Bach’s authority

There is an important lesson to be learned from Bach with respect to both authority and authorship, but it has a flip side: a questioning of the classical model, an awareness of the historical and cultural complexity, noted by André Souris (1976), that we no longer see as a paradox: the presence of “Bach today.” It is not a question of contesting the reality and contemporary power of this “world of music,” which in some measure links the creator to the consumer through the solidly articulated mediations of professions, institutions, techniques and markets, in order to set up a contrast with an authentic Bach, working in his native Thuringia with no other concern than the glory of God. Rather, it’s a matter of taking full measure of historical transformations that allow modern listeners to understand music produced three centuries ago, in an entirely different context, as being written for them. With respect to copyright (the slightly provocative use in French of the English term “le copyright” happily underscores the financial and judicial basis of the issue), the question shifts. It is something less like authorial rights, and more like the right to be an author. Or further, the move from a circular to a linear model, away from music as a collective action for which all the elements (ritual, social, religious, corporal, musical) depend upon each other, tightly interwoven and without striving for autonomy, to a linear distribution that is both a condition and a consequence of the establishment of authorial rights, granting clear attribution for each individual’s contributions. Who owes what to whom?

Bach is an ideal case for posing these questions, as a figure who is extreme in two ways. On the one hand, he was not part of this process over the long term. His case is very different from that of Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, who plays an active, perhaps foundational, role in initiating the regime of the author (DeNora 1998). Beethoven embodies his genius, gives social value to his anti-social nature, turns the rejection of those who do not understand him to his advantage, and skillfully plays with the opposing forces of patronage and the market in order to invert the rules of evaluation—it is up to you to change your criteria for judgment in order to appreciate me, not up to me to respond to your demands. He battled successfully to achieve social and financial recognition of his freedom and his rights.5

Raymond Hains, Hommage à Bach, 1949-1976, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne-Centre Georges Pompidou © ADAGP

We cannot create a similar case for Bach. He does not create an oeuvre. This greatest of creators writes prior to the model of the creator, of the original artist. He creates nothing ex nihilo; he comments, he tirelessly takes music—his own and that of others—in order to embellish the word of God (explain, move, memorize, the books on preaching require). He does not compose BWV,6 he makes music for the day in order to express the word for the day. He does not write Urtexts; he notates what has to be played the next day. His music has no reason to be played more than once (it has no reason not to be played, either, and then to be taken by us as having been “forgotten” as an oeuvre, which would allow its “rediscovery”); it must be ceaselessly remade, as it frequently was at the moment of its composition. A music already written is a material that can be reused for any purpose, it is only a means of reproducing music (one thinks of jazz in the twentieth century). The rare works that Bach had engraved, belatedly, do not aim to create an oeuvre, but to make others make music: grand pedagogical collections, such as the Clavier-Übung or the Partitas; or model works pushing a system to extremes in order to prove its richness, such as The Well-Tempered Clavier; or to demonstrate the use of formulas from the past as a basis for music of the future, such as The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering. Bach is quite aware of making excellent music—this is not the question.7 But he does it “for” something other than the music itself. This formula is already too modern, this “itself-itude” of music makes no sense for him. It is the environment, the fervor of those listening, the common issues or shared faith that create the event, in which all those officiating—public, priests, or musicians—collaborate. Whose are the authorial rights? The circularity of this model goes well beyond the fact that Bach dedicates his music to God, not to an audience. The entire chain linking a work to a listener is called into question by the emphasis on music to be made in a particular situation, proceeding from a text used in a ritual by the faithful. This situational, performative, circular aspect of listening remains the difference between a concert and a recording. But for an event that is already entirely musical, it is only a modern, almost technical difference, leaning in the direction of more open performance (Hennion 2010). Nevertheless, even as a simple clue, this difference helps us to imagine a prior state, still very close to that of Bach: an integrated state, well known to ethnologists, where what is at issue, what "takes place" in each event, is not defined in the strictest sense of the word; a state that our modern terms fail to recognize, taking for granted the distinctions between religion, ritual, power, social ceremony and music.

Anonymous, Frederick the Great Listening to Johann Sebastian Bach Playing the Organ, around 1870 © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN / image BPK.s

5. Somewhat as Rembrandt, 150 years earlier, invented the art market (Alpers 1988), borrowing from his creditors in order to buy his own pictures at a high price, thus giving value to the credit that they accorded his paintings!
6. The Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis or Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach, the catalogue of his complete works.
7. As is shown by his outraged reactions when others obtained a post he no longer sought.