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Bach and the Beatles

June 28, 2010

The Beatles and Bach stand at opposite poles of my musical life, two great pillars on which my career stands. Without them I’d be a geologist or some kind of computer geek. I’ve chronicled Bach’s influence on me and will do so with the Beatles in the near future.

What brings the Beatles and Bach together here is not music, but a peculiar coincidence. With both mentors, I long believed that I knew what their last work had been, and that belief colored how I saw the ends of their careers, and how I saw them. In both cases, I later found out I was wrong, and they changed before my eyes.

With the Beatles it was simple. I, along with everyone else for years, believed their last album was “Let It be.”  With the exception of the title track and the “Long and Winding Road,” the songs did nothing for me. And the movie, a documentary of making the record, was just plain depressing.  The Boys who had defined exuberance in their first, great movie “A Hard Day’s Night” seemed bored and therefore boring. The sour note of “Let It Be” tainted my memory of the Beatles because one of the things that made them such heroes was their impeccable timing in both their careers and lives: they were always one deft step ahead of us, leading us as a generation.

Then I discovered that though “Let It Be” had been the last album they released, that the last one they recorded was “Abbey Road.“ Though not my favorite record of theirs, it was respectable, ambitious, and ended on a perfect last note with “The End.” So their real swan song had completed the unique arc of their career with elegance. It washed the sour taste of “Let It Be” from my mouth. What lingered now on my tongue was dark and bittersweet.

Bach’s career did not end with the breakup of a band, but with his death. As I had heard it he’d been writing the “Art of the Fugue” on his deathbed, and had died in the middle of one of the fugues.  The “Art of the Fugue” was a musical treatise on the form he’d brought to the highest point in musical history.

The Art of the Fugue (image by Maksim via Wikimedia commons)

The music came to me described as dauntingly complex, too cerebral, so it was years before I dared listen to it. I felt I needed to prepare myself in order to appreciate it. After years of listening to Bach, I finally felt ready.  With some trepidation I put on Glenn Gould’s interpretation – the first parts on the organ, rare for him, and the later on piano. After a few listenings I warmed to the piece. Perhaps it wasn’t as passionate as the Mass and Cantatas, but it had the beauty of complex, exquisitely proportioned architecture.

The last movement, unfinished, consists of several stages, each rising in intensity, as though in his last hours he neared some final understanding of the fugue, of music, of life. Gould interprets it with special reverence even a sense of drama, as is obvious when he hits that last hanging note, striking it short and hard, saying, “And that’s all HE wrote.” My thoughts rushed into the silence following that note– what had he been about to say? What were we missing? To my knowledge, no composer has attempted to second guess the master and finish it. Yet I assumed that what he would have revealed would have been in the intellectual realm, some further elucidation of the fugue.

Some years later I was surprised to find that Bach’s last piece was not, in fact, the Art of the Fugue. He’d abandoned it years before his death. His last work was the B Minor Mass. It didn’t take me long to get used to this new ending to his life and career. Though less melodramatic, it was more fitting.  He left us having completed the greatest work in Classical music, which summed up all of the musical styles that came before. And, being a mass, it stood as a final affirmation of the faith that was central to this composer who dedicated all of his works to the glory of  God.

I was about to end this piece when I consulted Wikipedia – and discovered a third ending. In this ending he dictates a chorale prelude, BWV 668a, from his deathbed, and he finishes it. According to Wikipedia, “when the notes on the three staves of the final cadence are counted and mapped onto the Roman alphabet, the initials “JSB” are found.”

I rushed to my 17 CD collection of Bach organ music and put on the piece. I found it unbelievable that in his condition he could create something of such serenity, and so sweet. And here in his final work his dedication to the glory of God was not only explicit, but personal, specific to his circumstance.

The only possible hints he offers of his coming death are in two brief moments when a voice begins a solitary phrase – and here I’m projecting, seeing him lying there, alone as we will all be at our final moment. Yet in just two beats he’s joined by another voice, which I hear as his faith. And then  a higher, louder third voice enters – the chorale melody – and I think it’s clear what that represents: God in heaven, above (Bach often used high and low notes to symbolize heaven and earth). The words of that chorale melody confirmed it. “Before thy throne I now appear.” Its melody enters a second time near the end, and sustains an unusually long time – 3 ½ measures – over the chords below.

It’s like the more common pedal tones he set in the bottom voices of his pieces symbolizing the solidity of his earthly, human faith. Here the voice on top symbolizes… his God. As his last utterance sings above, the chords wander a murk of minor uncertainty, last doubts, before settling on a major chord, which the organist sustains for a very long time.

I like this ending best of all.

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17 Comments
  1. Carolyn permalink

    In the sentence “He left us having completed the greatest work in Classical music, which summed up all of the musical styles that came before,” I think I would have said ‘Baroque’, as the Classical period was really just getting started in 1750.

    I’m wondering if it’s deliberate, that you don’t distinguish between periods of Classical music. This is something I notice, because the Classical period is my least favorite kind of Classical music, so to speak: I like Bach (and several other Baroque masters,) and Brahms (and several other Romantics,) much better than Beethoven (who would vie for Mozart for the title of greatest composer of the Classical period, as such.)

    Your usage is perfectly common, but for me it involves a doublethink.

  2. Carolyn permalink

    Loved the discussion of BWV 668a, btw.

  3. Thank you. The distinction which Wikipedia makes is between “classical music” (everything in the Western tradition from the 9th century through the present) and “classical period music” (Haydn, Mozart, Betthoven, Schubert.) My understanding is yet different, and based on style – only Haydn and Mozart are strictly classical period; Beethoven starts classical and ends romantic; Schubert is strictly romantic.

  4. Carolyn permalink

    So, if I’m asked, ‘Do you like classical music?’, should I say, ‘Yes, I like Bach,’ or ‘No, I like Bach.”?

    That’s more than a little facetious, because I do think Mozart’s the bomb, it’s just that Beethoven didn’t write anything I care about for my instrument (voice.) For that matter, the generation of Bachs who succeeded JS, who were ‘classical’ composers, don’t do much for me at all.

    It’s like when people ask, “Are you a Christian?”–If I say, “I’m an Episcopalian,” some people will hear that as “Yes” and others as “No,” depending on what they mean by Christian.

    Anyhow–I follow with interest.

    • Many feel that Beethoven lacked a facility writing for voice which he had an abundance of writing for instruments, and I agree. He overcame his trouble writing for voice in two cases: the last movement of the 9th, whose merits are still argued, and the Missa Solemnis. I think it’s a flawed work, too dense and too complex, perhaps a product of his overcompensating for his trouble with the voices. But it’s also very moving, perhaps due to his struggle in writing it.

  5. Re: Let It Be

    Did the “Let It Be… Naked” release from a few years back change your perception of that album at all? When the Phil Spector Wall of Sound was torn down was the album any more palatable to you?

    • Nope. Actually my favorite things on it are what Spector orchestrated -HIS versions. I know Paul hates them, but I think the arrangement of “Long and Winding Road” is solid, even inspired -like that violin line that climbs its winding way up through the bridge. You could chalk it up to the old musical principle of liking the one you heard first best. Or maybe just my penchant for over-production (or maybe that song is where I got it in the first place.) Now I’m confused.

  6. Sean permalink

    Bach died of a severe case of “fugue”. I knew it!

    Very well written piece on J.S. and the Beatles.

  7. Let It Be is undoubtedly one of The Beatles lesser albums. However, I like it more than you do. In addition to the ballads you mention I believe that “Two of Us,” The One After 909,” George’s “For You Blue,” and especially “Get Back” are all worthy. The last one is one of their best rockers of their later years. I love Johns’ lead guitar on it.

    • OK, I’ll grant that depending on my mood “Get Back” does it for me. And certainly its rooftop performance is the best thing in the movie, one of the best moments in their career as the bobby’s from old London come up to try and stop new London from happening.

  8. I, like you, was ridiculously relieved to discover that ‘Abbey Road’ and not ‘Let It Be’ was their last album. Somehow it made their decline that much more palatable. I’m not a great fan of LIB, naked or otherwise and it still represents a hole in my collection.

    Now Bach…

  9. “Let It Be” was the first – or possibly second – pop-rock LP I bought with my own money, and as such, I have some affection for it. But “Abbey Road” had come to me earlier on tape and has been a constant since 1969 among the albums I turn to for solace. (It’s one of two albums I’ve owned in three formats: cassette, LP and CD.) If I were forced to rank the Beatles’ albums,”Abbey Road” would probably finish third, behind “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul,” and it easily comes somewhere in the Top 15 of all albums, all-time. Still, I agree with Charlie’s list of tracks from “Let It Be” that shouldn’t be dismissed. And I’d add “I’ve Got A Feeling” to that list. (And then I start to think about “Across the Universe.”) I’m not nearly qualified to comment on your comments about the classical universe, but your description of Bach’s last moments intertwining with the choral prelude BWV 668a are brilliant. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome. “Across the Universe” is a very special song, and so believe it or not is the movie – Conventional wisdom always had it that the Beatles were very tough to cover, but that movie puts the lie to it. Great visuals, too.

      Let’s not forget Beatles 65. (Or Meet the Beatles.)

  10. I like — regards your three articles on Bach — your ending here best of all too. (Did you know Bach was one of Babaji’s reincarnations?) Left a comment (two short and one very long) at each article on, as felt the least they deserved.

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