27 December 2005

J.S.Bach and the concept of genius

Can you have too much of a good thing? BBC Radio 3, for reasons that escape me, have just finished broadcasting the entire works of J.S.Bach continuously, wall-to-wall, for a whole week. Bach is a great composer, and it's theoretically a good idea to have the rare opportunity of access to all an artist's work. But the experience of listening to every minor piece day after day was to instil a certain sense of tedium.

The people making the programmes were all very enthusiastic. But they could go home after their concerto or cantata had finished. We were left with more of the same thing - introduced by another, fresh set of announcers.

The other thing which got up my nose was the tone of uncritical adulation verging on worship which greeted every piece, no matter how short or routine. It was as if Bach had dropped out of the sky, sent straight from God with the label 'genius' tied to his foot. Contemporary composers such as Vivaldi, Corelli, Telemann, Albinoni, and Scarlatti might as well not have existed.

Great artists are so regarded because they produce masterpieces - not because everything they do is great. Picasso produced hundreds and hundreds of sketches which are not very important, except as preparation for his major works. Many people admire a novel such as Anna Karenina - but if you read some of Tolstoy's later works, they are little more than puritanical rantings.

I once went to an exhibition of Edward Hopper's work at the Tate. I was an admirer of Night Hawks and his other famous pieces, just like lots of other people. But when all his minor works were displayed alongside them, how it revealed the weaknesses in his technique. His painting of the human figure is hardly better than amateur.

Do you admire the work of Joseph Conrad? Novels such as Nostromo and The Secret Agent are second to none. But if you read some of his short stories, you are likely to be amazed and even appalled at the undisguised misogyny they reveal.

The notion of 'genius' strikes me as outdated and romantic. It saves the audience having to think and make discriminating judgements. It also tends to take artists out of their historical environment, and their works are denied a context. So I think it's something we can do without.

1 comment:

rieth said...

I know this article is a little dated but the thesis of genius has spilled over from one of the classes I am taking, a discussion that was never finished, so I'd figure I'd put in my two cents here.
I agree with the idea that Bach 24/7 for a week is an extreme and would make me hate Bach but not because of the idea of genius being unachievable but the problem of the listener.
I think most people would agree that they need variety in their lives, who would want to listen to the same person conversing with you 24/7 for a week no matter how brilliantly they speak.
Eventually I would start over-analyzing their speech and them and start coming up with justifications to look through them (probably too elaborate to be true) and just get sick of their voice. This is a problem of the listener, not the speaker.
With that being said I think that the idea of genius is unappliable to a human being at all moments in time. I think there are only moments of genius.
In music it's much easier to keep these moments of genius going on indefinitely. Other forms of art are much harder because the artist doesn't inhabit their art as much as a musician does.
The intoxication of music allows for moments of genius to be created in the same way one breathes. Music is both the art and the muse which makes it such a unique thing.
So if someone wants to use the word genius and it infringes on your ego just think of the "geniuses" as people who found their moments of genius. Those moments are waiting for anyone who can reach them.