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The Terminator

J.S. Bach
Portrait by E.G. Hausmann
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Wikimedia Commons
Johann Sebastian Bach

We hear music by a lot of composers beyond the concert hall. But how much of it survives the transition?

In the totally unscientific, statistically unreliable data so far from #ClassicalAnywhere, a few composers stand out. You won’t be surprised by their names: Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and the apparent champion of frequently-used music in places other than concert halls… Beethoven.

What’s perhaps more interesting than the sheer frequency with which a particular composer’s work is used, though, is how it’s used. And... how it survives. To me, the survival champion is Bach. It doesn’t matter what you do to his music. The essence survives. That’s why I call Bach “The Terminator.”

In the 1984 James Cameron movie The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a time-travelling cyborg who relentlessly pursues his mission of destruction no matter what's done to him. He gets shot. He’s in car crashes. He walks out of a very-recently-exploded truck. He explodes. And each time, he rises again. (Well, until he gets crushed in a hydraulic press…)

I don’t necessarily want to compare someone’s creative impulses with an exploding fuel truck, but sometimes, when you transform a composer’s work, what you get is... a ball of fire.

There's nothing really wrong with that tune, as far as it goes. It's kind of entertaining. But to my ear, Barber’s Adagio didn’t really come out the other end of that version with much of its identity intact. With Bach, though...

It’s still Bach. No matter what else is done around Bach’s notes, the original essence remains understandable as something Bach wrote.

This idea - that an original masterpiece can be manipulated into something new while simultaneously retaining its own essence - is something Bach himself played with his whole life. He routinely re-worked his own music, re-formulating it for new purposes, and he also routinely took music by other composers and arranged it in his own way.

I just ran across a much more elegant analogy to this process, and one that relates more directly to Bach’s from a historical perspective. It was during Bach’s lifetime that, in Meissen, a town that’s just over 50 miles from Leipzig, porcelain was developed for the first time in Europe. (It had been developed centuries before in China. But I digress…) That development led to exquisite works of art, like this:

Great Bustard
Credit Photo by Michael Bodycomb / Courtesy of the Frick Collection
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Courtesy of the Frick Collection
Great Bustard, 1732; Meissen porcelain modeled by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner; private collection

It's beautiful art. And, incidentally, when formed into the more familiar table settings, just the right thing for another recent discovery of Bach's time: coffee. You can hear more about this on The Bach Hour, where you can even hear an organ with pipes made of porcelain.

An artist named Arlene Shechet has re-imagined the ancient craft of Meissen porcelain to create contemporary art. Here's an example of the result:

Mix and Match
Credit Photo by Jason Wyche / Courtesy of the Frick Collection
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Courtesy of the Frick Collection
Mix and Match, 2012; glazed Meissen porcelain, © Arlene Shuchet, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

These works and more from Meissen and from Arlene Shuchet are on display at the Frick Collection in New York and described in the New York Times. Just as in Bach’s music, a new expressive voice breathes, even as the essence of the original remains. 

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.