Heaven’s Gates

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

“Mystical states of consciousness”, as described by William James in his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience (1), feature a set of distinctive characteristics: ineffability–they resist adequate depiction in words; noetic quality–they seem to deliver “depths of truth unplumbed” by the standard intellect; transiency–their durations are consistently brief, and passivity–they seem to have been brought on by powers above.

James describes the power of music in facilitating mystical experience. “Music, rather, not conceptual speech, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth… Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict.”

The Moscow Conservatory’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was no exception.

“Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly,” writes James, “and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” James’ disclaimer is prescient. These experiences are difficult to describe. I’ll try anyway, though; let’s begin.

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The main concert hall of the conservatory

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Baroque Style Sampler

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

Baroque music established the early beginnings of classical music in the “modern” sense. Baroque style features mathematically regular rhythms, colorful flourishing melodies, and perfect adherence to the tonalities, shifts, and resolutions of music theory. What is the canonical Baroque style? It might be characterized as music that’s “purely mathematical”. Baroque lacks the grandiose, massive orchestras and dynamical subtleties of the subsequent Classical era (think Mozart); both eras, featuring wide-bodied sound and rhythmic regularity, lack the rhythmic expressiveness and the sliding, artful violin solos typical of the still-later Romantic era.

Each baroque composer, too, introduces unique flavors and elements into his music. I attempt to describe the unique styles of various top baroque composers.

Baroque refers, additionally, to a style of art which shares much with its musical counterpart.

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The Perfection of Bach

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

What is music, and how does it assume beauty and structure? The question is difficult, yet awesome – and its answers appear, to me, above all else in the baroque music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1) (2) (3). Bach’s music attains a virtually geometric perfection, dividing time into cascading blocks which each, within themselves, convey struggles, twists, and resolutions – all in perfect harmony. The result evokes a series of late-Renaissance paintings unfolding in real-time.

Music, then, has structure, and it’s of a unique kind. Notes take on meaning in short sequences; these phrases then, in turn, build more complex and nuanced passages. The product is the creation and development of a theme; this theme is introduced and progressively accumulates additional flavor, conflict, and subtlety. In Baroque tradition, it will always end in resolvement.

I will explore a couple themes intimately related to structure in music.

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