book review

Bach and the Patterns of Invention
by Laurence Dreyfus
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. 270 pages, $45.00)

reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman in Fanfare, July/August, 1998, pp. 343-45.


Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music, and writes articles for The New York Times, Early Music, and many other publications.

A century ago, says Laurence Dreyfus, biographers portrayed Bach as "a godlike creator" whose "miraculous works resound in a beatific harmony....suffused with an air of mystery." Today, he says, commentators tend to describe Bach's music with "the language of chemistry," displaying "a penchant for properties, analysis, synthesis, and balance." Dreyfus acknowledges the flaws of the older religious image, but he thinks that the newer chemical one has its own weaknesses. It fails to convey a sense of Bach as an active figure, or of his music as "the work of an extraordinary mind devising extraordinary inventions."

That sense is what Dreyfus explores in his extraordinary Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Some musicologists still shy away from appealing to an author's intentions, but Bach's intentions are what Dreyfus is after. He wants to understand what Bach was trying to do when he composed, and how Bach went about the process.

Most of us grew up with the idea that great music flows from creative genius. But this idea came into fashion only after Bach's time. Bach himself described his achievement in prosaic terms like, "I have had to work hard; anyone who works just as hard will go just as far." Bach presumably didn't believe this literally - he did realize that some composers have talent and some don't, and perhaps he was just being tactful about his achievement - but the sentence does capture his pre-Romantic, craftsmanlike attitude. Dreyfus gives us new insight into one of the questions this attitude raises: when Bach worked hard, what was he working on, and with what tools?

Bach had his own students work on developing what he called "good inventions." Many writers have assumed that by an invention Bach meant the theme at the beginning of a piece - a fugue subject, say, or the opening ritornello in a concerto. Dreyfus shows that there's more to it. A Bach invention is a sort of musical "mechanism" that "ensures its own transformation." It includes, in other words, not only themes (more accurately, "thematic complexes") but also their implications for development and elaboration. In a fugue subject, for example, typical implications might include what happens when the subject is turned upside down or combined with itself. In a concerto theme, they might include what happens to the theme's constituent parts when transposed to the relative-minor key. Thinking through such implications was part of what Bach did when coming up with an invention. These implications were themselves part of the invention.

Dreyfus then examines Bach's process of thinking through such musical implications. In contrast to such influential theorists as Heinrich Schenker (whose analyses of Bach fugues he debunks), Dreyfus focuses not so much on the finished musical piece as on how Bach made it into what it is. Dreyfus's approach yields a number of insights into Bach's inventive process. What purpose did free voices serve in a fugue? What's the difference between a genre and a style? What harmonic roles did the sections of a ritornello play? Dreyfus's answers to such questions shed light on many Bach masterpieces. He manages to capture in words something of what happens in a musical experience, and to enrich that experience with his commentaries. You may question a specific reading, but you'll be grateful for it, because it raises the right questions and defines the topic with probing clarity.

Dreyfus's attempt to peer into Bach's workshop yields another dividend. It helps explain why, as Dreyfus puts it, "Bach's achievement differs both in quality and kind from that of his contemporaries." Musical commentators who favor the "language of chemistry" approach often obscure Bach's uniqueness. If you focus your analysis mainly on overall form or on Baroque styles, Bach seems fairly typical of his day. But Dreyfus shows that part of what made Bach unique was his thoroughness in elaborating his inventions. "In no other composer of the period," he says, "does one find such fanatical zeal directed so often toward what others considered the least interesting parts of a composition." Vivaldi or Telemann, for example, often used formulaic material to get through transitional passages, but Bach took pains to see that even these bars engaged with the basic invention of the piece.

While the "godlike creator" approach errs by treating the composer as if he were "divorced from his time," Dreyfus complains that the "chemical analysis" approach makes the opposite mistake: it reduces Bach "to a bundle of influences." Yet, Dreyfus shows, Bach's interest in the styles and genres of his day was complex and contrary, far more than scholars have realized. Dreyfus's Bach was an active investigator and, more than that, a powerful critic of his age. He "composed against the grain," regularly subverting the expectations of Baroque conventions, and combining styles that a true encyclopedist would have kept separate. Modish contemporaries criticized Bach for such combinations, which seemed to them in bad taste.

Dreyfus has new ideas about Bach's relationship to those modish contemporaries. Given Bach's tendency to go against the grain, Dreyfus argues, the old argument over whether Bach was conservative or progressive misses the point. Bach had a thorough knowledge both of Baroque traditions and of the Enlightenment trends that were supplanting them - but in crucial ways he stood outside of both.

Where, then, did he stand? Dreyfus notes that Bach's approach contrasts with the dominant 18th-century idea of art as a mirror held up to nature. Art, according to this "mimetic" ideal, should draw attention not to itself but to whatever it was mirroring; yet Bach's music drew unabashed attention to art itself. In this way, Bach demonstrated a more "hermeneutic" approach, which sees art as an individual's making sense of himself and the world. We might consider Bach prescient in this repect - or, as Charles Rosen argues, influential - since the hermeneutic approach triumphed in the 19th century. The 19th century was able to appreciate Bach in a way his contemporaries often did not, partly because he was more aligned with its view of art (or it with his). But Bach's approach to hermeneutics had a different basis from that of the self-expressive Romantics. As Dreyfus sees it, Bach's approach to music resembled "the Lutheran theory of biblical interpretation." Dreyfus explains, "not only was the Christian supposed to gloss a sacred text with an interpretation so as to reaffirm his belief... he was to search for an 'Application' relevant to the position of the interpreter." In Bach's case the sacred text was the music itself.

Bach's approach was hardly normal Lutheranism, however, because he did not see music as merely ancillary to the text it was setting. To Bach, "thinking in music was a necessary consequence of a belief in its divine origins." A concern with the sacred, then, holds as central a place in Bach's art as understood by Dreyfus as it did in the scholarship of Schweitzer, Philip Spitta, and others from a century ago; but its role is more complex.1.

Only one of the book's original touches might have been abandoned: Dreyfus's quasi-Chomskian terminology for ways of transforming inventions (e.g., MODESWITCH for a move from major to minor or vice versa). A small criticism for what is one of the best and most important books yet written on Bach's music.

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1. A similar new approach to understanding the role of the sacred is found in two recent essays by John Butt, both in The Cambridge Companion to Bach, a book he edited. What may have made Bach's music unique, says Butt, was not Bach's orthodox Lutheran theology (which he illustrated using standard Baroque means of text painting) but his unorthodox metaphysics. Butt finds in Bach's writings an implicit metaphysics - a sense that "the very substance of music both reflects and embodies the ultimate reality of God and the Universe." It was these metaphysics, Butt suggests, that spurred Bach to his endless pursuit of connections between musical parts and wholes. Such perfectionism, as we've seen above, was unusual for his time, and influenced musicians in later centuries.
But the metaphysics complicate our understanding of how Bach's theology influenced his music. Butt suggests that these (quite possibly unconscious) metaphysics transgressed orthodox Lutheran theology. They put music on a footing with Scripture, which Butt point out was "officially the only true revelation of the transcendent godhead." They might even have made Bach "open to the charge of pantheism." Bach's power as an exponent of Lutheran belief, then, may have depended on un-Lutheran metaphysics. Indeed, Butt compares Bach's metaphysics to those of Spinoza-yes, the Dutch Jewish heretic, whose writing Bach almost certainly did not know. (Butt thinks their similarity reflects broad trends of thought of the era.)