Mark O’Connor, a brilliant American violinist and virtuoso performer, has written a blog post that infuriates me. It is supposed to explore whether J.S. Bach should be performed in the style it was “intended” to be performed in three hundred years ago or whether it should be reinterpreted to fit the modern era.
Before I get started, here is the blog post. It’s long. Very, very long.
In case you all didn’t know, or even if you did, I’m a classical musician, a cellist. In the classical music world, most professionals tend to veer towards performing dead composers pieces in historically accurate ways. What does that mean? It means these professionals think that the music should be played EXACTLY as they were written with the same bowings, and ornamentation, and dynamics. Of course there is room for personal expression and interpretation, but even that should be subject to the performance rules of the time period. At least that’s the general consensus of the classical world. Yes, we’re snobs.
What Mark O’Connor is trying to say, at least what I believe he is trying to say, is that we can’t know for sure what Bach wanted because the man is dead and he left no correspondence as to how his music should be performed three hundred years in the future. O’Connor has rebowed the sonatas and partitas in his own, very particular (and awesome) style and presented them to violin professors at some of the biggest American conservatories to ask their opinions of his ‘alterations’ or, perhaps, ‘bastardizations’ of Bach’s work. His endeavor is something I’m interested in. It’s a valid point. We live in the 21st century. Should we still be playing things the way Bach did? Or should we re-invent the wheel? He argues that current performance practice of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are boring, and yet, in major conservatories and in music schools in general, that is pretty much the ONLY accepted way to play them: as they were written.
He continues to provide thousands and thousands of words of arguments that are all valid.
Now here’s where I get pissed off. He has WONDERFUL arguments, but he renders them all ineffective. His points and approach have been self-defeated. Why? For several reasons.
1) This is a MONSTAR blog post to read. It is much too long. I’m a reader, and I struggled through the behemoth. The man has a huge following all over the world. He’s one of the finest violinists we have today and his bow arm is pretty much hard to top, but that is no excuse to write such a ridiculously long post. If he intended to convince anyone of anything, he needs to do it while they’re still paying attention.
2) It’s horribly organized. Did he have anyone edit this thing? He makes the same points over and over again and intersperses them with other points and is generally all over the place. He should’ve argued each of his points in turn and always gone back to his point: how to make Bach relevant in a world where classical musicians are adverse to change. Instead he jumped from snarking on respected people to bragging about his own bowings to pointing out contradictions in speech and in practice. He would’ve benefited from section headings.
3) Mark O’Connor alienated me with the intensity of his distaste towards people who didn’t agree with him, namely the people he questioned about his bowings. In other words, he had a nasty, nasty attitude. What the hell? If you’re trying to convince a large group of people of something, hating on respected pedagogues and performers isn’t the way to go. It invalidates arguments because it makes them seem emotionally based rather than logical. That, and I hate reading angry shit like that. And I really respect Mark O’Connor so it’s disappointing. He also made nasty attacks on people who disagreed with him, and some of these people he has worked with. Where do personal attacks come into an argument about Bach and performance? Especially when they’re on a public blog and his audience base is GINORMOUS!
4) That brings me to my last point: with great power comes great responsibility. This guy is famous. He’s got the eyes and ears of lots of people. It’s his responsibility to use his fame wisely and not act like a cranky old man venting his jaded life views. I felt so completely blasted by his negative attitude that I had to force myself to find his real points, which were supposed to be about Bach and performance practice. It was why I started the article in the first place.
Now I think I sound angry and jaded, but I’m very disappointed. I wish this post had been better written with a better tone that would’ve made his AWESOME points valid. He points out how ‘accepted bowings’ were actually written by a guy who lived two hundred years after Bach but violinists rationalize this as “Oh, this is what Bach wanted.” Well, how do we really know that? That’s a very, very valid, very, very curious point. But it gets lost in hating on the people who support historically correct performance practice.
Dear Mark O’Connor,
You’re so creative and brilliant, but this post disappoints me. So much so that I had to write about it. I hope in the future that you can make more logic-based arguments without attacking your colleagues. It sets a bad example and made me feel bad while reading it.