Talking with Musicology Faculty Andrew Talle

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Interviewer: I understand you’ve recently spent time in Germany studying the life of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Can you tell me about your visit?

Andrew: Well, my current research is all about Bach’s time and place. He spent the last 27 years of his career in a city called Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany. I’ve lived there for about five years since 2000. Last year, I was there on sabbatical doing research about the reception of Bach’s organ, harpsichord, and clavichord music. My goal is to understand the role that Bach’s keyboard music played in the lives of his contemporaries. This involves a lot of research about daily life in Bach’s time. I visited libraries and archives looking for materials that would tell me something about what people did when they weren’t making music.

One of my best sources for that kind of information was the manuscript account book of a professional organist who, from 1752 to 1765, documented everything that he bought and all the money that he earned through teaching and composing music, as well as through teaching subjects like Latin and math. This book also documents his relationships with his students, friends, and initially with his girlfriend, for whom he first buys earrings, then covers their wedding expenses, and eventually finds himself paying for wet nurses and buying diapers. It’s really a very vivid document of the time. I was lucky to find it buried among the shelves of a city archive.

Interviewer: That sounds like it must have been a really fascinating, immersive experience. Why Bach?

Andrew: That’s a good question. I’m a cellist and I grew up playing Bach’s cello suites, which are very mysterious pieces. We really know very little about when they were written, much less why, for whom, or anything else like that. Yet, the music is kind of like a sacred text for cellists. For the past 100 years or so, every cellist plays through at least one movement from one of the six Bach suites just about every day. I felt that Bach was this obscure and unknowable character who was obviously a phenomenal musician, but someone about whom we didn’t have a lot of information. So I went to Harvard University for graduate school, and I worked there with Christoph Wolff, who is a famous Bach expert. I got along well with him, and we developed a project together that turned into my dissertation. Because the cello suites are so poorly documented, I decided to focus on a collection of keyboard suites that Bach published. That gave me the opportunity to research reception history (who bought, copied, sold, played, and heard the music during the composer’s lifetime), which is still my primary interest.

Over the last three decades of his life, Bach was responsible for performing music in several churches. Every week he had to compose or arrange a work that would last 15 to 30 minutes, and perform it on a Sunday morning, with an orchestra and a choir that consisted mostly of boys between the ages of 12 and 18. He had to train these kids to sing the music. He had all kinds of other duties, too—he had to prevent them from stabbing each other with silverware, throwing dinner rolls in the dining room, dumping chamber pots out the window, and all kinds of stuff that is documented in the statutes of his school. He also had to read to them from Latin texts while they were eating and make sure their candles were out when it was bedtime. He was really involved with their lives, and his apartment was attached to their dormitory. Above all, however, it was his job to corral these kids into performing extremely difficult church music.

The interesting thing to me about Bach is that he made it much harder on himself than he needed to. Bach was actually the third choice for the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The first choice was Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend and a famous composer at the time. The second choice was Christoph Graupner, Kapellmeister in Darmstadt. Both of these men were almost exactly Bach’s age. The town council in Leipzig would have been happy with either one of them; happier, in fact.

Bach had a different approach to setting text and to thinking about music, and the role of music in the lives of his audience, than did Graupner, Telemann, or just about anybody else working at the time. It will help to hear an example. Let’s take the cantata poem Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, which was set to music by both Bach and Graupner. Graupner’s version is from 1711, and Bach’s is from 1726. Both composers were devout Lutherans who wanted the message of the words to reach their audiences. They wanted to bring the people to God. But they go about it in completely different ways. Graupner really lets the text speak for itself. He sets it as clearly and concisely as possible. And the music is not really background music but it’s sort of a pillow on which the text sits. He lets the text do the hard labor of persuading his audience. Let’s take the second aria, which has a text that (in translation) reads: “How they pain me, those people with backwards hearts who are so offensive to you, God.”

The Graupner text setting is, as I said, extremely clear. He really wants you to hear the voice. So the strings are just kind of punctuating the strong syllables in the text. It’s a very natural, comfortable setting. It flows easily into the ears.

Using the same exact words, Bach offered something quite different.

There are a couple of very weird things about Bach’s setting of the text. The first is the chromatic organ obbligato part, which sounds like it could peel paint. It’s really a very abrasive sound. It’s deliberately mechanical, I think. It’s meant to sound stiff and chromatic, and not at all supple or human. It’s no coincidence that Bach chose the organ—the most advanced piece of technology in the early 18th century, the Large Hadron collider of his time—for this aria. He could have chosen a violin to play that same line. But he wanted a piece of modern technology to perform this. He needed it to be a machine. The other weird thing is that there is no bass line. Bach has only the violins and the violas playing the bass line in this piece, unlike Graupner who used a full complement of strings throughout the aria. Bach uses lower strings in the other movements of this same cantata. But for this movement they’re just supposed to sit there and listen while the violins and the violas play the bass line.

Bach does the same thing in two places in the Saint Matthew Passion, and it always serves a specific purpose. He wants, first, to impart a feeling of claustrophobia. He wants you to have the sense that you the listener—and you the human being—are trapped. The lack of a bass line is always about being bound in some way. It narrows the overall range and makes you feel penned in. But he also wants you to think about it. Why isn’t there a bass line? The answer: This is a world that’s turned upside down, a world that has its priorities reversed. The high instruments are playing the bass line, contrary to the natural order.

This is a good example of what makes Bach’s music unusual and what makes it interesting to me. Bach was an innovator insofar as he always wanted to challenge his audience. He wanted to offer them not an indulgence or something that would flatter their preconceptions. He wanted to challenge them to think about it, a lot like a skillful teacher. Whereas Graupner tried to reach his audience by giving them something accessible, Bach really offers them music that is, on first hearing, impenetrable. It’s a big challenge to figure out what is going on in this music. It’s also a huge challenge to perform it. Rather than complementing the text or offering a pillow on which it can sit, Bach presents his audience with a kind of riddle. Why is it that this music sounds so bizarre and mechanical, with no bass line? It’s all about sorrow and sadness. Why isn’t there some more melancholy here? Your job as an audience member is to sit there and puzzle that out. He wants you to come around to his view, but he doesn’t want to just lay it out for his listeners.

The interesting thing to me about Bach is that writing music which challenged his audience and his players made his own life much more difficult. The town council of Leipzig would have been absolutely content with Graupner or Telemann. Why did Bach challenge himself? It had to do, I think, with his personal sense of fulfillment. It wasn’t because he was getting accolades from his institution. He had virtually no institutional support. In fact, the more we learn about his institution, the more remarkable it seems because he really faced a lot of adversity. Ultimately, people who do innovative work do it because they’re driven compulsively to innovate, to challenge themselves and their audiences or readers. It’s not because they’re going to get prizes for it. They simply find personal fulfillment in innovation. Bach is, for me, one of the clearest examples of someone who presented enormous challenges to himself for no reason beyond personal fulfillment. He had to get these 12-year-old boys to sing in tune, with good rhythm and all that. If he had performed music by other composers—which he did only a fraction of the time—he would have made it much easier on himself. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that consistently. He had some need to always challenge not just his audience and his performers but himself. I find this inspiring.

Interviewer: Bach was a prodigious improviser. What impact do you think that played in his ability to be innovative?

Andrew: Improvisation was a much more important part of musical life then than it is now for classical musicians. Bach, as you said, was a phenomenal improviser, but so were many, many other organists of his time. Nowadays, when we want to get an organ job at a church or playing the flute in the Baltimore Symphony, our task is to generally play a specific work by a specific composer, or at least a range of specific works by a range of specific composers. You have to play with perfect rhythm and perfectly in tune and with a sense of style and grace. Audition excerpts for orchestra jobs are written out very carefully: measure 15 to measure 31, for example. Your job is to render that difficult passage as accurately and as musically as you can. In Bach’s time, auditions were quite different. An organist was never asked, in any case I know, to play a specific piece at an audition. The candidates were given a 2-to-4-bar theme, and they were asked to improvise. Someone took a two-minute sand clock and turned it over on the organ console, and the task of the candidate was to play for two minutes. The auditioners said, “You’re going to start in F sharp major, with this theme, and you’re going to end in G minor, and you’ve got two minutes to get there. Go!” They didn’t want anyone who came in with everything prepared in advance. They were actually trying to weed out those people. They wanted musicians who could innovate, could create music on the spot. That was the tradition that gave us musicians like Bach.

Interviewer: Does the lack of improvisation in classical music today concern you?

Andrew: I think that classical music could benefit from a return to improvisation. My former professor Robert Levin is the most famous and best example of someone in classical music who’s really trying to return to the virtues of improvisation or to draw our attention, as audiences and as fellow performers, to the role that improvisation can play in crafting exciting performances. We don’t know how the cadenza in the Mozart concerto is going to go when Robert Levin plays it, and that is riveting for me and many other listeners. But almost no one else is brave enough to do that these days, mostly because they haven’t cultivated the necessary skills. Improvisation involves a lot of planning and training. You can’t just do anything. It comes from years and years of preparation, but it’s a different kind of preparation from that which is usually taught at Peabody and other schools of music. I think that classical music could really benefit from more improvisation. I am reminded of this whenever I go to African-American churches in Baltimore. The gospel tradition in Baltimore is very, very rich, and improvisation is absolutely central, where someone will sit at the Hammond organ and spontaneously try to underscore what’s being said from the pulpit. I bring my students to churches like that as much as I can because I feel that they can really benefit from seeing and coming to terms with this entirely different tradition and different way of approaching music.

Interviewer: I know you spent many, many years studying to be a cellist. Tell me your views on the role of creativity in a performance, especially in the classical tradition. What place if any do you think that creativity has for a performer when he or she is trying to do a rendition of something that is not theirs, such as the Bach cello suites?

Andrew: That’s a great question. What I tell my students all the time is that they should play the music the way that they would like to hear it. That’s something we often forget. It’s easy to get mired in reading historical treatises, listening to recordings of other people, or following the advice of one’s private teacher. All of these sources can offer you good ideas about how the music should go. But if we want more people to listen to classical music, we should try to perform it in a way that we ourselves find compelling, regardless of whether the musical decisions can be justified by authority. I ask my students: How can you play this music in such a way that it would make you yourself spend $50 on a ticket? That for me is really the only question that’s absolutely essential. And if you can’t answer that question, if you’re playing the music in a way that you wouldn’t support with your own money, you should not be playing it. If this means playing a Bach cello suite with a drum set banging along or someone rapping over the top of it, if that’s really what you find compelling, that’s exactly what you should do. Do not worry about whether the trills should be from the upper note or the lower note, or whether you should use a baroque bow or gut strings; that matters to some people but it doesn’t have to matter to you.

That said, I think it does help to consider the music historically. I would say that you have to take in everything you can and decide later what matters. Listen to all kinds of music and all recordings that you can find of the particular music that you’re interested in performing. And be brave, I guess. It seems mundane, but that’s really all I can offer my students. Ultimately I can’t tell them how to play the music. All I can do is give them the confidence that they need to come up with interpretations they find exciting. I think studying music history can play a role here. It’s not irrelevant. But the chief virtue for me of studying or teaching music history is to give modern players the confidence that they need to own the music. If they know the history of the piece, if they know about the composer, and they know about the time, the audience, and if they see the flexibility with which the music was treated in its time, I think they are more likely to make the music their own.

I have collected manuscripts made by people who copied works of Bach in his time. They added measures, deleted measures, chopped things out, added huge improvisatory excurses on going to entirely different key areas or bringing in other pieces of music spliced in. That kind of thing was entirely common in Bach’s time. It shows a kind of vivacity, I think, and gives a lifelike quality to the music. That it wasn’t something that was fixed and embalmed. Understanding this can be valuable and liberating for performers today.

Interviewer: You talked about individuality and courage. You can grasp these concepts easily from the perspective of an artist, but I would imagine that it has also very heavily influenced your work in musicology. How do you think the world can benefit from the work of a musicologist?

Andrew: Some people think of music historians as people you go to in order to find out which recording of Ravel’s “Bolero” is the best. That’s frankly not a very interesting question for me. There certainly are people who are very good music historians and can answer that question, but I guess I think of myself really as more of a normal historian who is especially interested in music and musical culture. My work is about situating the music in its time. What is it that gave rise to this piece of music? How was it supported? How was it sustained? It takes a village, in a sense. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were not just the product of one person’s brain. How was this music used in its time? How is it used today? Ultimately, I’m much more interested in people than I am in music, in how people interact and how they use music to influence one another.

Right now, I’m actually writing an article about popular music in Bach’s time. I’m curious to understand how far Bach’s music was from the popular music of his era. Here is a facsimile edition of the most popular song collection. It came out in 1736 and was called “The Singing Muse on the Pleiss River,” which is a river that ran through Leipzig. This is a collection of songs that seems to have been aimed primarily at university students; Leipzig was and is a prominent university town. The university was founded in 1409, and half of the population in Bach’s time consisted of university students who were from other cities, and just living in town to go to school. They were all boys at that point; there were no women in the university, and no female teachers at all. This collection is really surprising. This is the music that was most interesting to these university boys, many of whom helped Bach with his performances in the churches and the coffeehouses. This collection, which I’ve been spending a lot of time studying, is really surprising because the lyrics are full of double entendres, some of which would make a gangsta rapper blush. The lyrics are really bawdy a lot of the time, which is very surprising for someone who thinks of Bach’s time as prim and proper. The music in this collection is the music that they didn’t want their parents, professors, girlfriends, and wives to know that they liked, sort of a guilty pleasure.

I find that those guilty pleasures can offer a greater amount of insight into the spirit of the time, and into the hopes and fears of the audience, than can the B Minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion, these other colossal works by Bach that represent a much more public face of the time. If I’m innovating at all, it’s in this way. I’m trying to understand how Bach’s music fitted into its time, and where it can be situated in the musical landscape. This is a different approach from treating the St. Matthew Passion only as a timeless classic that rewards repeated listening. I’m interested in the music that people cared about then and trying to figure out why they cared about it, rather than just closely examining works that are considered to have stood the test of time.

Bach’s music has stood the test of time, but how was it heard by his contemporaries? There’s a famous novel called Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, a fellow Minnesotan. I like the novel a lot. There’s a line in it that stuck in my head when I read it long ago. Babbitt, who is kind of a middle-class guy, is talking about his mother?in?law. Lewis writes: “Of course Babbitt loved his mother?in?law. And sometimes he even liked her.” I have the sense that that’s kind of the relationship a lot of people had with Bach’s music during his time. They all respected him because he was the most famous and talented musician anybody knew, but they didn’t really love the music. For many people, it posed too big a challenge, and it wasn’t really immediately gratifying to listen to for that reason, or to perform. Sometimes they liked Bach’s music, but most of the time they preferred other kinds of music. The only people who consistently loved it from the beginning were professional organists.

I devoted a lot of attention to studying the music collections of teenage girls in Bach’s time. What music were they listening to, and how did Bach’s music figure into their musical lives? There are two countesses who lived in Darmstadt in the 1740s and were about 12 and 15 years old. I did a lot of research about their music teacher and his biography, and tried to understand why he put together these music manuscripts for them. There are about 50 manuscripts that are all in the Berlin State Library right now, and they’re in pristine condition. Somebody just found a chest in a castle in 1968, and all of this stuff was in it. A lot of the music was prepared for these two girls, and there are about 500 different individual movements from different keyboard works by lots of different composers. Among those 500 movements, there’s exactly one by Johann Sebastian Bach, a piece in which the hands are crossing the whole time in every measure. They had a lot of music that was just like that, with hand crossing in every measure. Clearly this was something appealing to them. So if you draw a Venn diagram of their tastes and Bach’s music, there’s only a tiny little sliver of overlap. It’s this one piece, this one little movement: the “Giga” from Bach’s first keyboard Partita, BWV 825.

One of the countesses also composed a bit, and that I think, too, reflects their taste. It is difficult to be certain because you never know how much is their teacher’s taste since he’s the one doing the copying and how much is their own taste. But when we see music that they themselves are composing, apparently without a lot of help, we can trust that it reflects their taste. They’re just doing it because they want to, because they find it fulfilling, not because anyone expected it of them.

Interviewer: The notion seems intuitive to me that the more innovative the musician, the more challenging their music. But I question whether the general public is the best barometer for assessing musical innovation because I don’t think that the public usually gravitates toward the most difficult, challenging, or newest music, until a certain comfort level and familiarity have been achieved. I think music has an entertainment purpose for a lot of people who are nonmusicians. I always think of that as one of the cornerstones of somebody who’s innovative—that they have a compulsion to do what they’re doing, some inner drive that exists independent of how it’s going to be received. I would think that Bach had to write what he did, independent of whether anybody liked it.

Andrew: I agree with virtually everything you just said. The only thing that gives me pause is the idea that Bach was writing music independently of what his audience thought. It’s true, he wasn’t trying to flatter their ears or entertain them, but he also wanted his music to be liked. This was his idea of entertainment. The fact that it didn’t always entertain people was maybe even inspiring for him. Maybe he liked to kind of provoke them that way, to make his audience accept his music on his terms. I think that’s true of a lot of innovative musicians, and maybe innovative people in general: they’re not working independently of their audience. They want a different kind of relationship with their audience, or maybe with a smaller, more specialized audience.

Interviewer: That’s very well said. I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about your view of being at Peabody. You’re in an environment that’s unique, and it probably allows you to do your work in a way that few places in the world would allow you to do it.

Andrew: I’ve really enjoyed working here. I feel very lucky to have come right from graduate school to Peabody. This is now my eighth year, and I’ve had a lot of support the entire time. Peabody is unusual in that we have real academic departments, and people doing real research in those academic departments. This is not true of Juilliard, or Curtis, where the faculty tends to consist mostly of adjuncts. Here at Peabody, we have full-time faculty members, like myself and others, who are going to conferences and really participating in the intellectual lives of our disciplines. I also find it rewarding to deal with my students because they’re so committed to music. There’s a lot of background that I don’t need to go into because they’re already invested in the material. Ironically, or paradoxically, that gives me license to focus on nonmusical things in a way that I can’t when I teach at Homewood, where I have to start by teaching some students the very basics. At Peabody we can go right to the stuff that’s interesting to me because we’re all up-to-speed from day one of the semester. We can all analyze music, and we all have a very close relationship with the repertoire.

Interviewer: Very intriguing. By way of closing, can you tell me about what you hope to achieve over the next five to 10 years?

Andrew: I hope that I can finish some of my ongoing projects. I am writing a book about keyboard culture in Bach’s time. This will be followed by a work about Bach and his audience in particular. I have the project about popular music I described. I was awarded a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany to go back to Leipzig in 2013–14 to work on a project that’s actually not about music. It’s about diaries in the first half of the 18th century in Germany, written by people who visited Leipzig and described it. I’ll be traveling to Poland and Estonia, and to other parts of Eastern Europe that used to be heavily German, looking for archival materials that tell me something about Leipzig. So it’s really a project about Bach’s place and time. Beyond that, I hope to forge stronger bonds between Peabody, the Krieger School, and other divisions. That’s something that’s always been interesting to me. I feel like there’s so much brilliance at Johns Hopkins. Each of us has a little fragment of that brilliance, and it would be good if we could share more of it with colleagues and students in other divisions.