Great Companions

Voyager 1, in an artist’s conception (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
On Bach, Beethoven, and other musical friends of mankind

Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

In 1977, the United States launched two space probes: Voyager I and Voyager II. They carried a “golden record,” containing sounds and images of Earth. That way, if we bumped into some creatures out there, they might know something about us — “us” meaning human beings, not just Americans or Westerners.

Carl Sagan, the astronomer and TV host, chaired the committee that decided what to put on the record. Lewis Thomas, another eminent scientist, opined as follows: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach. But that would be boasting.”

In the end, the committee included three pieces by Bach on the record — more than by any other composer: a prelude and fugue, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II; a movement from a violin partita; and a movement from a concerto.

Bach himself did not boast. At the end of his manuscripts, he tended to place three initials: “S. D. G.,” standing for “Soli Deo gloria,” i.e., “To God alone the glory.” It is hard to separate Bach’s music — even the secular pieces — from the divine. Bach didn’t.

In the third month of 1985, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “Three hundred years ago on March 21, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. The event is as though God had decided to clear His throat to remind the world of His existence.”

Bach has been a lodestar to composers ever since. In Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe, the music master in that town, gave his student Ludwig van Beethoven the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. He presented those books as a kind of Bible. Learn them, he told the boy, and you will know music. Beethoven did learn them, to historically fruitful effect.

One day, Mozart, from Salzburg, was visiting Leipzig. A choir was singing for him — a motet. Amazed by what he was hearing, Mozart cried out, “What is this?” It was Bach, naturally. Said Mozart, “Now there is something one can learn from!”

Brahms was of similar mind. “Study Bach,” he said. “There you will find everything.” “Bach is the beginning and end of all music,” said Max Reger. Wagner called Bach “the most stupendous miracle in all of music!” (Even the Wagnerian ego, apparently, did not prevent the man from giving the earlier master his due.)

There was music before Bach, needless to say. There has been music ever since man grunted, in some interesting fashion. In Germany, Schütz preceded Bach. If you want to go back 500 years before Schütz, you got Hildegard (of Bingen). In Italy, you have Palestrina (born around 1525) and Monteverdi (born in 1567).

Verdi once referred to the “northerners” — the Germans and Austrians — as “the sons of Bach.” The “southerners,” such as himself, were “the sons of Palestrina.” The northerners, he seemed to say, were the better off.

Bach was not indifferent to his forebears — far from it. After all, this is the fellow who, at 20, walked hundreds of miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ. “I wanted to comprehend one thing and another thing about his art,” Bach explained.

But Bach is unique, being both a foundation and an acme.

In my view, composers are a family, learning from one another, borrowing from one another, building on one another — all intertwined. Albéniz in Spain, Debussy in France, Scriabin in Russia, and on and on. Verdi, Puccini, and others may have been sons of Palestrina, not sons of Bach. But you know who wrote Italian concertos? Bach (out-Italianing the Italians).

Shostakovich, that great ecumenist, said, “I like all music, from Bach to Offenbach.” Today, he might have to update his quip: “Bach to Bacharach”? “Bach to Bock”? (I’m referring to Jerry Bock, the composer of Fiddler on the Roof.)

Back to Wagner, for a moment. My memory is that someone started to compile a list of pieces that were influenced by Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. He soon gave up, saying it would be easier to compile a list of pieces that were not. In 2016, Gramophone magazine published an article about Tristan: “The Opera That Changed Music.”

Back to Beethoven, too. He is “your best friend,” said Lorin Maazel, the late conductor. “He’ll celebrate with you when you’re up, and console you when you’re down, and keep you going. He’ll be with you through thick and thin.” Countless people have found this to be true.

Wang Jie, a Chinese-American composer, was sent to a school far away. The youngest girl in her dorm, she felt alone and miserable. “Nobody liked me,” she told an interviewer. She had two audiocassettes, which she listened to over and over — her own “golden records,” you might say. They contained Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. These cassettes, she said, “kept me alive.”

I think of a line from a hymn: “Great are companions such as these.”

Beethoven’s Fifth, as it happens — the first movement — was placed on the Voyagers’ golden record. The opening motif of the symphony — a short rest, three short notes, and a long note — is probably the best-known motif in music. During World War II, the BBC opened some of its transmissions to Europe with it. This is an interesting story unto itself.

But hey: Isn’t Beethoven’s music German, and wasn’t Germany the enemy? The music is human, really, belonging to everybody.

Remember Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven set in the final movement of his final symphony, the Ninth: “Be embraced, all you millions! Share this kiss with all the world!”

The “Ode to Joy” theme is the anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union. When Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in 2017, he took a victory walk through the Louvre esplanade. Accompanying him was the “Ode to Joy.” I myself would have chosen the “Marseillaise” — but one could understand where Macron and his supporters were coming from.

In an interview, I once asked Maazel about the future of classical music. The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.” Western conservatories are stuffed with Chinese students, and other students from Asia. The Juilliard School, in New York City, has just opened a branch in China.

The Chungs emerged on the scene in the 1970s. They aren’t Chinese but Korean. Kyung-wha, the violinist; Myung-whun, the pianist, who became a conductor; Myung-wha, the cellist. These siblings played as the Chung Trio.

Every classical guitarist is an honorary Spaniard, you might say. The heart of the instrument’s repertoire comes from Spain. A Chinese player, Xuefei Yang, made an album called “40 Degrees North.” The title refers to the line of latitude connecting Madrid and Beijing.

In 2014, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, the great German mezzo-soprano (1928–2021). She recalled attending the Pacific Music Festival, in Sapporo, Japan — a festival founded by Leonard Bernstein. She heard a Chinese tenor sing a Beethoven song. “And it was so good, I was crying,” she told me. “His pronunciation was excellent. I thought, ‘My goodness, they come from China and they sing Beethoven. It is incredible.’”

Incidentally, I never heard a better Exsultate, jubilate (Mozart’s motet) than one sung by Ying Fang, a Chinese soprano.

Chinese-American composers, such as Wang Jie, are always fusing the East and the West. I refer to this as “the twain, meeting.”

These days, misguided souls decry “cultural appropriation,” which is like decrying culture itself, in that borrowings and assimilations have gone on since the beginning of time. In November of this year, Etel Adnan, a Lebanese-American writer and artist, passed away. My eye focused on a portion of her obituary in the New York Times:

In addition to her taut yet cheerful paintings, Ms. Adnan also drew praise for her leporellos, books folded like an accordion on which she combined drawings, splashes of color and Arabic words and numbers. After discovering leporellos, which were popular with Japanese artists, she decided to appropriate the format for her own work.

And why are these books called “leporellos”? As my colleague Jason Lee Steorts pointed out, the name derives from Leporello, Don Giovanni’s manservant in Mozart’s opera (libretto by Da Ponte). Singing the Catalogue Aria, Leporello unfolds a long list of his master’s conquests (conquests of a carnal kind).

Think of it: A Spanish tale becomes an opera by an Austrian composer and an Italian-Jewish librettist, which has its premiere in Prague and later sparks an art enthusiasm in Japan, which is noticed by an American of Lebanese background, who . . .

Leontyne Price, the soprano from Laurel, Miss., sang recitals all over the world — Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Fauré, the whole nine yards. At the end of her programs, she always sang spirituals. The idea was this, as she explained: “I have sung your songs; now you will hear mine.” She spread them, as Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, and others had done before her. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” for example, is known and cherished worldwide.

In 1963, a whole album of spirituals was made by George London, the bass-baritone — born George Burstein to Russian Jews in Montreal.

Speaking of Russian Jews: Irving Berlin wrote the most popular Christmas song of all time (“White Christmas”). Dimitri Tiomkin helped forge the sound of the American West with his theme to Rawhide. The musical mind is amazingly fluid.

As spirituals have gone all over the world, so has the American Songbook: Gershwin, Kern, Arlen, and the rest. Last year, I heard a recital by Fatma Said, a young soprano from Cairo. For an encore, she sang “The Way You Look Tonight” (the Kern & Fields number). I have never heard it better — more idiomatic, more touching.

Jazz, the world has long embraced. There are two stories about Gershwin and Ravel. The first one is almost certainly not true; the second has a much better chance of being true. Regardless, the stories are illustrative.

Gershwin, wanting to go beyond Tin Pan Alley and spread his wings in the classical realm, telegraphs Ravel: “May I take lessons from you?” Ravel responds, “How much money did you make last year?” Gershwin replies, “A million dollars.” Ravel wires back, “May I take lessons from you?”

The other story has Ravel saying, “Why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”

If you want to hear Ravel in an American frame of mind, so to speak, try the middle movement of his Violin Sonata No. 2, marked “Blues.”

In the Soviet Union, Nikolai Kapustin became a jazz composer of note. In 1983, S. Frederick Starr, the American historian, published a book called “Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, 1917–1980.” Later on, another American historian, Timothy W. Ryback, published a book called “Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1954–1988.”

But back to jazz: If you want a treat, try to hear Denis Matsuev, the Russian pianist (classical pianist), play “Take the ‘A’ Train,” as he likes to do for an encore. The jaws of Strayhorn and Ellington would drop.

My mind wanders to a couple of places, far away — far away from where I live, that is. I’m in a hotel lobby in Marrakech. Through the sound system comes “Desperado,” the Eagles song, in an instrumental version. I was struck by the beauty — the timeless beauty — of it (a quality not readily apparent, I submit, in the version you usually hear, sung).

I am now in Dantali, a village of Gujarat, India. It is dead quiet, at twilight. Suddenly, a cellphone goes off — playing the theme from Love Story. I thought, “Whoa, that piece has traveled.”

India has a grand musical tradition — its own classical music — and so do the Arab lands, and China, and other places. America’s Philip Glass learned minimalism, in a sense, from his encounters with Indians: their ragas and ghazals and such.

Onto the Voyagers’ golden record was placed music from every corner and pocket: a raga; a Pygmy song from Zaire; bagpipes from Azerbaijan — the works. Who knows what our extraterrestrial friends (if friendly they be) will gravitate to?

Allow me one more story, for the road. Omar Mohammed is a historian and journalist from Mosul, Iraq — a city that was occupied by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017. Mohammed witnessed shocking and evil things, documenting them in secret. The pressure — the fear of discovery — was almost unbearable. “It’s only because of music that I survived,” he told me.

He especially liked to listen to Itzhak Perlman, the Israeli-American violinist. “He’s my man,” Mohammed said. One night, when he was at the end of his rope, he put on music from Schindler’s List, the Holocaust movie from 1993, with a score by John Williams. Perlman was the featured soloist. “When I listened to this music,” said Mohammed, “I felt like someone was injecting life into my heart.”

Those Voyagers are still going, by the way — still probing, 45 years after their launch. Apparently, they have not run into anybody yet. But if they do, I like to think that Bach will make a particular impression. He is our best foot forward. Same with Mozart and Beethoven (et al.). How about “Johnny B. Goode,” the seminal rock song by Chuck Berry? I think the ETs will shake, rattle, and roll.

What is the glory of Western civilization? Our political freedom, probably — the rights of individual man. But I would not put music far behind, with Bach leading the way.


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