18 July 2010

Così fan tutti, ovvero La scuola dei critici

I used to be a musicologist. I have a Ph.D. in the subject (although current wisdom has it that I should omit that degree from any CV I use in a "real world" job search), and I spent roughly a quarter century training, researching, and attempting to be employed in it. I might be doing it still, if anyone had responded to any of my hundreds of job applications over the past four years.

But after several years of having my applications treated with all the respect usually given to spamvertisements for Viagra and pleas for help from dispossessed Nigerian royalty (actually, my applications got many fewer hits than the latter seem to), I saw the handwriting on the wall, and hung up my spurs. (Although, I hasten to add: I will be delighted to consider any reasonable offers or follow any reasonable leads.)

As I've written elsewhere on this blog (and will doubtlessly write again), the transition has not been all bad. It has, among other things, allowed me to follow where my interest leads in the wider world of music, art, and intellectual endeavor, rather than fitting myself to the Procrustean bed of a marginal academic discipline. And that has been glorious, if not remunerative.

After I was raptured out of musicology (the analogy seems apt, given the way my former employer David Packard terminated my employment), two points quickly became clear:
  1. There's a lot of fascinating research and writing being done on music, almost none of it by musicologists.

  2. Musicology has virtually no public presence in the wider world. Not even musicians pay attention to it, and to the world beyond, "musicology" is the name of an album by Prince.
By current count, I subscribe to 90 blogs, covering a wide range of topics: cognition, neuroscience, evolution, general science, literature, film, music, and the arts, and every day I scan numerous other blogs, digests, and news sites, including the arts news digest ArtsJournal (and its blogs), the general "intellectual" digests Arts & Letters Daily and The Browser, and (once a week) the digests of European journals and feuilletons at signandsight.

And out of all these, over the 8 weeks that I have been keeping this blog (today, as it happens, is the 56-day anniversary), I have run across precisely one story that seems to touch on anything that has to do with my former field: a piece by Brett Campbell in this past Thursday's Wall Street Journal under the headline "Restoring Bach," on oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, who claims to have shown that J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV 1067, with solo flute, actually originated as a piece in A minor with solo oboe.

That's the sort of thing I spent a large chunk of my life thinking and reading about, so naturally I read it.

Now, in spite of the ostensibly musicological headline, Campbell's piece is actually a review of a concert that Ruiz and Monical Huggett gave with the Portland Baroque Orchestra at the Oregon Bach Festival, entitled "Bach's Suites Rediscovered," performed in Bend on 7 July and in Eugene the following evening (this detailed information comes from the festival schedule; the concert title and the dates aren't specified in Campbell's review).

After living for many years in the world of musicology and Early Music, I've developed an alarm system, sort of a "Musicological BS Detector," that blares urgently whenever anyone claims to have "rediscovered" anything. For such claims usually turn out to be marketing and attempts at career-enhancement tricked out to sound like scholarship, rather than actual scholarship.

And that would seem to be the case here. But Campbell seems to have bought into the marketing wholesale, rather than engaging in even rudimentary investigation of the background of Ruiz's claim.

A couple of quotes from Campbell's review to set the stage. First, the opening sentence.
Gonzalo Ruiz is always on the lookout for another piece to add to his repertoire.
This, following directly on the headline "Restoring Bach," already had my MBSD blaring. As a general rule, Early Music performers looking for pieces to add to their repertoires are not to be trusted when making ostensibly musicological arguments. It's a rather like doctors in the pocket of Big Pharma writing articles on new antidepressants.

Campbell continues:
Mr. Ruiz set to work, and in the process wound up reconstructing what might be one of the lost treasures of classical music: the original version of one of Bach's—and music's—greatest achievements. Mr. Ruiz's recording of the ur- versions of all the suites—restored to their original glory using authentic tunings, instrumentation and performance styles—with his fellow Juilliard faculty member Monica Huggett's Ensemble Sonnerie, earned a 2009 Grammy nomination.
A "lost treasure of classical music"? "Original version"? Now I have a very bad feeling about this.

But this sentence also suggests that what Campbell is "reporting" here isn't new: apparently Ruiz and Huggett have already recorded it. And in fact, Ruiz has been shopping around the idea of an A-minor version of BWV 1067 for oboe since at least 2005, when he published a piece on it in Early Music America, as one can find out simply by Googling "bach oboe 1067 ruiz." However, there's no mention of this prior history in Campbell's review.

Campbell goes on to summarize Ruiz's argument, rather less clearly than Ruiz himself does in the piece from 2005. Campbell's main points:
[Paraphrasing:] There are other pieces by Bach that have come down to us in something other than their likely original form
Well, that's certainly true enough.
Scholars believe that the familiar trumpets and drums in the third and fourth suites, which overwhelm the other instruments, were added to the original versions for performances in different incarnations, and that the popular second suite in B minor descended from an original work in A minor, transposed and copied by Bach and assistants for a later performance.
But who are these "scholars"? No word on this from Campbell.

Well then, why might we think the piece was written for the oboe?
One clue: the enchanting flute part in the surviving version is pitched so low that it's difficult to play. And in what Mr. Ruiz terms "an orchestrational oddity," its line is pitched below those of the violins (unprecedented in Bach or contemporaneous flute music), making it hard to hear in concert, and sounding outsized when artificially enhanced on recordings
Hmmm. The argument that the flute part is "difficult to play" doesn't seem all that compelling (a lot of Bach is difficult to play), and that the flute is hard to hear in a modern concert or recording certainly doesn't have anything to do with the fact of the matter.

Campbell goes on:
By contrast, not only did Mr. Ruiz's transposition fit the oboe snugly—"it was almost too perfect," he recalls—the revision suddenly solved a whole slew of musical conundrums that had flummoxed Bach lovers for centuries. Performing it in A minor is much more comfortable for the accompanying string instruments to play, and allows the oboe, with its piercing sound and distinctive timbre, to soar above the accompanying strings—the most common texture in Baroque orchestral music.
The fact that the transposition "fits the oboe snugly" can of course be taken as suggestive circumstantial evidence that the oboe might have been the solo instrument if Bach originally wrote the piece in A minor. But the point is anecdotal and subjective, and certainly not sufficient evidence to "prove" the point. Campbell shows no hint of being sensitive to this distinction.

And from this point forward, Campbell takes Ruiz's case as proved. His review continues with the following bizarre sequence:
The significance of Mr. Ruiz's achievement transcends even Bach's masterpiece, reminding previously skeptical scholars and performers that "in Bach's time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century, truly a virtuosic vehicle in the right hands," Mr. Ruiz says, "and there were plenty of right hands around. I hope this [reconstruction] stretches expectations of the Baroque oboe."
Ultimately, the proof is in the hearing.
"The significant of Mr. Ruiz's achievement transcends even Bach's masterpiece"? Does this mean that we should stop listening to the B-minor Suite and instead treat Ruiz's piece in Early Music America as a major work of the literary canon?

I suppose that Campbell actually meant something like: "The implications of Mr. Ruiz's discovery go far beyond Bach's Suite." But this isn't what he wrote. (And why didn't an editor catch this and fix it? File this as yet another example of editorial incompetence in the Mainstream Media.)

And, no, ultimately the proof is not in the hearing, but in the actual evidence.

I love Bach: I heard Bach in the womb (my mother is an organist, who tells me I used to kick along with Bach's pedal parts) and Bach forms a core part of my repertoire as a pianist.

But I don't consider myself a Bach scholar, in spite of having worked for three years on the complete edition of the works of his hugely less gifted son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. (I've often asked myself: Why is it that Johann Sebastian seems unable to write even a throwaway inner voice that is anything less than beautifully and memorably melodic, whereas C.P.E., so far as I can tell, never wrote a memorable melody in his entire career...with the possible exception of those early keyboard pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook that are now attributed to him. Perhaps their very memorability should count as evidence against the attribution.)

Thus my personal reference library on Bach is relatively small, and (as I incessantly whine here), I have no access to a proper research library.

But I wondered what I might find via Google Scholar on the question of the "original" key and instrumentation of Bach's Suite.

It took somewhat less than 3 minutes (a 3 minutes Campbell apparently couldn't spare?) to find a reference to Joshua Rifkin's "The 'B-minor flute suite' deconstructed: new light on Bach's Ouverture BWV 1067," in Bach Perspectives 6 (2007). A partial preview of the volume is available at Google Books.

Rifkin's finding? That the B-minor version of BWV 1067 almost certainly derives from an earlier version in A minor. How do we know? Because of telltale transposition and notational errors in the only surviving source for BWV 1067 that has anything directly to do with Bach, a set of "original" parts in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (ST 154), in which the flute part and the viola part are entirely in Bach's hand, and in which his hand occurs frequently along with other scribes in the other parts.

And here is what Rifkin has to say in a note about the history of his Bach Perspectives paper:
This essay, originally scheduled for publication in Bach Perspectives 4 and completed in something very close to its present form by the autumn of 1997, became a casualty of editorial upheavals and software problems; it appears now thanks to the persistence, encouragement, and, in the end, forbearance of Gregory Butler. I presented a version at the Bach Symposium held at the University of Dortmund in January 1996 .... Reports of my findings surfaced at various places soon after the Dortmund meeting, among which I would note references in BOW 5, 29 n. 4 and 31, and Wolfgang Hirschmann's report in Die Musikforschung 49 (1996): 407-8, at 408.....
So Rifkin obviously has priority in making the claim and substantiating the case that there was an earlier version of BWV 1067 in A minor. He had made this case in public as early as 1996, and his case had been reported in various places in the musicological literature long before the appearance of his article in Bach Perspectives, and long before this was even a gleam in Ruiz's eye.

However, there is no reference to Rifkin in Ruiz's 2005 piece in Early Music America, and there is no reference in Campbell's review, apart from the hand-waving reference to "scholars believe."

What does Rifkin have to say about the solo instrument of this putative earlier version of BWV 1067? Well, it almost certainly wasn't the flute.
Even if we could imagine the solo line written in a way that would avoid the present occurrences of d'—the lowest note on the Baroque flute—in both solo and tutti passages, the overall tessitura would still put the music uncomfortably low for the instrument. (Rifkin 2007, p. 10)
He continues:
The next obvious candidate, the oboe, also appears unlikely. Here, the lower end of the range poses no problem, although a single d#' in a tutti section would have had to be read differently—c#', as it would have become in A minor, does not lie within the capabilities of the Baroque oboe. But the particular sorts of agility required have no parallel in any oboe music of Bach's that I know; and would have to imagine both
And that, readers, is precisely where my preview in Google Books ends, so you'll have to go to your library or dig out your own copy of Bach Perspectives 6 to see find out who dunnit, according to Rifkin.

It's obvious, though, why Ruiz might have wanted to avoid referring to Rifkin's work.

Good scholarship can be such bad marketing.

And, by the way: the flute part of the only surviving "authentic" set of parts (see chapter 4 of my dissertation for a justification of the scare quotes on "authentic") is in Bach's hand.

So there is no argument to be made that the flute version of BMV 1067 is somehow "not authentic."

The Campbell piece is so poor that I can't help but wonder why he is getting paid to write, and I'm not. But then, that seems to be a running theme in this blog.

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  1. Reader Stephen C. Fisher has kindly contributed the following at the Facebook feed of this blog:

    "I have the Rifkin article, which occupies 98 pages of a 163-page book. The sentence following the end of the part you saw reads, "Barring the remote possibility of an instrument in another register entirely, only one alternative remains: the violin." A few lines later: "Bach surely conceived mm. 60-62 and 124-26 of the opening movement with a play on the open e'' string in mind...even a fleeting glance at Plate 2 reveals unmistakably that Bach fashioned the first letter of the heading 'Traversiere' out of a 'V.'"

    (Rikfin thanks Klaus Hofmann for pointing this out, though of course it's one of those things that's obvious once you stop to look at it.) His conclusion is that the original version was in A minor for strings with obbligato violin."

  2. At first I drew a polite veil of silence over Ruiz's "in Bach's time, the oboe was considered to be the electric guitar of the 18th century," rather as one avoids publishing gruesome photographs of traffic accidents.

    But then I got to wondering: What could this possibly mean?

    And I began to imagine a scenario from an (as yet unfilmed) "Back to the Future" sequel in which Marty McFly goes back to, say, 18th-century Köthen with an electric guitar and an iPad loaded with videos of Hendrix and Clapton. To which Bach responds: "I think we could do something just like that on the oboe" (aber natürlich auf Deutsch).

  3. What remains to be said is that the recording of Bach's 3rd suite without trumpets and tympani is rather weak owing to Huggett's HIP (meaning "hellish intonation problems") playing. She is continuously flat and her inability to produce even the slightest natural vibrato really doesn't help. It really needs a scam to sell such a superfluous recording.

  4. One has the impression that the Classical Music Word is chock full of superfluous recordings.

  5. Joshua Rifkin7/20/2010 12:42 PM

    Let me just put in a word for Gonzalo Ruiz. Whether we agree on everything or not, and whether he gave me a shout-out or not, he in fact knows my stuff extremely well (and did so even before it was published), and we have had more than one very lively discussion of the subject.
    I obviously think he's dead wrong in this particular instance (and as for the marketing, let's not go there), but Gonzalo, apart from being a demon oboist, is one of the smartest, best-informed, and most thoughtful musicians out there.
    Incidentally, if you're wondering about trumpets and drums, I've got that covered, too, albeit in some German-language articles that no sane person would bother to read.