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Bach "vs" Rachmaninoff

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volco
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I can't imagine there are any professional classical musicians (performers, composers, conductors) who, if asked to rate the two composers OBJECTIVELY(i.e., not based on their personal tastes/preferences but based on their objective assessment of Bach's and Rach's compositional abilities and accomplishments) would pick Sergei over Johann.

Bach is arguably the greatest composer in the history of Western art music. Rachmaninov doesn't even make the Top 40.

It's not clear what rating the composers 'objectively' means here, and I think youre using a standard of value which is inherently biased towards Bach. Theres no question that Bach was a more technically gifted composer than Rachmaninov, and possibly the most gifted ever. However its not clear that technically brilliant music is inherently better than more simple music.

Rachmaninov was a Romantic and the purpose of Romantic music was generally expression and the communication of emotion/inner states. Therefore by a Romantic standard, the 'best' composer is the one who's work communicates the greatest depth of feeling, not the composer who's work is the most groundbreaking on a technical level. Much late-Romantic music (I'm thinking of Wagner/Mahler/Bruckner) would have been viewed as crass, over-the-top egofests by the standards of Bach's time, so comparing the two eras is difficult. Both Bach and Rachmaninov were trying to achieve very different things with their art, and their music has very different forms as a result - who you prefer is going to be biased by whether you prefer structually simple, emotionally understated, subtle, technical music, or large, sprawling, frenzies of emotional expression. If most people find that Rachnaninov's music communicates emotional and spritual depths than Bach's, then Rachmaninov was a 'better' composer by Romantic standards.

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Personally I find much of late romanticism to be long winded and melodramatic and prefer the conciseness/simplicity of Bach

...simplicity of Bach? I am guessing then you have never heard his 'Art of the Fugue'?

who you prefer is going to be biased by whether you prefer structually simple, emotionally understated, subtle, technical music, or large, sprawling, frenzies of emotional expression. If most people find that Rachnaninov's music communicates emotional and spritual depths than Bach's, then Rachmaninov was a 'better' composer by Romantic standards.

Interesting to find such a 'relativistic' response on an Objectivist site...but I have seen plenty of them when it comes to discussions of music. And again, in response to your notion that Bach is 'structually simple' I direct your attention to his 'Art of the Fugue'

Edited by arete1952
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...simplicity of Bach? I am guessing then you have never heard his 'Art of the Fugue'?
Structually simple yes. Theres obviously an extremely high amount of 'local' complexity due to the counterpoint but it doesnt have the complex large-scale forms that you find in (eg) Mahler or even Beethoven.

Interesting to find such a 'relativistic' response on an Objectivist site...but I have seen plenty of them when it comes to discussions of music. And again, in response to your notion that Bach is 'structually simple' I direct you attention to his 'Art of the Fugue'

Its not so much relativism as it is realising that different types of music need to be judged by different standards. Comparing Bach to (eg) Scarlatti is one thing, but comparing him to Wagner or Philip Glass makes little sense since they are making completely different types of music.

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Structually simple yes. Theres obviously an extremely high amount of 'local' complexity due to the counterpoint but it doesnt have the complex large-scale forms that you find in (eg) Mahler or even Beethoven.

Your point is well taken...to an extent. I assume when you write of 'complex large-scale forms' you mean those longer MOVEMENTS (in sonata-allegro or sonata rondo and other post-Baroque forms) found in the symphonies of Beethoven and the Romantics. While Bach composed large-scale pieces, they consist of movements/sections whose lengths (and formal complexity) never approach that of selected movements from the symphonic works of Beethoven, et al.

I still disagree, however, with your use of the term 'structurally simple'. There is more than 'local contrapuntal complexity' in certain Bach fugues...a triple fugue ain't 'structurally simple'.

Its not so much relativism as it is realising that different types of music need to be judged by different standards. Comparing Bach to (eg) Scarlatti is one thing, but comparing him to Wagner or Philip Glass makes little sense since they are making completely different types of music.

I disagree. "...making completely different types of music"? Hardly (well maybe Glass as he can't be taken seriously as a composer of art music...more like orchestrated, stretched out pop music).

Bach, Telemann, Wagner, Rach....all worked within the tradition of Western art music. They can be, and are, compared based on their compositional technique, the power, beauty and profundity of their music, their output, the presence of their music throughout history and on the current music scene, and the respect and admiration granted them by professional classical musicians. In all those areas Bach is superior...even in the 'power and beauty' category...there is more to musical beauty than lush chords or more to power than bombastic gestures.

I understand the point you are making...I just don't agree with.

The reality is that only on an Objectivist website would the notion (as asked in the initial post): "Is Rachmaninov superior to Bach?" be seriously considered.

Edited by arete1952
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Well, it's been a while, but I thought I'd chime in my subjective views again.

In general, there's always been something about great virtuosity and the high romantics that's appealed to me. It rarely ever strikes me as empty scale-playing or whatever people accuse it of being. Take the Liszt Piano Concerto in Eb. The climax between the 3rd and 4th movements isn't just vanity -- it's that 'lightness' Dagny talks about, when one is important; it's confidence in one's ability to enjoy life; it's grace and elegance and unashamed respect for one's own ability. And it's beautiful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a44yCA5uh2w...feature=related

The Rach 3 is incredible. It's more impressive with regards to piano talent also. But I don't think it beats the 2nd. It's not as purpose driven, not as focused. That's my impression, anyways.

I would agree that the Rach 2 is more cohesive (and so purpose driven across all three movements). I kind of see where you are coming from. But... I feel that the Rach 3 is more active, that there's more going on. And the last 5 minutes of the finale is what always comes to mind when someone mentions being driven hard towards a purpose. And I absolutely love the part right before the climax where the 1st movement cadenza is quoted in a somewhat frantic manner, but then it transcended, as if the fear/anger it corresponded to has no more power, and only life remains.

The climax of the first-movement cadenza is, for me, the most powerful moment in all of music. However, the depth of its darkness is dangerous, and not something I allow myself to experience frequently. Black magic should not be toyed with unless one knows one is strong enough to handle it.

Interesting that you bring that up! I find Prokofiev's 2nd concerto's 5 minute cadenza to be exactly this 'black magic'... I can't listen to it too much, cause it's just TOO MUCH and TOO DARK.

Now, the most powerful moment in all music... how about Beethoven's 3rd symphony, 4th movement, variation 8 (I think)?

As for Bach, I've still a ways to go. I will say several of his works struck me as very clever and playful, very enjoyable. E.g. Keyboard concerto in D. (That one makes me laugh after the first three notes; it's so 'courtly'!). And the Goldberg variations are pretty crazy. There are some that fly by in a flurry of 32nd notes, and by the time the final note is resolved you wonder, "Holy crap, did that just happen?" My mind lags a moment behind the music, heh. But as for getting goosebumps, I think I've only got that from his Passacaglia & Fugue BWV 582. The Passacaglia has all these wonderful variations on this simple yet very satisfying melody. And the Fugue is just... violent. Maybe this is a bit like 'black magic', so beware.

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My take on music:

For every composer there is a different root for their music: their own sense of life, and that very sense is expressed through his music. In turn a listener agrees or does not agree with the philosophy of the composer, for that is what is truly expressed with the music he wrote. Therefore, if you like a piece of music you are in agreement with the composer. You experience through this music a kinship, a soul brother or sister. In a way the composer has spoken for you and your set of values and it makes you feel in harmony with him, you become the music, because it is you, your inner self that you experience.

It is a hard thing to pull out of your own being depth of thoughts, emotions, views and translate them into art, the most abstract of the art forms being music. Most often an artist does not have to think about this process, the translation has become automatic as all emotions have, but it is still a hard birth. Descriptive music is easier, he can imagine a sound of water as an example, but to express an idea like hero or victory is much more difficult. The music is used as a symbol for what he wants to say, and to say it right, he must know what he is saying.

To be a great composer, he must also be a great thinker, a deep thinker. A person who can draw out of himself the result of this process of thinking and turn it into a statement with the language of sound. Therefore, not many in this world will be great composers. But many will be able to express themselves and find much pleasure doing so in their own smaller way. To become good, he must find enlightenment about many questions and transform the results, to become great, he must also be a great and wise person.

----------

I do not care much for Bach now. I used to as a young person. But as my sense of life shifted over the years, I have come to appreciate the romantics more and more. Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Mahler, Chopin… I like the strength in these composers, the self-assurance, the heroism and sometimes the bombast.

But I also love just simple little pieces that are full of joy and delight, that speak of happiness. I do not care for disharmony at all. Those pieces are the same as abstract "Art", which I also reject.

I also love music of the more raw variety like Orff, some primitive music is wonderful to listen to as well. Sometimes I enjoy the jarring sounds of rock, depends on my own mood really.

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  • 1 month later...

As a professional classical musician I have my own take on this.

Johan Sebastian Bach, first and foremost, is rightly considered the father of harmony, and the consummate master of counterpoint, though in his time he was considered dry and old-fashioned. Counterpoint and polyphony are very refined intellectual pursuits in music, and it usually requires a fair amount of listening to understand it fully. Most people listen to one of Bach's fugues the same they would listen to a Mozart concerto or a Sonata from the Romanticism: works that are strictly homophonic (main melody, accompanied), whereas the appreciation of counterpoint requires a lot more focus, a lot more attention. One of the facets of Bach's genius is that of crafting such powerful and flexible counterpoint melodies-- the theme of the fugue is stated, and then the second voice comes in-- while the second voice is stating its theme, the first voice is accompanying it... but suddenly halfway through the introduction of the third voice, the first voice suddenly has become a mirror version of the theme itself (basically, upside-down), and the astonishing thing is that it still fits perfectly while the fourth voice comes in. Then off they go, each and every voice following its own unique path, sometimes complementing the other voices, sometimes becoming dominant, but each and every one is an individual string following its own evolution towards a prescribed goal by the composer. The final resolution of the fugue is usually a very exquisite musical and intellectual pleasure, with Bach hardly ever, if at all, disappointing.

This is an example of Bach at his most intellectual, in the fugue from Prelude and Fugue BWV 548 in e minor :

But there's also a different Bach. A very joyful and playful individual who adored the italian 'gioia' and who gleefully incorporated the italian style into his own music to make it more ebullient, such as the case, for example, of the Fifth Brandenburg concerto:

Allegro:

(which incidentally contains a very haunting and lovely exchange between flute and violin, as well as the first ever example of a keyboard solo of true magnitude in the shape of an extremely significant cadenza for the harpsichordist--- suddenly the baroque concerto becomes a concerto for harpsirchord and orchestra at 7:00 minutes! This little innovation by Bach would eventually end up in the Classical and Romanticist Piano Concertos. In this video you have harpsichordist Elaine Comparone, who has become famous for having a special harpsichord which allows her to play while standing up.)

Presto:

And there's the Vocal Bach, whose music can range from the dramatic to the exultant to the humoristic. It is ALWAYS difficult to sing and requires usually the firmest technique posisble (something he has in common with Mozart, though Mozart's music sounds DECEPTIVELY simple while being incredibly difficult to sing because of how exposed it is-- whereas Bach's is complex implicitly and explicitly).

Bach can be quite humorous-- such as the example of his irrepressible Coffee Cantata, which has such a plot as to make it a comic opera in disguise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xF0dd0EaXDg

(In this scene the daughter has been forbidden from drinking coffee by her father, coffee is considered immoral because 'it awakens passions...' -Bach and his grandmother reportedly were addicted to the stuff themselves- , but the daughter pleads, singing "Oh, how good coffee tastes, lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter even than Muscatel wine.I've got to have coffee and if someone wants to please me, they need only pour me a cup!" Eventually her father convinces her to give up coffee by promising to find her a suitable husband. She agrees to this- but only after secretly spreading the rumor that she will only marry a man that lets her drink as much coffee as she wants!)

Bach also has moments of intense contemplation and beauty. Of course, everybody is familiar with the rather over-exposed Adagio from his third orchestral suite, now known as "Air for the G string." Nevertheless if you can listen to it intently while disregarding what has been done with it (or TO it) by the modern musicians, you'll discover how tender it is, and how intimate. In this particular piece it almost seems as if Bach is predicting the arrival of Romanticism. There is very little surprise that Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart and the musicians that followed held reverence for this much-maligned maestro.

And then, you have his cello suites... well, there is no need to go on further. The point I am making is that to appreciate Bach, you have to put on 'different ears' than you would to appreciate Rachmaninoff. As for dear old Rachmaninoff ... I adore him! But, you need to be in a completely different frame of mind to appreciate Rachmaninoff than you do to appreciate Bach. The trick about classical music is that each composer (or at least each composer worth speaking of) has his own language and style, and if you simply stay at the "that's nice...." stage when they write something "pretty," you're doing yourself a huge disfavor- each good composer has secret depths that will only enrich you the more if you search for them and seek to understand his language. Even Mozart, a man who didn't really innovate, has a very particular richness in his vocal repertoire (where I think he is at his strongest), and very few composers have ever or will write for the voice as well as he did with few exceptions like Puccini. There really is nothing more individualistic than a great composer.

Anyways, that's my take on the two masters.

PS: One last thing that I want to mention is that although Bach was deeply religious, in the end no matter how much worshipful music he wrote, the result was a cathedral not in honor of God, but in honor of man-- the profound intellectual quality of his music is only a testament to a brain that delighted in using its gifts in reckless abandon, despite the attempts of the environment that surrounded him to drag him down to the drab and bleak world of the Lutheran orthodoxia. They may have succeeded in chaining up his life (as Bach never quite succeeded in getting the positions he kept seeking outside of the Lutheran church), but when it came to the music in his head, Johan Sebastian Bach soared with the eagles.

PPS: For the record, I am a professional opera singer, but I have sung my fair share of Bach, including the narrator in the Coffee Cantata, several of his chorales, the tenor solos in his Christmas Oratorio and Magnificat, as well as the tenor solos for the Mass in B minor. If it takes a different frame of mind to listen to him, you can only imagine the difference when it comes to singing his work! I find that my logic tends to work overtime when singing Bach, whereas for example the works of Mozart or Donizetti seem to stimulate my emotional side more- though, of course, without abandoning my brain... a singer who forgets his brain is only doomed to crash and burn mid-performance.

Edited by kainscalia
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PS: One last thing that I want to mention is that although Bach was deeply religious, in the end no matter how much worshipful music he wrote, the result was a cathedral not in honor of God, but in honor of man-- the profound intellectual quality of his music is only a testament to a brain that delighted in using its gifts in reckless abandon,

This is my impression of him too, from my limited knowledge of his music. Am I the only one who really likes his Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring?

Anyway, your post was great! Thanks for sharing all this information with us!

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  • 1 year later...

I love this discussion!

I think it's fascinating how people seem to either really love or really hate Rachmaninov and Chopin. Kind of like how people either really like cilantro or they can't stand it. Very little middle ground in my experience.

Personally I listen to Rachmaninov and Chopin and I hear a mad man. The music seems totally random and really stresses me out --- actually it's almost a nightmare like feeling. Then I listen to Bach and I get the chills. For me, no one compares to Bach. Concerto V, en Ré Majeur, BWV 1050 - I. Allegro is as close to perfect as I ever expect to hear. The harpsichord in this song is mesmerizing!!

(amazing harpsichord action solo starting around min 7 blows my mind)

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Good grief, my hands cramped up just watching that.

I guess I am one of the oddballs--I like *some* Rachmaninov and can happily skip the rest. And I am the same way with Bach. (The Brandenburgs are awesome, but a lot of his piano solo works I find tedious.) I'd have to say though, that when these men are good, they are very good. (I know zilch about Chopin, hence I am not discussing him here.)

I can understand the complaint about Rachmaninov appearing to be "random". I'd have to say my favorite single piece of Rachmaninov is the last movement of his second concerto. There's a clear theme here (a glorious one) and he comes back to it repeatedly, but it does seem to take quite a while for him to do so and I've yet to discern any real order to the digressions. Nevertheless I love the piece (it so happens I listened to it yesterday). [As a matter of unrelated but hopefully interesting trivia, it's the piece that Ayn Rand listened to as she finished Atlas Shrugged; no doubt the strains of Halley's Concerto of Deliverance drifting over the valley at the beginning of the last section of the novel would not sound too dissimilar!]

I've discovered that in general I am not a fan of the variations form (the major exception being the last movement of Mozart's clarinet quintet, which IIRC is K621 or 622) because they are either too obviously making small mods to the same thing, endlessly, or the modifications are so great I don't recognize the original and it seems "random", and some rondos strike me as random even with the repeated return to the theme.

But for truly random music you need some of the much more modern composers, who pick up an interesting motif, play with it for about 15 seconds, and just when it seems they are about to do something really wonderful with it, they drop it and never come back to it. Over and over again for 15-20 dreary minutes, and that's the end of the first movement. You come to the horrified realization that the piece still has three more movements to go. If you are lucky, that is. There may never be an interesting motif in the entire piece.

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I have the exact opposite view of Rachmaninov being "random". I think his pieces are carefully crafted and thought out, and moves along purposefully(especially when he plays them himself). Perhaps it's the weaving of different themes(like in his 2;nd and 3;rd concerto) that you percieve as being random?

Something that always gets me with his music is the incredible beauty of it(and, depending on which piece, triumph and insurmountable strength). I haven't yet found another composer who's even close to this:

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Since madness was mentioned I can't help but think of Scriabin(I don't know about Chopin, but Rachmaninov seems perfectly sane - despite depressions and hardships). Now that guy was properly mad(still a great composer though).

Poem of Ecstasy is an orchestrated making love composition - extraordinarily done [indeed, once made love via it playing in the background, and dang if it didn't all come out just as to the music B) ][yes, by the end of the music, she knew she was being played, but she could not help herself, and had to agree it was very well written]

Edited by anonrobt
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Music calls for such an emotional personal response, I don't see how one can really say right or wrong. I think so much depends on one's personality and, more importantly, what one has been exposed to. I notice so many young people today have never been exposed to classical music and enjoy listening to whatever rap-crap seems to be popular. For a lot of them, it seems to be a lack of knowledge then an indictment of musical tastes. Personally, I think good art is so important to our well-being i'd like to see the classical music piece and classical plays taught regularly taught in school. The same deprived kids who don't know either Ramaninoff or Bach haven't heard of Ibsen either.

As to whether Rach or Bach is "superior" I really think it's a matter of taste. bach lived two decades before Rach, so he would have totally different influences and knowledge of music. It's probably not fair to say Rach was better. He just had a lot more musical knowledge to work with and lived in a different time.

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Music calls for such an emotional personal response, I don't see how one can really say right or wrong. I think so much depends on one's personality and, more importantly, what one has been exposed to. I notice so many young people today have never been exposed to classical music and enjoy listening to whatever rap-crap seems to be popular. For a lot of them, it seems to be a lack of knowledge then an indictment of musical tastes. Personally, I think good art is so important to our well-being i'd like to see the classical music piece and classical plays taught regularly taught in school. The same deprived kids who don't know either Ramaninoff or Bach haven't heard of Ibsen either.

As to whether Rach or Bach is "superior" I really think it's a matter of taste. bach lived two decades before Rach, so he would have totally different influences and knowledge of music. It's probably not fair to say Rach was better. He just had a lot more musical knowledge to work with and lived in a different time.

I think you mean 2 centuries.

Of course you're right, it's personal taste, and that's the problem with teaching it in school. If you force children to read novels, for example, they might begin to see it as work (and if you force them to read in front of a class, the might associate it with shame and stress), and you are not likely to subject them to ones that they actually like, seeing as how tastes very so much from person to person.

The same is true of classical music I would guess. I know that in my opinion, much of it is just unbearably boring. You wouldn't want them to think that is what all classical music is like.

God how I hate ©rap. I really hope I never have a child who likes rap.

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"God how I hate ©rap. I really hope I never have a child who likes rap."

For your sake, I hope so, too. I love Rachmaninoff, but I also have a peculiarly penchant for cowboy songs (I mean, who else knows all the words to the Bonanza theme?) It undoubtedly ihas a lot to do with spagetti westerns being one of the few good memories of childhood. That's what I mean by musical response being so personal.

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