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· Space and Transcendence in Bach's Fantasia in G ·

You might recall the imagined high note I ended on two weeks ago. In Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator, I fancied a metaphorical "tenor" (foot)noting his "vehicular ride" on an ordinary escalator through the third movement of a musical sonata. The form, of course, was my thought not Baker's, so my idea employed Baker's The Mezzanine effectively to transpose "notes" in virtual space with a still larger, deeper significance. Today I thought to mark such "notes" directly — indeed, in musical form itself.

 · Johann Sebastian Bach ·

Actually, since I can only represent the "sounds" indirectly, I'm forced here to be metaphorical, especially so since the musial thought I've in mind is actually my son's, and the "note" he would mark is a profounder one of J.S. Bach's. What I particularly have in mind is a brief essay written in appreciation of Bach's Fantasia in G (perhaps Bach's greatest organ work). What captured Suave's imagination, however, is only found in the score, not in the sound of Bach's work, and so I'm permitted a wider meditation on themes and variations fit to the still larger space of Bach's own musical imagination. For the theme is space itself — and how music marks its very transcendence. You'll see that very idea expressed in Bach's music.

Insofar as it depends on the related concepts of boundary and limit, the word space seems to suggest the reciprocal ideas [my son writes] of expansion and contraction. Metaphorically, we can perhaps see as much in music. When a performer employs rubato to make a steady beat more flexible and interesting, he actually makes the music more understandable by expanding or contracting upon the representational limits of the composer's score, drawing the listener's attention to what we call musicality — to the very essence, that is, of live performance. The printed score can only suggest it.

Likewise, in order to make the most of the spaces of our lives, we must also expand and contract our sense of existence, weighing and considering especially our sense of freedom and responsibility. Personal and social realities are ever changing, always flexible. Bound by spaces we inhabit, we struggle to maintain balance between what is possible and what is impossible. But the very things that are possible can be defined only through the bounds we set on the imagined worlds we choose to live in. To lead a full life, a satisfying life, a human being must strive to transcend the many personal spaces he occupies, expanding his chances, opportunities, and possibilities in life.

Although I cannot fully represent the scope of Suave's essay — which turns successively from music to photography to literature to life and to music again — its concluding paragraph catches perfectly the essence of the point (the stylistic "note") both he — and I think Bach and Baker, too — would suggestively sound. Indeed, you might even hear it in Bach's music.

We must learn to travel [Suave continues] in a new dimension of space, an intellectual dimension. That dimension has never been better or more artfully represented, I think, than in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am thinking particularly of his great organ work, Fantasia in G. It is a magnificent piece, exploiting all the intricately complex resources of the instrument. Opening with a playful toccata-like figure, it slowly develops into a methodical five-voice Grave section, gradually crescendoing to a shaking thunder, where it falls off abruptly into a serene, reflective meditation. Whenever I listen to this piece, I am ecstatic. It is today my favorite piece. But what most fascinates me about it is not necessarily heard, but rather seen. Bach wrote in the score an impossible low B in the pedals, a half step below the range of the instrument then or now. I learned this on the dust jacket of my recording; Claire van Ausdall, commenting on that low B, wrote: "It is not so much a case of Homer's nodding, one suspects, as of the composer's contrapuntal vision momentarily effacing such earthbound restrictions as the limits of a mere mechanical boundary." Bach's reaching to that low B, pushing at the boundaries of musical space is, I would add, still very much with the space of music itself. For in reaching beyond the space of his instrument, he is, I like to think, approaching there the more mysterious essence of music itself.

You should know that as I've been writing this, I've been listening to my son's own fine music. He's practicing for a Valentine Day's piano concert. One work, triply distant from the Fantasia in G, is Bach's great Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004 — called "Chaconne" — arranged for left hand by Johannes Brahams. But on whatever instrument — and by whatever hand — it goes ("Andante," say), marked also in Suave's essay, "only by the grace of God."


Lovely! By the grace of God and the loving hands of his good parents, one might add. What a gifted young man he seems to be!

Posted by Huldah Marguerite on March 2, 2004 02:33 PM

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