up Anna Kate at the airport and putting her up, and driving her to the graduation. I love our kids! There are far better than I deserve, that’s for sure.

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Modern-ish, but lovingly executed and not unlovely. It’s heart, and the hearts of all those involved, are in the right place.

Mass was what you’d expect early on a Sunday morning – very low key. The people, which included a passel of Sisters of Charity (they always look so happy!), knew the chant propers and sang them well. Quiet, reverent and of course efficacious.

We may not often get to have the 90+ minute high sung mass celebrated in a great church by competent, devote people, but I’ll take a revenant low mass celebrated by people who care any day of the week. I’m grateful to all the people who helped bring about both masses, even and perhaps especially those whose devotion helped to transmit a culture in which such things can take place.

Music at Mass Nano-Review 5/5/19

Due to scheduling requirements, we went to a Children’s Mass this morning that we almost never attend.

There’s nothing that elevates the spiritual experience of the Holy Eucharist quite like having a gaggle of pitchy tween girls sing praise tunes in a reverby box of a church building with rock band level amplification.

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The girls were darling, of course, which I suppose is the point. Have a nice Sunday!

Odd Lenten Hymns

In the comments to the last post, J. J. Griffing asked for examples of the sort of traditional Lenten hymns that are out of vogue in my little corner of the world, tunes which I find a little odd, but also miss. The oddness consists of two factors: dirge-like hymn tunes, and graphic descriptions of suffering and penance often described in archaic language. Some hymns have one, some the other, some both. Here goes:

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Sunbeams scorching all the day;
Chilly dew-drops nightly shed;
Prowling beasts about Thy way;
Stones Thy pillow; earth Thy bed.

Should not we Thy sorrow share
And from worldly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Strong with Thee to suffer pain?

Then if Satan on us press,
Jesus, Savior, hear our call!
Victor in the wilderness,
Grant we may not faint nor fall!

So shall we have peace divine:
Holier gladness ours shall be;
Round us, too, shall angels shine,
Such as ministered to Thee.

Keep, O keep us, Savior dear,
Ever constant by Thy side;
That with Thee we may appear
At the eternal Eastertide.

The tune here is very much a dirge, and the lyrics speak for themselves. I like it! Hymnody.org has this to say to say about the composer: George Hunt Smyttan. The tune is attributed to Martin Herbst, who died in 1681. Other verses have been added by other poets over the years, generally with the same flavor.

Here’s a cheerier tune:

The Glory of These Forty Days

  1. The glory of these forty days
    we celebrate with songs of praise,
    for Christ, through whom all things were made,
    himself has fasted and has prayed.
  2. Alone and fasting Moses saw
    the loving God who gave the law,
    and to Elijah, fasting, came
    the steeds and chariots of flame.
  3. So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
    delivered from the lions’ might,
    and John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
    the herald of Messiah’s name.
  4. Then grant us, Lord, like them to be
    full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
    our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
    and give us joy to see thy face.
  5. O Father, Son and Spirit blest,
    to thee be every prayer addressed,
    who art in threefold name adored,
    from age to age, the only Lord.

This is great song, good tune, nice lyrics. Tune can go down the dirge road, although a musician with any sensibility would sing it at a decent tempo with a slight lilt, saving it from being a wade through molasses.

Honorable mentions include Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days, which always cracks me up – the Lord doing a little clean up, tossing an extra 40 days that were cluttering up the place, and the classic and wonderful O Sacred Head Surrounded, which does get sung, but usually just on Good Friday. Now those are some graphic lyrics.

Stuff just came up. This will have to do for now.

3/31/19 Music as Mass Review: Improvements

It has been years since I’d attended a Sunday evening mass at our parish, because the last time I did, the amatuer rock band composed of aging ex-hippies sort of failed to provide the kind of liturgical experience with which I am most comfortable. To put it gently.

Yesterday, because I forgot that I was up for leading the Candidates and Catechumens out after the Scrutinies, I needed to catch a later mass – I usually catch an earlier one. So, off to the evening mass I headed.

And – the rock band was gone. The congregation skewed a bit younger, maybe, with more college-age and young adults. Otherwise, looked like the usual UN subcommittee meeting we get at our parish – here comes everybody. Pretty sure all the inhabitable continents were well represented, although I’m a bit unsure about Australia.

But I knew something really different was in store when a woman went up to read the first reading – in a mantilla. Whoa. I think the elderly boomers in the band heads would have exploded, had they been there. Then, we sang the common Latin Sanctus and Agnus. It was good and peaceful. I was and am grateful.

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Not like this Although if you’ve got it, work it, ladies.

Unfortunately, we sang modern, marginally appropriate songs for the other musical spots in the Mass. Many of the traditional Lenten songs are frankly a little weird, as in Volga Boat Song style dirge-like melodies and perhaps uncomfortably direct language to the modern ear. I’m cool with them, myself, but can see how they might not appeal to people with more conventional sensibilities, especially as many people younger than 50? 60? have probably never heard them.

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More like this, just a wee bit more understated.

Nonetheless, a lovely, respectful mass with at least a little appropriate and good music. Seems things can change to the better, thank God.

Music at Mass Review: Polyphony as Catholic

The music at Saturday’s Mass prior to the Walk for Life was good to excellent, sung by a good choir, some chant, some polyphony, English, Latin and Spanish.

I am grateful. The mass, with a dozen bishops, dozens of clergy, processions, incense, candles – the whole smells and bells routine – was beautiful. The homily edifying. One interesting aside: in a congregation made up of pro-life people, the songs get sung, the responses get said, and everybody kneels for the Domine, non sum dignus (it has somehow become customary in our neck of the woods to stand). It’s almost like believing in what is going on makes one more inclined to fully and actively participate, at least in the ways that can be seen.

That was Saturday, at the Cathedral in San Francisco. But then, as you may have heard, Sunday kicked off Catholic Schools Week. This had failed to register until we showed up for the 10:30 mass at our parish 5 minutes early as is our custom and found the church in general and, more important to us, the areas set aside for people with mobility issues (grandma uses a walker) already all but filled up. I will generously assume that all those kids and their families usually go to another mass, and the crowd at the 10:30 was offset by lighter-than-usual turnout at the other masses. Not easy, but I will assume this.

Here’s the obligatory note: these are some good and dedicated people, doing their best to the best of their understanding. It’s that understanding that I’m criticizing here, not the people, who have been formed over their lifetimes in a way not of their choosing. There may well be some personal blame to be laid somewhere, but not at the feet of these good people. My goal is to try to elevate the understanding.

Thus is came to pass that the music was provided by a children’s choir. Somehow, by some unwritten but iron law, music sung by children in Mass must evidently be infantile both musically and theologically. This is done, presumably, because the little dears are not up to singing good music with theologically sophisticated lyrics. The only theological messages their little brains can process are along the lines of let’s be nice to each other, Love is God and, for the more advanced, ‘alle alle allelooooia’.

One suspects there might be a little bit of that soft bigotry of low expectations, at the very least, going on here. One would not want to suppose the kids are purposely being dumbed down, despite Catholic Schools Week being, essentially, a celebration of how our parish schools are kinder, gentler public schools with a little optional Jesus thrown in. Those public schools, after which true Progressive American Catholics have long pined and to which they have aspired, exist to dumb as down, as has been discussed and documented here over the years. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

What should we expect? For context, here are a bunch of young ruffians, orphans even, *boys* even! doing a bit of light singing under the direction of meddlesome adults:

I had the honor, 40 years ago, to hang out for a week with Monsignor Francis Schmitt, founding director of the Boys Town Choir, may he rest in peace, and have also read about him. He was an imposing man, radiating a manly strength, yet warm and easy to talk with. Two things became clear: he was an unapologetic taskmaster, insisting young boys learn some moderately complex music. He also loved the boys and was greatly beloved in return.

It’s as if boys like to be challenged, especially by men they can look up to and who care about them. It certainly is clear that these boys responded gloriously to Msgr. Schmitt’s challenge.

A subsection of the same law mentioned above requires, at least in local usage, the children to gather in front of the altar (backs to it and the tabernacle, naturally) and sing a pre-dismissal song after which all are expected to clap. And so it happened.

As the unruly gaggle of adorable kids congealed around the altar, my 14 year old, wise beyond his years, nudged me and pointed at his Padre Pio wrist band: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry. I smiled sheepishly, and whispered: “count how often God gets mentioned in this song”. By my count, zero times. Lots of talk about Love, which, assuming some degree of theological understanding, could reference God. But the song failed to remove all doubt.

The teacher ‘leading’ the singing sang loud, as did a few of the kids. I’d say about 90% were whispering, mouthing the words, or engaged in pulling the hair of the kid in front of them or some similar kid activity. But they were adorable, up in front of the altar, in their little school outfits.

Finally, after the kids had dispersed, the congregation started to do likewise – while the priest was still at the altar. In their defense, the Mass + the extracurricular activities had run almost 90 minutes, some people were getting antsy. He and the acolytes then made their way through the milling crowd. Seems the people’s sense of order had been disrupted.

On to the songs: I didn’t know most of what might generously be called ‘tunes’ and there was mercifully not a program, so I can’t comment on most except to say they were simplistic and insipid. No self-respecting kid would be caught dead humming such tripe on their own time – they’re rappin’ or singing pop tunes, which by comparison are freaking Mozart.

I guess the memo that went out with the new translations a few years back about how these are the words, use them as is, no freestyling does not apply to the clap clap Gloria, the text of which is only loosely based on the liturgical text.

And so on and so forth. It hardly needs mentioning that that most sacred and feverishly pursued goal of active participation, beat into our heads over the last 5 decades, which here might be thought to include singing the songs, was jettisoned without comment. The kids choir was performing more egregious than any aloof and aloft choir loft dwellers of yore, which we were told was bad when we were chased out of that loft.

There was effectively zero singing by anyone except the children and their keepers. I’d never heard most of the tunes before, or my brain’s self defence mechanisms purged all memories of them. In any case, nobody but the kids and teachers sang them.

One exception was the old chestnut ‘One Bread, One Body,’ a song older than the grandparents of some of these kids, sung as a communion song. I learned this song in high school, and learned the harmony part – very minimal, Row Row Row Your Boat level musical skill is required to sing it. So, here was an opportunity: a music director could kick the kid’s musical experiences up a small but critical notch just by having the boys, say, sing one part while the girls sang the other. They could have a small taste of the thrill and glory of singing in parts, where you do your best on one thing, others do their best on another, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But it didn’t happen.

One underappreciated glory of the ancient Catholic liturgical music is the way it mirrors the structure of the Body of Christ. Chant, especially sung antiphonally, requires real cooperation and focus. There are parts for you, parts for others, and parts for everybody. Some chants are easy, some a difficult, and a few are quite challenging.

The better everyone does his part, the better the whole. It is in each accepting and executing his part to the best of his abilities that the whole comes to its fullest expression.

Polyphony has the same logic, but in a greatly enhanced form. Those kids at Boys Town learned to not only sing their part, but to *listen* very carefully to all the other parts, and to follow the director, the blend and and balance and stay together. As with the chant, each had to learn how to confidently execute his role and make it fit. But the result – the harmonies created by the blending of several independent and independently beautiful parts – far exceeds their sum.

And this is the lesson learned:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.

Sometimes this truth – that it is by doing our part to the best of our ability that we most belong to God, and that we must always respect and encourage all other parts – is hard to see. A great piece of polyphony teaches us that sometimes, we are front and center, sometimes we move tightly with others and sometimes seem to be going it alone. Most often, we are supporting others, who in turn support us. It is a great blessing, and not at all hard to see how each is differently blessed for good of all, when singing great music in a good choir for the glory of God.