Attended a lecture on Bach’s Cantatas the other day. Fascinating to see how much musicological scholarship evolves from one generation to the next. One by one, I heard the scholarly pronouncements from my youth shot down, revised or replaced by perspectives more in keeping with our 21st-century zeitgeist. Of course, the scholarly pronouncements from my youth were replacing those of the previous generation, and I was aware of it at the time, but it’s still funny to hear the things I’ve been telling my own students, lo these many years, refuted.
Example: For years I’ve been telling students that the 300+ Bach cantatas we have represent only a small fraction of the number he actually composed. Now I find out that there may be a handful of missing cantatas, but nothing like the hundreds I had been led to believe had been destroyed.
But that’s a minor point in the grand scheme of things. More interesting is the change of clothing Bach gets in order to suit each generation’s needs. When I was a student, JS was portrayed as a paragon of stylistic integrity, cranking out contrapuntal gems that flaunted current fashions, a composer who followed his pure, inner voice despite the flurry of surrounding influences. Not so now. Today we celebrate Bach the polystylist, the composer who mixed and matched incongruent musics: a taste of Italianate aria, a smidgen of French dance, a mawful of Germanic imitation, all stirred together into a heavenly mix of eclectic euphoria.
Kind of sounds like any number of current composers I could name.
Is that acceptable? Of course it is. Or at least it is inescapable. We see the past as it suits us to see it. Even our attempts at objectivity are tempered by our perspectives, grounded in the times we inhabit. And as we live long enough to see the times change, our grasp of the past shifts, or doesn’t shift, in accordance with our abilities to live in the moment.