Bach Face – CounterPunch.org
Unearthed musical manuscripts of previously unknown works by great composers are making headlines. But discoveries that don’t involve scores can be even more revealing in the texture and depth they give to the lives and works of musicians. Music is never just notes.
As countless record covers confirm, the faces of musicians are key to evoking feelings, evoking a sense of connection with the performer or composer, with the sounds we hear on LPs, in the concert hall or in our heads. Annette Richard’s The Hall of Fame and Friendship: Portraits, Music and History in the CPE Bach Circle is a masterful, yet intimate study of musician portraits that carefully examines faces for their crucial, if often elusive, meanings. His visual sensitivity is matched only by his fine hearing for the music associated with these faces and the social worlds they inhabit. Just as any image can be seen from different angles and in different lights and will tell us different things at different times, this book presents diverse and thought-provoking perspectives on portraits of musicians, constantly reminding us that music is an activity that brings people together in thought, action and feeling.
His magnificent and lavishly produced book paints an admiring and illuminating portrait of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, the most famous member of his famous family in the 18e century, more renowned than his father, Johann Sebastian.
Emanuel was revered by thinkers and musicians of his time, from Diderot to Haydn to Mozart. The eminent Hamburg poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock wrote his friend’s epitaph in 1788:
Don’t wait for imitators,
Because you must blush if you stay.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,
Newness and beauty united;
In text stems
But bigger still
In bold, wordless music;
Surpassed the inventor of keyed instruments,
‘Cause he elevated the art of performance
To its perfection.
Unlike his many brothers and their father, CPE Bach was artistically celebrated and financially successful. Some of the proceeds from his profitable publications for the nascent keyboard music market went to feed his habit of collecting: even until the last months of his life he continued to fill his collections with portraits; these were mostly etchings (rather than single images), but included drawings, oil paintings, plaster busts, and silhouettes. Figures ranged from musical gods – Pan, Apollo and Mercury, to musical polymaths Johannes Kepler and Benjamin Franklin, to musicians, both famous and obscure, ranging from Bach’s time two hundred years ago and including men and women mainly from Germany but also from everywhere. Europe.
Richards describes the intense discussion and widespread emulation of Bach’s collection. His holdings bolstered his own fame, but were also an essential means of staying in touch with the musicians of his day. There was nothing Meta in this social network: Bach’s faces were to be seen, held and heard.
The musical man of letters, Englishman Charles Burney visited Bach in 1772 and in his travel journal described the thrill of hearing the great man play surrounded by the images of so many musicians, including the face from JS Bach himself:
The moment I walked in [his house], Mr. Bach conducted me up the stairs, into a large and elegant music room, furnished with pictures, drawings, and prints by more than one hundred and fifty eminent musicians: among whom there are many English , and original oil portraits of his father and grandfather. After I had looked at these, Mr. Bach was kind enough to sit down in front of his Silbermann clavichordand instrument of choice, on which he played three or four of his most selected and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision and wit for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen.
Burney had undertaken his travels in Europe in order to carry out research for his General History of Music, the first volume of which appeared a few years after the visit to Hamburg. The portraits, especially those assembled by C.P.E. Bach, played an important role in the conception of the history of music found in the first comprehensive works devoted to the subject by Burney and his German counterparts. Coming from the most venerable of musical families, Bach has nurtured a deep sense of history and his place in it.
As Richards shows, the anecdotes that characterized these stories can be seen not just as annotations to a gallery of pictures, but as an attempt to flesh out faces with musical temperament and bring the past to life, long before the era of recorded sound. .
Because of CPE Bach’s musical prestige and the renown of his collection, his portraits were coveted by enthusiasts and admirers. Bach had hoped that the collection would remain intact after his death – a dream of many collectors. It was eventually dispersed, with much of it being picked up by those close to the composer and his family. Bach cataloged not only his musical compositions, but also his collection of portraits; this meticulous inventory shows the importance of the two works for the artist.
CPE Bach’s love for art, and more particularly for portraiture, must also have contributed to the career of his second son, named after his illustrious grandfather. Johann Sebastian Bach the Younger was a promising artist, who often aided his own father’s collecting interests through his connections in the art world and his own talent for capturing likenesses. Unforgettable is the distressed letter in which CPE Bach laments the death of his son at the age of 29 while studying art in Rome.
Already two decades ago, Richards suspected that many of these portraits had made their way to the Berlin State Library, along with much of the Bach family music. With CPE Bach’s painstaking descriptions in hand, she searched through countless drawers of manuscript cards in the library’s huge collections of musical portraits and eventually found almost a third of Bach’s personal photos. Most of them were prints, some with Bach’s flickering handwriting indicating subject, artist, and inventory number. More dramatic was Richards’ discovery of original designs, some by important North German and Italian artists.
One spring morning in 2004, I was tending to old musical manuscripts in the Berlin State Library in close proximity to Richards (those shy multi-syllabics probably don’t quite count as full disclosure, so here goes: I am married to the author of The Hall of Fame and Friendship). Annette was waiting for the first trolley of portraits she had been able to order after almost a year of patience and politeness curious.
At that time, the library’s music reading room still shone in all its East German glory: blond plywood, brown rugs, Sputnik lamps. This cocoon of socialist socialist chic inside the imposing war-scarred Prussian edifice came to an end in the fateful year of 1914.
To our left, at the long table, an American musicologist was examining a manuscript with a magnifying glass. To our right, a beleaguered German PhD. student looked at a stack of treatises. Across the table, having just arrived in the library well after opening time, a grey-haired American professor was jostling his attractive young assistant, both apparently more concerned with deciphering each other than Beethoven’s sketchbook in front of them. At the end of the table, a Japanese scholar put on his white gloves.
The cart arrived for Annette and she carefully pulled out the first image from her folder. You could feel every eye in the room lift from their work and watch the face of Madame Benda, one of the great singers of the time, shine in the morning light pouring through the high windows.
One of the most welcome results of Richards’ project over many years is that these drawings rescued from the acid-rich files in which they had long been stored have now been preserved to modern archival standards.
Richards also made discoveries in other libraries and, using images of Bach as well as copies of his prints from other archives, she pieced together her collection. Over the following years, she prepared a catalog of the collection with reproductions of the images for the publication of the complete works of CPE Bach. In 2010 she organized an exhibition of portraits at the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, the first opportunity for the public to see them.
In the newly published book, the culmination of all these efforts, Richards makes many fascinating connections between the people depicted and Bach himself; his contemporaries were proud to be part of Bach’s collection, as inscribed in an 18eLast Century Music Hall of Fame.
Not only the eminent and historical actors, but also the now forgotten actors of the European stage, ignited Bach’s collecting imagination. These curiosities seem to say as much about the past as great figures like Haydn, Gluck, Rosseau and Benjamin Franklin (inventor of the glass harmonica). The book includes a rare copy of Polish cello prodigy Nicolaus Zygmuntowski, who has performed across Europe at major venues such as the Concert Spirituel in Paris. Richards tells us that Bach’s disciple Ernst Ludwig Gerber, whose important biographical dictionary of musicians from 1790 includes a long appendix devoted to portraits, reports that Zygmuntowski “died at the age of eleven, after being overworked, beaten and starved by his father. “Prodigies are often older than their masters claim, though this is a stark summary of the rampant exploitation of musically gifted children that has tainted the 18e century. Zygmuntowski died a few years before Bach himself. It is suspected that Bach was aware of the fate of the young Pole. Maybe he even reported it to Gerber. These portraits were not only meant to capture the drama of the human face, but also the stories behind them, to be seen, in the case of Zygmuntowki in his stoic, slightly stunned expression.
When Bach sat at his clavichord and played alone or in company, he must also have enjoyed being watched by his father and so many other musicians, living and dead. Maybe he liked to think they were listening too. I have no doubt that the music he made derives its strength not only from their compositions and the memory of their performances, but from the presence of their faces on its walls. Return to this world of sensations and music, of images and hearing, in The Hall of Fame and Friendship.