Is Progress Always Progress?

Concerto in Am    A. Vivaldi (1678-1741), arr. J.S.Bach

"God of Grace & God of Glory"

Fugue in C     J.S.Bach

Before say 1750, published music was relatively rare and relatively expensive. Nor were there photocopy machines. Consequently, if you were a musician and you wanted a copy of the latest Top Ten Trio Sonatas, you had to copy them out by hand.

It’s part of our 21st century cultural mythology that ‘progress is always better’ — tut tut we now have photocopy machines and laser printers and offset presses, freeing musicians from the ‘hideous drudgery’ of having to copy out music by hand. And I’m not complaining about having those technologies available. But it was also part of the musical education of every composer of Bach’s day to copy music by hand. (Music publishing didn't really come into its own until Beethoven's day.)

It’s something I myself have tried — copying out music by hand just to experience the process myself. And, big surprise: it forces you to engage with the music in a way that reading a pretty published copy just doesn’t. Copying music out in your own hand imprints the music on your mind in a way that reading a published copy simply doesn’t.

Imagine copying out the Bible by hand, as medieval monks did. Sure, we have ‘lectio divina’ (‘divine reading’) — a spiritual practice based on a slow and close reading of Scripture.) Even more than ‘lectio divina’, I have to wonder if COPYING out Scripture in your own hand — an even slower process — imprints it on you in a way that reading at hundreds of words a minute cannot possibly do.

Around 1713 Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico (Harmonic Inspiration) — a set of 12 concertos for string orchestra — was taking the European music world by storm. At the time 28 year old Bach was in Weimar in the employ of Duke Wilhelm Ernst, an ardent music lover and capable composer (I’ve played some of his music here at SBD 1st Pres). On a trip to Amsterdam where L’Estro Armonico was published, the Duke purchased a copy and brought it home to Weimar. Bach was so impressed with this music that he didn’t just copy it out, he arranged some of it for organ solo. To copy it out is one thing, to rework it for an entirely different instrument even more deeply imprints it on one’s mind. It is quite marvelous to lay Vivaldi’s string orchestra score and Bach’s arrangement of it for organ side by side. 

By the way, 200 CDs worth of music Bach wrote and performed has survived (about half his output), and he was hardly alone in this kind of fecundity: Handel 150 CDs worth, Vivaldi 300, and the list goes on — all music that folks still want to hear. All composed with quill pens and ink pots. Who in our day comes close to this? And I note that neither Newton nor Einstein had computers. It’s easy to say they would have been even more productive with modern technology, but would they? Perhaps their technologically ‘primitive’ culture nurtured genius in ways that our latest pedagogical theories don’t grasp, and our vaunted technologies quash instead of nourish. After all, “by their fruits you will know them.” I’m just wondering if some skepticism about the prated benefits of Progress isn’t overdue.

William Zeitler