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PROLOGUE

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Territorial imperative

C.P.E. Bach and the Rebirth of the Strophic Song (Scarecrow, 2003), by the recently retired English and music professor William Youngren, is a patio pavement stone of a book: 11 inches tall, 8 3/4 inches wide, and 1 3/8 inches (518 pages) thick. Weighing in at just over three pounds of take-no-prisoners literary, musical, and cultural analysis, it is further flavored with sheet music reproductions, cascades of untranslated German poetry, long discursions on the principles of 18th-century aesthetics (Youngren's first academic specialty) and philological sidebars (the distinction between deuitlich and deutliche turns out to be a matter of consequence).

C.P.E. is in fact a reduction of the dissertation (975 pages) that Youngren wrote for a doctorate in music he began working toward when he was in his mid-fifties and was awarded when he was in his late sixties. The book's thesis, simply put, is that the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach was not just a master instrumental composer and the author of the best-selling keyboard instruction book of his era—Die Kunst das Clavier zu spielen, if you need to know—but a prolific and compelling writer of strophic songs, which, you need to know as I needed to know, are songs whose stanzas consist of lines with recurring patterns of rhythm and rhyme, as is common in folk music. Moreover, says Youngren, C.P.E.'s mastery of this medium has been obscured because the man had the misfortune to decline while Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were rising and just as intellectuals, dazed by Enlightenment dreams, became convinced that history was a straight ascending line of human progress, which led those of them studying the history of music to draw a satisfyingly tidy connection from the elder Bach and Handel to the Romantic geniuses, bypassing C.P.E. and a number of his inconvenient contemporaries, and leaving the world (or at least the portion of it that cared) with the impression that the German predilection for making high art of poems and music began with Schubert.

That's about what the book says, though it's possible, of course, to learn much else from a stroll through its pages, such as why Haydn's simple-sounding music is not so simple after all, and that Horace's influence on 18th-century German aesthetics, and particularly poetry, was considerable for a man who'd been dead about 1,700 years, and that an F-major cadence, when it follows a B-flat chord, feels "rather hopeful," and that when the Seven Years' War was going badly for Germany, one of the economic consequences was a marked uptick in the sale of songs that dealt with spiritual longing.


IT'S A STANDARD conceit of American universities to claim that the research conducted by their faculties results in (or in the temporizing phrase I have too often written into press releases, "could well result in") a cure, a boost, increased understanding, reduced cost, a new paradigm, less recidivism, fairer distribution, or earlier detection.

As a rule, this isn't true. Yes, these lovely outcomes do occur, but mostly not, and most of what most faculty members obsess about late into the night, most of the thick books they write, and most of what they discover about the dead and the unseen (their principle subjects) affords no general happiness, stirs no observable march of progress, and has no practical implications.

And that, to me, is the university's glory, in that it makes a home for work that simply examples, for the benefit of students principally, a way of living that steers not by the nearest obtrusive rock but by intelligence, alertness, and stubborn hunger for the labor that makes one strangely happy, including, if it comes to it, spending half a decade correcting the record about the origins of lieder.

C.P.E. Bach and the Rebirth of the Strophic Song has earned adjectives such as "unprecedented," "monumental," "magisterial," "essential [for] all serious [library] music collections," and "a key illustration of what liberal arts means." I would not know one way or the other, of course, nor have I any intention of trying to acquire the scholarly apparatus, as they say, that would help me to know. In fact, I don't intend to read any further in the book than has been necessary for writing this essay. For me, rather, the higher significance of C.P.E., and of similar volumes that justify yards of shelf space in my office, is not the knowledge it purveys but its unselfconscious affirmation that this universe is a stop worth making, a place of mystery and possibility, with new territory on every hand to be plowed, cleared, or just gawked at, range after endless range, the view jolting us into acts of reverence, practical and impractical.

Our story on Boston College's new material territory, which will serve as a venue for exploring further ethereal territory, begins here.

Ben Birnbaum

 

 
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