“Book” Review: Why Bach?

I remember, in the halcyon days of my youth, when I published a little magazine called bogus REVIEW, asking a musician who his favorite composer was. He gave me the kind of answer that doesn’t answer anything, something like, “How can one have a favorite composer?” As if with so many composers of classical music, it would be unfair to rank them according to your affinities.

Well, I have no qualms about answering that question: my favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. He has been so for some twenty-five years, since I first discovered his music. Curiously, I was first exposed to his solo violin music, in a recording by Henryk Szeryng, one that I have not listened to in, well, a very long time. (I’m less interested in that style of Bach performance now.) I then discovered his B Minor Mass, one of Western civilization’s milestones (though not in the version linked here). I was working for a while doing legal research, and bought it on cassette; I would listen to it on my Walkman several times a day.

Now, I own somewhere near 1,000 CDs of Bach’s music, ranging from his extraordinary cantatas to his solo keyboard works (while I prefer hearing his music on harpsichord, I have a weakness for Glenn Gould’s recordings); from his organ works to his orchestral music. I like some works so much I have as many as twenty versions of them. And, I’m trying to learn to play the keyboard, at my late age, to play – guess what? – Bach.So, you may notice that I write about Bach’s music and certain recordings here on Kirkville. One reader spotted my interest and invited me to check out his online “book”, called Why Bach? Written by Dan Brown (no, not that Dan Brown), Why Bach? is a 20,000-word interactive essay about Bach and his music. Looking at Bach as melodist, harmonist and contrapuntist, Brown explains Bach’s music, with musical examples. Now, if you’re not a musician, the mere thought of “musical examples” may make you click to another page, but hold on: where this “book” shines in the way Brown has integrated these examples. You click on the symbol of a musical note, and a popup window displays a tiny midi player. This player shows you the notes on normal staves, and, at the same time, plays the music. There are even markers to show you the precise progression of the music as it plays. It looks like this:

So whether you can read music or not, you get the benefit of this wonderful approach to discussing music. (If only something like this were more common!)

The music is played by different midi instruments; that is, different instrument samples. So an organ piece sounds somewhat like an organ, a harpsichord piece like a harpsichord, and so on.

Why Bach? contains hundreds of such samples, and reading through this text while listening to the samples is enlightening, even for an “old Bach hand” like me. The most interesting section is Bach as Contrapuntist, where Brown explains and deconstructs fugues–contrapuntal music–which are the most complex of Bach’s works. If you’ve ever wondered what makes a fugue a fugue, you’ll finally understand here. Why Bach? can be not only a treatise on Bach’s music, but also an introduction to music in general, its parts, and how it works.

This online treatise is worth much more than its $15 cost; if you want a musical education by example, you couldn’t find a better way to learn. I hope Brown does the same with the music of other composers; I, for one, would love to learn about, say, Schubert’s lieder, Beethoven’s string quartets, and perhaps individual works, such as Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata or Mahler’s Third Symphony.

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