This paragraph sent me off in several directions at once, which I suppose proves that I spend too much time thinking about too many things that may or may not be related to one another.
I once had a friend who disdained Bach, who claimed his music was “too mathematical” for them. I don’t know about that — it was the precision and the order that I always loved so much. Maybe I’m excessively left-brained (to use a concept that’s apparently recently been discredited), but I like that order.
For some reason, this called to mind a rant — I forget the ranter, but it was a classical reviewer contributing to Stereo Review — objecting to the electronic transcriptions of piano works by Debussy recorded by Isao Tomita in 1974. (The album, given the unidiomatic title Snowflakes are Dancing, was an enormous hit, which likely annoyed the reviewer even more.)
The music of Bach is indestructible, argued the reviewer, no matter what horrible things are done to it with synthesizers. (I assume this was a shot at the staggeringly-popular Switched-On Bach and sequels by Wendy Carlos.) You can’t do that with Debussy, though: it’s all mood and emotion, and the machines can’t replicate that no matter how many transistors are pressed into service.
But then you have to ask: is there no mood or emotion in Bach? Is this the origin of the complaint that he is too mathematical? Or is it a response to something else entirely? Baroque composers occasionally would write out only the basic outline of a piece, assuming that the performer would add embellishments and whatnot on the fly. Bach, as a general rule, didn’t do this: he spelled out lines and counterpoint very carefully. (But then there’s the second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, in which he provides only two chords; you’re on your own after that.)
And there’s the fact that so much of what Bach wrote was religious (Lutheran, mostly) in nature. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that sort of thing: someone walked into the office today while I was blasting Bernstein’s Kaddish, and gave me this horrified “I had no idea” look. And I suspect that for the listener who views God as a concept by which he measures his pain, Bach’s calculus might actually be painful.