March 21/22, Dumbarton Oaks (Washington D.C., USA)

Louis Couperin, J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Richard Strauss:

Brief Remarks

Bearing in mind that Baroque keyboard music – with the exception of pedaliter repertoire for the organ – was primarily intended for private consumption, we should be equally mindful to avoid confusing private or ‘domestic music’ with the amateurishness of salon entertainments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, harpsichord music is generally not quite public in the modern sense, and it is not always clear as to who performed it or whether it was even performed at all. Nor was there as of yet an industry of virtuosi trained to play the compositions of others in exchange for public adulation, and only a slim amount of this repertoire was published or circulated beyond a tiny group originating with the respective composers themselves. This music was written largely with their creators’ intellectual equals in mind, and for the delight of those who take leisure in witnessing the phenomenon of music without taking part in its creation.

The ‘sociological’ method currently fashionable in musicological circles, while in many ways valuable, falls short when confronted with a simple question: if this music seems to have no immediate audience, then why does it speak with such profound universality? When seen as artists transcending the mere common vocabulary of their instruments or of the music of their respective creative environments, then really Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti are perhaps not so different from one another. We often hear Bach’s music discussed in vague terms as a sort of music of the spheres or in the tones of a maddening, spiritually nihilistic contextualisation ad nauseam that makes the poor man look like Telemann or Handel plus twenty children. Neither approach does much in explaining why we can immediately recognise the ‘stamp’ of Bach in hearing one of his works for the first time. Bach’s musical worldview, such as it was, absorbed many influences throughout the composer’s lifetime (the Partitas being a perfect example of a selection of French, Italian, and even Polish sources of inspiration), and these elements were almost always subsumed by Bach’s fascination with the organisation of sounds and their relation to extra-musical intellectual concepts, e.g., the art of counterpoint and polyphony, or the art of musica poetica centered on the manipulation of melodic and harmonic gestures in the manner of spoken oratory.

In contrast to Bach’s musical language and its roots in the master’s reverence for his forebears, Scarlatti’s language was formed out of what seems to be thin air – in other words, it had no direct predecessors. This may explain why he found his keyboard ‘persona’ – in spite of some rather original and fine works written in other forms as well – only in his late fifties and sixties. The independence afforded to him by a rather cushy job at a Court removed from general trends in European musical life allowed him to forge a completely original style. The vivid images of his world – from operatic experiences as a young man in glamorous Naples to the mystical rituals he witnessed as maestro di cappella at St. Peter’s in Rome, from faded Imperial splendours of the Portuguese and Spanish Courts to vegetable-sellers on market days and North African mule drivers – are the dominating factors which then force the rules of musical composition to conform to them, much like Bach bent a simple sarabande to his contrapuntal will.

Louis Couperin’s models originate with the functional music of the dance and other Court ephemera. And yet, this music, of a culture which discarded a piece of music shortly after it had served its function, seems to have something of the Eternal! It speaks to the sophistication of a culture when its musical utterances – the sad fado of Portugal comes immediately to mind – contain within their gestures the distillation of centuries of life and its vicissitudes. Like a life looked back upon, this music’s sighs speak to dances remembered and forgotten, suitors come and gone. Take, for instance, the grand Passacaille in C, a paragon of this unique voice of the French Baroque. Its origins as a wild, lewd tune brought from the New World are barely apparent as it has aged and softened, its bright colours faded and yielding to a noble, quiet dignity.

As with the music of Louis Couperin, Strauss’ foray into the ethos of the past gains it power from a sense of nostalgia – although, to be fair, in the music of Couperin this is subtly perceived whereas in the music of the latter’s Capriccio it results from a prescriptive aesthetic based on the idea of the past as an ‘other.’  Benignly kitschy though they seem, these three dances lifted from the score of Strauss’ opera – with a Konzertschluß or concert-ending written expressly for the work’s dedicatee – remind one of the famous 1930s forgeries of Vermeer by van Meegeren. Perceived ‘ancient’ gesture is mixture with the musical language of modernity in a manner reminding us that our perceptions of the past will always be infused with the insecurities and ideals of our own age.  It is no small coincidence, perhaps, that this music, so decadent and even sentimental, was written by a composer watching his world collapse around him and the last shreds of his beloved Romanticism disappearing amidst the throes of war and barbarity.

We can lament the fact that these men (save Strauss) left few if any written statements of artistic ‘intent’ or philosophy. To put it bluntly, however, this was really not their thing. Were Bach, Scarlatti, Louis Couperin, or Richard Strauss painters, architects, or poets, probably they would have infused those other art forms with the same intellectual and spiritual games played in their compositions. By token of this observation, the reader may notice that throughout this modest and insufficient essay I have omitted something seemingly important – namely a verbalisation of just what these ‘extra-musical’ ideas are. Is such an endeavour necessary? Probably not. And that is why we have music.

© Mahan Esfahani

Oxford, Feb. 2010.