The Way of Bach: Three Years with the Man, the Music, and the Piano

The Way of Bach: Three Years with the Man, the Music, and the Piano
By Dan Moller
Pegasus Books, 197 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Will  our fascination with Johann Sebastian Bach ever cease? After reading The Way of Bach by Dan Moller, the answer would have to be an emphatic “no.”

Moller, a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, took it upon himself to learn some of the more profound Bach keyboard works despite not being a musician. These include The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue. Moller deconstructs each of these works, stripping them to their emotional character as well as their technical substance. Moller offers a unique—and entertainingly critical—perspective on classical music and on Bach in particular.

For example, Moller waxes on about how Bach was a great assimilator who incorporated French pomp, Italian opera, and Renaissance tradition with his Lutheran particularism. According to Moller, the leading lights of Bach’s day—namely, Georg Philipp Telemann and Jean-Baptiste Lully—were mediocrities. Even greats such as Handel and Vivaldi were bound by tradition in comparison to Bach. Moller writes how Americans, with their lack of perspective, tend to ascribe this to genius, while Europeans will view Bach as the one who simply perfected the musical traditions of his time. Palestrina and Debussy seem to be among the few who compare favorably to Bach in Moller’s estimation.

Disagree? That’s okay, because Moller’s teacher Christopher does as well. Christopher may have dropped out of conservatory and wrap fish for a living, but he has forgotten more about being a musician than Moller will ever know. Moller describes—sometimes triumphantly, sometimes bitterly—their disagreements on both technical and aesthetic matters concerning Bach. Christopher may have experience and musical intuition, but Moller has read nearly every Bach biography ever written, including Philipp Spitta’s thousand-page opus from 1873. How can one argue Bach with a person who knows so much about the man? Teacher and student’s Bach vs. Mozart debate sparkles as well. Do you prefer laborious fugues or vapid serenades?

Moller does not lack audacity, and, having a background in philosophy, he is perfectly capable of defending whatever point he cares to make (although one would like him to expand upon his opinion that Beethoven was a “pompous nose-blower”). But The Way of Bach is equal parts humility. Moller often finds himself at the limits of his abilities and hurling existential conundrums into the abyss. He freely admits that there is much about Bach, about music, about life that he doesn’t understand.

But what he does understand is his fascination. At the end of his three years studying Bach, it’s still there, and will likely never go away.

This book review appeared in the spring  issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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